By LIZ LEYDEN
Published: November 25, 2011
TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. — Moving through his unfinished mountain home, Andy Ramsgard carries a leatherbound book full of sketches.The sketches, when viewed in the open rooms of exposed concrete and scattered tools, conjure a sense of what will be: the floating balcony to the great room, the stone fireplace to gather around, the crenelated parapet rimming the rooftop — “So we can rain arrows down on unwanted intruders below,” he explained.
Up a winding road in this Adirondack town, past small houses stacked with firewood and marked by snowmobile trails, a castle rises in the forest.
Four stories of thick concrete, a spiral staircase and a turret stand amid white pines and cedar. The rooftop tower is yet to come, but it is in the sketches, as well as secret passageways and a spy hole hidden in a painting.
Oh, and there will be a drawbridge.
“When people think of castles, it’s mostly Cinderella stories,” Mr. Ramsgard, an architect, said. “My goal is to be halfway between Robin Hood and Monty Python.”
Like a knight on a quest, Mr. Ramsgard, 46, is trying to finish a project a quarter of a century in the making.
Two years ago, his wife, Sherie, read about some unusual property for sale in Tupper Lake, a small northern town of about 6,000 people: 20 acres, including an unfinished castle.
“I had to decide whether or not to tell him about it,” she said with a laugh. “I knew what might happen.”
It was completely impractical for the Ramsgards, who lived more than three hours away in Skaneateles, with their children, Ruby, 10, and Rex, 13.
But Mr. Ramsgard was intrigued, and one weekend, he made the long drive to Tupper Lake.
“I walked up and had to take a deep breath,” he said. The windows were boarded up, and the inside was pitch black. A flashlight revealed what his feet already felt: puddles.
“It was literally raining inside,” he said. “Think dungeon: dark, damp and dank.”
The castle had belonged to Edward Leary, a Tupper Lake resident with a passion for medieval history. Mr. Leary, who had moved to the area to teach high school Latin, traveled widely to study castle designs. He went to Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands region and to the famed Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. He jotted ideas on envelopes, napkins and scraps of paper, until, in 1986, at age 40, he bought his land.
“Ed loved the Adirondacks,” his sister Karen Watson said. “There are a lot of eccentric people there, and that spirit of doing things your own way lent itself to what Ed wanted to do.”
For years, Mr. Leary savored the work, doing most of it with help from a friend who was a mason. He petitioned the Adirondack Park Agency for permission to build a stone tower — 20 feet higher than the park allowed — atop his kingly retreat.
The tower, he wrote, would “lend a definite aura of neo-Gothic enchantment to the surrounding area.” The agency granted his request, but in 2009, before he reached the roof, Mr. Leary, 62, died from a staph infection.
His story, and his passion, struck a chord in Mr. Ramsgard.
“He really went out and did it,” he said. “People dream about a lot of things, but life gets in the way sometimes.”
In 2008, Sherie Ramsgard learned she had breast cancer. Within months, Mr. Ramsgard punctured a lung in a biking accident. As he recovered, she endured a double mastectomy. In a way, Mrs. Ramsgard said, those hardships led them to the castle door.
“It made us rethink our life and what we wanted to do with it,” she said. “We realized we just wanted to be with our family.”
They said yes to the castle. They conquered heights, installing lofty ceiling beams, and performed feats of strength, dragging nearly 100 bags of concrete mix, each one 80 pounds, up the spiral staircase to complete what Mr. Leary had begun.
“Buns and thighs, baby,” Mrs. Ramsgard said.
“The castle workout,” he laughed.
Their weekends revolve around the castle, whether they are cutting windows, hanging hand-stenciled arches or scouring junk shops for shields and swords for the armory.
There will be six bedrooms, all with a subtle theme from a classic medieval game: chess. One of the six and a half bathrooms will be accessible through a secret door in a library bookcase.
The Ramsgards have exhausted two cement mixers and eaten countless takeout picnics outside among the trees, but lately they have begun to see their own story imprinted within its walls: at the machine where Ruby spent hours cutting steel bars to support concrete; in the rooftop chimney hole, where Mrs. Ramsgard found Rex napping in the sun.
Thomas Shaheen, a neighbor and a retiree, marveled at the family’s work.
“I’ve watched that go up since the first block and can’t believe where it is now,” he said. “It was a real labor of love. Ed would be so happy to see that somebody wanted to keep it going.”
le-span" >The family has grown its own castle dreams: a suit of armor for Rex, an archery course for Ruby, a wine cellar doubling as a screening room for movies like “A Knight’s Tale.”
And while there is much work to be done, Mr. Ramsgard is already sketching out the ultimate castle-warming party: Dec. 12, 2012.
“We didn’t get to write the beginning of this story, but we get to write the middle, and that’s good enough,” Mr. Ramsgard said. “This castle will live on long past us, but we get to be a part of it. For now, we’re appreciating the moment.”
Thanks Liz for a great story and Nanci for her pictures which I couldn't get off the Times page, but we had fun shooting.