Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of Jerry Sternberg’s continuing “Life in Seely’s Castle” saga.
It could have been the set for one of those stuffy old English movies where the royalty sit around in their robes surrounded by their fittingly dressed councilors and courtiers harrumphing about the commoners’ shortcomings.
The very enormity of the castle’s Great Room was overwhelming. At 2,000 square feet, this one room was far larger than the average Asheville home.
Skilled Italian masons had crafted the walls from very small stones, enhanced by rich English-oak wainscoting. The combination might have been forbidding except for the twinkle provided by the tall leaded windows.
Adding to the ambiance were three stunning stained-glass windows set like jewels along the top of the south wall. They depicted the crests of the three universities Seely family members had attended: Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
Furnishing this magnificent barn was daunting. Bless the junk business: We’d just purchased the inventory of one of the many local furniture factories that was closing. We were fortunate to have an employee, a former upholsterer, who managed to create credible reproductions of Queen Anne couches and chairs, with a little help from surplus foam padding and velvet remnants, using furniture frames we’d obtained.
We salted the scene with a few legitimate antique copper and brass pieces I’d collected, plus tables and lamps gleaned from salvaging the Langren and other local hotels.
The setting is everything: Simply being in the castle instantly lent these pieces authenticity.
The centerpiece of this mélange was a most unusual coffee table fashioned from a very large blacksmith’s bellows, complete with a snout and the hook that worked the bellows.
It was the creation of Tommy Rizzuto, a very talented first-generation Italian artisan who specialized in restoring antique furniture. I was able to buy it cheap because no one else had a living room big enough for this monstrosity, which had taken up room in his shop for too long.
This table fit perfectly in front of the fireplace, which we called “Old Smoky”: The chimney was so tall it was hard to start a fire that didn’t smoke you out of the house till the chimney heated up. An actual piece of the Blarney Stone and a stone from the Tower of London were actually embedded in the fireplace, which — along with the fire irons — was an exact replica of the ones in the Grove Park Inn’s Great Hall, but just one-third the size.
Tommy was a master woodcrafter. This fascinating man could reproduce an antique in any kind of wood or metal. I got to know him during the hours he spent ransacking the barrels of metal in our yard, searching for buried treasure. Tommy delighted in haggling with us, but our business was based on buying “junk” by the pound and selling “merchandise” by the piece.
One day he happened to be at the shop when we received a very big shipment of antique-style furniture hardware, still in the original packing, that we’d bought for scrap.
Immediately recognizing the items’ value, Tommy salivated as he asked me for a price on the whole lot.
I priced it well above the scrap value and well below the wholesale price. His response was predictable: “’At’s-a too much-a money.” I held firm, knowing he’d be back the next day.
The next morning I took an empty suitcase to work and an old airline-ticket envelope. I gave my secretary the “ticket,” instructing her to bring it into my office 10 minutes after Tommy’s arrival and remind me that it was time for my “flight.”
Tommy showed up just as expected; I told him the price hadn’t changed and that I was about to take my samples to New York, where I’d been offered even more money.
Right on cue my secretary came in; Tommy followed me down the stairs and watched me put my suitcase in the trunk. Just before I closed the car door, he said, “I’m-a write-a you a check.” I had finally won a round with Tommy.
The second-most-asked question about the castle was whether there was a ghost. Every old castle has one, and ours was no exception.
If you sat in the Great Room on a dark night, you would occasionally see an eerie, sylphlike figure wisp through the room, never pausing and never threatening. The kids gleefully called it “Chippie” and squealed with delight in its presence.
Unfortunately there were no bizarre happenings that anyone knew of that might have spawned this supernatural being, and while I hate to dispel romance and adventure, I always figured it was a reflection of some kind of light from Tunnel Road — OR WAS IT?
— Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.