Like a fairytale.
That’s how people often describe Hidden Valley Estate in the northwestern Connecticut town of Cornwall in the Litchfield Hills, or as it is informally known, the Cornwall Castle.
The 8,412-square-foot castle with a long and storied history is for sale for the princely sum of $8,850,000.
It is located at the end of a private, mile-long driveway and is nestled within a 200-plus acre storybook property with rolling fields, woods, waterfalls and ponds. The estate also features modern conveniences such as an outdoor pool and a licensed helipad. And like any good castle, the place is full of mystery.
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“As I started to do research on the castle, I would tell people it was like picking at a scab; the more you pick the worse it gets and [with this] the more you look, the bigger the subject gets,” says Jeff Jacobson, vice president of the Cornwall Historical Society, which is publishing a book later this year about the estate and its first owner called “The Aristocrat of Cornwall’s Castle.”
The fairytale worthy stories and characters that emerge as you peel back the layers of the castle’s history are many.
There is the would-be American aristocrat who built the castle, who may have been the inspiration for the title character of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web," and then there are tales of the rich and powerful flying to the castle (via helicopter not broomstick) for elaborate parties.
The castle was put on the market late last summer and has been shown multiple times since then, says Ira Goldspiel, the realtor with William Pitt Sotheby's International Realty who has the listing for the property. So far, it’s proven to be a castle more fit for a king than a queen.
“I’ve had three men pick out the property and totally fall in love with it, and then their wives were like, ‘This might be a little too much for us,’” Goldspiel says.
Though the estate is generally more appealing to men these days, it was born out of the fairytale vision of a modern day princess.
Golden Gifts of the Past
Construction on the castle began in 1921 and was finished in 1924. It was built as a country retreat for New York socialite Charlotte Bronson Hunnewell Martin and her husband, Dr. Walton Martin. Walton Martin was a prominent surgeon but it was his wife’s riches and vision that led to the creation of the Hidden Valley Estate.
Charlotte Martin was born Charlotte Hunnewell in 1871. She belonged to a wealthy Massachusetts family that had made its fortune in banking and railroading. The family was so wealthy and well-known that the town of Wellesley, Mass., took its name from the Hunnewell family estate located within the town.
As a young woman, Charlotte Martin was regularly written about in New York society publications and showed an early love of elaborate architecture. In 1918 she bought a complex of 19 brownstones in New York City called Turtle Bay Gardens. She redesigned the complex and had courtyard-like communal gardens planted with the hopes of attracting members of New York’s artistic and literary crowd.
The complex was “almost like a stage set,” says Jacobson of the Cornwall Historical Society, adding, “This was her fantasy.”
It was a fantasy that others were happy to be a part of. The actress Katherine Hepburn was a longtime resident, and in 2010 her former apartment was available to rent for $27,000 a month. Author E.B. White wrote his famous children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web,” while living at Turtle Bay Gardens, and Jacobson believes that Charlotte Martin may have been the inspiration for the book’s title character.
“Why did he call it ‘Charlotte’s Web?” I don’t know, but it seems a hell of a coincidence,” he says.
After her first marriage ended in divorce, Charlotte married Walton Martin. The couple decided to build an elaborate country retreat and they set their sights on Cornwall, a place Walton Martin had been visiting for years. Though locals referred to the dwelling the Martins built as a castle, the Martins never did; instead they thought of it as chateau.
However, the Martins did have a grand vision for the structure and property. The castle was designed by architect Edward C. Dean in the Storybook architectural style. More than 100 workers, who were mostly immigrants, were employed to build the castle.
Though Charlotte Martin was likely the ringleader, both husband and wife took part in the fantasy of the estate.
“There are people who still live around here that remember, as kids, seeing Dr. Martin with his long white hair, on a beautiful horse, riding down through the valley with a big red cape,” says Jacobson. “This was a theatrical fantasy for them.”
Later in life, when she was in her 80s, Charlotte Martin wrote a book called “The World and the Aristocrat.” The book details her admiration for the nobility of Europe and what she saw as the duty of the aristocracy to support the arts and inspire people. Jacobson believes the book provides insight into her character. Martin praises the deposed aristocrats of the French Revolution for “holding their heads high on the way to the guillotine.” In another telling passage she writes, “One of the aristocrat’s attributes needed now more than ever, is his endeavor to preserve the culture of the golden gifts of the past.”
More Recently Upon a Time
Charlotte Martin died in 1961. In the decades following her death the castle changed hands several times. In the mid ‘80s it was purchased by Joseph Cicio, who owned it for about five years and now lives in nearby Warren, Conn. At the time, the castle was in need of repair, and though Cicio was a top executive with Macy’s in New York City he says money was still tight for him.
“It was total insanity for me to buy it. I think I was left with nothing in my bank account,” recalls Cicio.
Yet, Cicio had fallen in love with the property. “It was a very magical place,” he says. The castle had fallen into some disrepair, but Cicio thought he could restore it to its old glory (Restoring real estate is something of a hobby for Cicio who once owned most of the properties in Warren's commercial district and who redesigned Joan Rivers Connecticut home after recieving a special request from the actress).
The castle was a weekend home for Cicio, who would host regular gatherings on the property. Slim Keith, the famed socialite and onetime wife of Howard Hawks, was a frequent guest at these parties as was John Richardson, the art historian and Picasso biographer, and Bill Paley, the iconic broadcasting executive who founded CBS (Paley once helicoptered into the Cornwall estate). These parties were written about in New York Magazine. However, Cicio says they were not overly extravagant.
“It was not Gatsby or anything like that,” he says.
After he renovated the property, Cicio put the place on the market. He received offers from Dan Aykroyd, the actor, Zuben Mehta, the classical music conductor, and Bob Guccione, who started Penthouse magazine. Cicio ultimately sold the property to Alex Conroy, who later sold the property.
Now that the estate is back on the market, Goldspiel, the realtor listing it, says it appeals to very rich individuals who are looking for something unique.
“It’s people looking for privacy and land and they are gravitating towards this for the romance about it and the architecture significance,” he says. He adds that though the exteriors are extremely dramatic, the inside of the castle is not that over the top (see one of the bedrooms pictured below). “If you’ve traveled overseas, the chateaus and castles, they’re overwhelming; you can’t imagine anyone living in them today. This is really different, it’s still 8,500 square feet but it’s not overwhelming.”
In addition to the 225 acres the castle is being listed with, there is the opportunity for interested buyers to purchase additional property and bring the estate total to 1,000 acres.
Goldspiel explains that this type of top tier property generally takes longer to sell, and the real estate market is still recovering from the recession, especially when it comes to high-end properties.
“Since 2010 there have only been two houses in Litchfield County sold for over $5 million [both sales were in 2013], but none have sold that are over $6 million," he says. But he adds, things are starting to change, and “the high end really just started to pick up.”
Cicio, the castle’s former owner, believes the estate will not be difficult to sell.
“There’s nothing to compare it to. It’s not like you can say, ‘Let’s go look at the next castle down the road,’” he says.