BY JOHN GLADDEN
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.
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.
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.