I am fortunate enough to have this wonderful property, known as “Castle in the Clouds,” practically in my back yard. This weekend it was open to the public as “Christmas at the Castle,” and though I have been to its carriage house several times, I’d never been to the main house. Perched on the side of a mountain, it is an extraordinary house with a fascinating history.
Built in 1913-14 by Thomas Plant, it exemplifies the era’s Arts and Crafts movement. Plant incorporated many advanced technological conveniences such as hydroelectric power, ammonia brine-cooled refrigeration, central vacuum and an intercom system – it truly was a house ahead of its time. Its architecture was designed to fit into the landscape and the interior is a masterpiece of handcrafted woodwork and leaded glass.
The story of Tom Plant is a rags-to-riches story – and then back to rags. Born in 1859, he left school at the age of 14 to go to work. A hard worker by nature, he began as an apprentice in a shoe factory and in the space of 11 years he owned his own company. By 1910 the Thomas G. Plant Co. was the largest shoe factory in the world, employing 5500 workers and producing millions of pairs of shoes each year. He married the daughter of a wealthy publisher. In 1910, at the age of 51, Plant sold his company and retired with a fortune of at least $10 million.
When his marriage deteriorated, it is reported that Plant placed a check for a million dollars in his wife’s breakfast napkin ring; the divorce was granted in 1912. On a trip to Europe he met Olive, 29 years his junior, and they married.
During the winter of 1912/13, Plant worked with a Boston architect for plans for his retirement home. The project was enormous: a 16-room mansion, 10-stall stable with living quarters above, a 6-car garage, 2 gatehouses, a 100′ greenhouse, farm buildings, 18-hole golf course, and 45 miles of carriage roads. Plant had been buying up land until he eventually owned 6600 acres and 2 miles of Lake Winnipesaukee frontage.
The Plants lived lavishly and, for various reasons, by 1924 he was in financial trouble. Tom died in 1941 at the age of 82, just before his home was foreclosed on. It was put up for auction and purchased for use as a summer home, then in 1956 it was sold to a Boston man who opened it to the public in 1959. Today the Castle Preservation Society owns the Castle buildings and 135 surrounding acres.
For two weekends in November the Castle is open to the public as it would have looked dressed for the holidays during the three decades the Plants lived here. On display were vintage cards, ornaments, decorations, toys and a tree adorned with tinsel; our only disappointment was that there wasn’t more greenery – more “Christmas-ness” – but I think that had more to do with our modern interpretation of what the season should look like. There was live music in the main hall. The house itself is fabulous – you could get lost in its hallways – and we loved the massive cast iron stove, the interlocking kitchen tiles (they looked like a jigsaw puzzle), the secret library room, the unusual skylights, and the pipe organ in the main hall … word has it that when it was played, boaters on Lake Winnipesaukee could hear it!
And on this beautiful November day the views were spectacular … this, no doubt, has not changed one bit since Tom Plant lived here. Losing his beloved house was, in the end, New Hampshire’s gain.