Danbury Accepts Bids to Preserve Connecticut's Oldest Castle
Ray Bendici/Damned Connecticut
Update, June 25:
The fairytale may have a happy ending after all.
Hearthstone Castle was acquired by the city of Danbury in the 1980s and has since fallen into dramatic disrepair, but now the city is taking steps to stabilize the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. A few weeks ago the city began accepting bids from engineering firms for plans to stabilize the building and stop it from deteriorating further.
“The deadline is July 31 for interested engineering firms to submit proposals to us and then we will look at those and make a decision,” explains Dennis Elpern, the planning director for Danbury.
The city’s budget for the bidding process is $45,000 ($20,000 of which came from a grant the city received from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation).
The process of selecting a firm can take as long as two months, says Elpern. Once a firm is selected and the plans for preserving the castle are drawn up, a new cost analysis process and another round of bidding will begin for the actual restoration work on the castle.
A study conducted last year estimated that it would cost about $450,000 to stabilize the castle’s exterior and clean up the grounds. Elpern is hopeful that the estimates emerging from this bidding process will be in the same ballpark as that figure, if not a little lower. He’s also optimistic that the castle can be saved.
“I hope we do restore it. It's unique to the area and I think it holds promise for future use."
Read our full Hearthstone Castle story below:
Once upon a time a group of community activists, and state and city officials, rushed to save a historic Connecticut castle….
Danbury’s Hearthstone Castle is crumbling.
The roof and three floors of the historic structure have almost entirely collapsed. The once ornate interior has been reduced to a pile of rotting wood, broken glass and other debris. Trespassers frequently breach the fence surrounding the castle, and there’s graffiti and other signs of vandalism.
Also see the first two stories in our series on Connecticut castles:
But the majestic stone walls of Connecticut's oldest castle (which is owned by the city of Danbury and located on the 722-acre grounds of Tarrywile Park) remain largely unscathed by the ravages of time. Would-be castle preservationists in the Danbury area say that even in its present state there’s a magic to the place, and there’s still time for the tale to conclude with a happy ending.
(All color photos by Ray Bendici courtesy of Damned Connecticut)
“Do you have vision?” Mark Nolan asks me on a recent afternoon as he unlocks the chain link fence around the castle. Nolan is the treasurer of Friends of Tarrywile Park, a nonprofit organization that supports Tarrywile Park and whose members are coordinating efforts to save the castle. Nolan is opening the castle gates to give me a peek inside it’s damaged interior. On this trip we’re joined by Susan Lauermann, chairman of the Friends of Tarrywile Park.
“Unfortunately this is what it looks like,” says Lauermann as the debris inside and around the castle becomes visible. Yet it’s clear that Lauermann and Nolan see something more when they look at the castle; they see its 30-foot turrets, and the dark stone walls with ivy clinging to them; they see an architectural wonder that is still standing and could be an attraction for the area in the future.
“When you come up to castle you get that wow factor,” Nolan says. He remarks that even the deterioration adds to its mystique. “It’s the ruin in the woods, the castle in the woods.”
Saving the castle and turning it into a tourist attraction like Gillette Castle on the Connecticut River in East Haddam is not a fairytale dream, Nolan and Lauermann insist. In fact it’s closer to becoming a reality than ever before.
Last year the castle, which is 115 years old and predates the more famous Gillette Castle by about a decade and a half, was the subject of a study funded by a grant from Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development’s Trust for Historic Preservation. The goal of the $50,000 study was to assess the edifice’s condition, integrity, cultural and historic value, and look at its possible uses as an economic generator for the region. The conclusion was that structurally the exterior stone walls are in good shape (though they need work), that the site was historically and culturally significant, and that restored, it could attract tourism.
The report estimated that the Hearthstone could be stabilized in its current state and the debris and property cleaned up for about $450,000. Restoration options include converting the castle into an open-air garden and removing the remaining wood in the structure, which would cost approximately $1.7 million, or the creation of a multipurpose area with a museum and exhibit space in the basement and conservatory in the rest of the structure, with a retractable or skylighted roof, for $7 million.
While a multimillion-dollar renovation is unlikely unless the project attracts the attention of a rich benefactor, Nolan and Lauermann say preserving the castle and then moving forward in phases is doable. They said it would likely be a 5 to 10-year process as they build community support and interest.
Hearthstone was constructed on top of a high hill at the end of a steep dirt driveway off of Brushy Hill Road between 1896 and 1899. It was built by E. Starr Sanford, a successful New York portrait photographer who invented an early movie camera. In 1918, Charles Darling Parks purchased the castle, gave it its current name and presented it as a wedding present to his oldest daughter, Irene. Members of the Parks family lived in the castle until 1985, when the family sold the castle, the nearby Tarrywile Mansion and hundreds of acres of land to the city of Danbury. At the time the city focused its resources on maintaining the park and the mansion. The castle was left to deteriorate.
(Below, the castle before it began to deteoriate.)
Since the city purchased the property, every few years there has been talk of something being done with the castle but the necessary funding has never been available. This round of interest in the castle is different though, say those involved.
"There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm," says Becky Burr-Petro, executive director of Tarrywile Park and Mansion. Burr-Petro has worked at the park for 17 years and has seen interest in the castle flare up and then die down again. "Since I've been here, this is the most excitement and the most movement we've had surrounding the castle," she says.
Judith Durkin of Danbury has been involved with the preservation efforts. She has personal connection to the castle; it was the home of her grandmother, Irene Parks Rathmell. She remembers the castle in its glory days and hopes some of that glory can be recovered.
(Below is an excerpt from when the castle was featurued in Country Homes.)
"My ultimate dream is to see the castle restored," says Durkin. "I would like us to begin with phase one, which is to clean out the inside and get the grounds cleaned up. Eventually what I would like to see is at least the first floor restored and then it could be used for something, whether it would be an educational center, whether it would be used for conferences, I don't know. We haven't really gotten to that point yet."
The park is located in Danbury at 70 Southern Boulevard. Visitors looking to find the castle can park in the upper lot near the mansion. Then follow the road to what looks like the park’s exit. Cross over Brushy Hill Road to a gated dirt driveway. Follow that driveway (which is steep but not overly long) to the castle. There are no signs marking the castle.
“People know it is there but of course we haven’t publicized it because of safety factors. Once restoration moves forward and it is an open-air pavilion we could advertise it more as part of the park,” she says. She adds she’s confident a restored castle would draw crowds. “I’m sure you’d get quite a lot of people who want to do pictures up there, not only wedding pictures but just everyday pictures to capture the beauty of the facility.”
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