May 26, 2016

Intermittent clouds

A castle was Walter Russell’s home


YORK TWP. — They say a man’s home is his castle. In Walter Russell’s case, his home really was a castle.

As a boy, Walter fell in love with medieval history, as well as the stories of the Knights of the Round Table and Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” When he was 14, Walter put a picture of a castle in his wallet and said: I’m going to build that some day.

As a boy, Walter Russell dreamed of living in a castle. After studying medieval design and brushing up on building trades, Walter and his wife, Ilona, built their own castle on Fenn Road in York Township over a period of five years beginning in the late 1940s. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JOHN GLADDEN)

As a boy, Walter Russell dreamed of living in a castle. After studying medieval design and brushing up on building trades, Walter and his wife, Ilona, built their own castle on Fenn Road in York Township over a period of five years beginning in the late 1940s. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JOHN GLADDEN)

In 1947, he and his wife, Ilona, began building a home on their Fenn Road farm. But not just any home. One with massive stone fireplaces.

Stained glass windows. Two towers. Saw-toothed parapets.

Their own brick castle— and they did most of the work with their own hands.

“This was a showplace,” said friend Bob Stout, 81, as he looked out over a pond beside the house. Some of the pine trees Walter planted around it have now fallen into the water.

Walter died almost three decades ago, Ilona in 2007 at age 98. The couple had no chil­dren and the property fell to Stout, who lives nearby. He’s been working at repairs and clearing away overgrown shrubs and brush that hid the castle from the road.

“A lot of people went right by it, but didn’t even know it was here,” he said.

The house and surrounding 70 acres are for sale, but the pool of prospective buyers in the market for a castle so far has been small, Stout said.

He met Walter at the Carter Lumber store around the cor­ner, where Stout was the man­ager. Looking at a 1950s photo of Walter at work on the house — with his angular face, strap­ ping arms and broad shoul­ders— you’d think it was a picture of John Wayne.

Stout laughed.

“A lot people said that. He was a guy’s guy. I don’t know anyone who met him who did­n’t like him,” Stout said.

Walter came from Cleve­land, where he literally climbed his way through the ranks at Ohio Bell, from line­man to manager. A cabin not far behind the house is sided almost entirely with the wooden cross pieces of old telephone poles. The pieces are about three inches square and up to eight feet long, lay­ered one on top of the other, like small logs in a log cabin.

“Those things are solid as a rock. It’s like they’re petrified,” said Stout. “He was creative. I don’t know how many people would ever think of something like that.”

Inside, the cabin is a single, expansive room with wooden floors— giving it the feel of a small dance hall. It has knotty pine paneling, a fireplace, stained-glass windows and leaded-glass cabinets. It’s where Ilona, an avid collector, kept antiques. The collection, along with most of the cou­ple’s household items, were auctioned to pay for Ilona’s care when she went to a nurs­ing home, Stout said.

Ilona also was a gardener.

There are a myriad of spring ­flowering bulbs slumbering under the English ivy that sur­rounds the house.

For five years, the Russells traveled down from their Cleveland apartment to build their castle, mostly on week­ends and vacations. Walter spent many a weeknight at Cleveland Public Library, studying architectural design and teaching himself the arts of masonry, plumbing, electri­cal, carpentry and plastering.

While the house reaches back to medieval times for its inspiration, it also reached into the future for amenities few homes had in the late ’40s and early ’50s— like a dish­washer, marble countertops, a shower with two spray jets, finished basement, security system and intercom.

Many of the walls and floors are finished in wood from the farm— maple, walnut, ash and pine. There are cedar-­lined closets, bird’s eye maple trim and pinned oak floors, plus handsome tile work in the kitchen, multiple fireplaces and a built-in bar. The finger­prints of Walter’s craftsman­ship are on every square inch.

“He did it right,” Stout said.

“He did it right.”

View photos at SmugMug

In opposite front corners of the house are the two round towers, each about eight feet across. The one in the master bedroom was for Ilona’s dress­ing table.

The tower in the living room held the library. Stout remem­bers when the living room, with its vaulted cedar ceiling, was decorated with suits of armor and tapestries. The focal point is a large fireplace, built with stones Walter’s friends brought him from around the country.

So far, prospective buyers have looked around the house and said: “Well, it needs a lot of updates.” Stout shakes his head.

“No! You don’t want to update it,” he said. “You’ve got to want to live in it like this. It’s got to be someone who loves it, as is.”

Updates to plumbing or electric, sure. He can under­stand that. But dismantle his friends’ dream? No way.

A few hundred yards behind the house, at the edge of a sec­ond pond, is an overgrown picnic area with graceful drooping willows, the ruins of a boathouse and pavilion, as well as a still-handsome out­door fireplace. Peering out from the field-stone chimney is a sculptured face Stout calls “The Man of the Grapes.”

“It’s hard for me not to look at it and think of Walter, with his chiseled John Wayne good looks, gazing out over the place he and Ilona clearly loved so much.

“When he was alive, boy, this was pretty,” Stout said, looking at the water. “I’d sure like to see somebody get it who would put it back the way it was.”

Contact John Gladden at

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