Editor’s note: This is the sixth “Life in Seely’s Castle” tale. All are available, with photos, at mountainx.com or gospeljerry.com.
A lot of people let their hair down in my castle, but Rapunzel never did.
No, the answer to the third-most-frequently-asked question about my former residence lay deep in the bowels of the ominous, imposing tower at the west end.
The question was "How the hell did you heat this place?” and the answer was “Not very well.”
At the bottom of the tower sat a huge coal furnace which, assisted by a big pump, delivered hot water through thousands of feet of pipe to the radiators spread throughout the castle and in the four-car, freestanding garage and chauffeur’s quarters some 300 feet to the north.
I didn’t really appreciate the enormity of the task of keeping this massive heating plant going until the caretaker was out of town for a couple of days during an extreme cold snap, and the king had to shovel what seemed like tons of coal into the stoker’s gaping maw and remove innumerable clinkers.
Shortly after that, we converted the system to oil, employing a 2,000-gallon tank, retrieved from the junkyard, that could hold a whole tanker load of fuel. This turned out to be far more cost-efficient and less labor-intensive, and I always wondered why Asheville-Biltmore College hadn’t done it years before.
In the interest of conservation, we kept the radiators in the public areas turned way down, creating an appropriately frigid English castle atmosphere. Surprisingly, the bedroom was very comfortable; in the rest of the house, we simply wore sweaters and let our teeth chatter in our best British accent.
Above the furnace at ground level sat an austere room that had originally been guarded from the outside by a very unusual curved, ornately carved oak door. Unfortunately, the previous owner had transferred it to his home in Memphis, Tenn., where I had occasion to admire it.
One might have mistaken this room for a sort of concrete dungeon if not for the vaultlike safe that many banks would have been proud of. This, my friends, was the countinghouse, where I’m sure much treasure and secret documents pertaining to the many enterprises undertaken by Seely and his extraordinarily wealthy father-in-law, E.W. Grove, were stored.
It’s also rumored that secret papers from the Teapot Dome oil scandal in the early 1920s had been locked in this safe.
When I acquired the house, the safe’s doors were locked open and I didn’t have the combination. When I tried to close the doors they would bang and gape, as if mocking me for not having anything of value to stash there anyway.
The very proper dining area, which could probably have accommodated 30 or 40 people, was reached by a set of stairs that wound down from the great room. We put red-velvet wallpaper above the oak wainscoting, and with a beautiful chandelier and a very large table (a family heirloom that was almost big enough for the space), it achieved a very satisfying effect.
To take advantage of this, I wanted to hold at least one very special dinner for my family and close friends. I engaged legendary chef Bob Werth and his talented staff at A-B Tech to cater an evening to remember with candlelight, wine, incredible food and impeccable service. On this night I truly felt like a king.
Around the time we bought the castle we got a contract to remove all the furniture and fixtures from the old Biltmore Hospital (where I was born, by the way). Much of the big kitchen equipment ended up in the castle kitchen.
We ate most of our meals there on a lazy Susan table that must have been 10 feet in diameter (one of many that we liquidated from the Lazy Susan Restaurant on Merrimon). It was the perfect solution to the seemingly endless stream of little crumb-crushers visiting my children: It wasn't unusual to have eight or 10 chairs filled. We would just place the food on the central turntable and let everyone help themselves.
This did lead to occasional food fights, with sometimes disastrous results. In the heat of battle, it seemed as though that thing could rotate at 50 mph! Happily, however, there were no actual casualties, other than the odd bowl of spaghetti flung against the white tile walls.
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.