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Texas Castles in the Twentieth Century

Dream of building your own medieval fortress? You aren’t alone.

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The Pignataro Estate in Santa Fe, Texas in November 2009.
Photograph by Robert Kimberly

In an earlier post, we explored a dozen or so of the first wave of Texas castles: a few late-nineteenth century county courthouses, a couple of jails (one topped by a gallows), and a few private homes. The Great Depression brought that era of Texas castles to an end. Old World opulence went out of style nationwide, with one notable Texas exception: the castle in Santa Fe, Texas that has since come to be known as the Pignataro Estate.

According to a 1981 Galveston Daily News article, the blocky, Moorish-style abode was built around 1936 by the widow of a Danish immigrant as a home for retired nuns. When the diocese declined the widow’s offer, she moved in herself and lived there until 1954. After passing through two owners, it was purchased in the 1970s by Franco Pignataro, a Sicilian-born former Carabiniere (royal policeman) turned American chicken farmer turned restaurateur, who told the Daily News in 1999 that he bought the castle because it reminded him of Sicily.

When Pignataro, who passed away in 2010, wasn’t in the kitchen at his extant Franco’s Real Italian Restaurant near League City (now owned by and renamed after his daughter Franca), he was painting murals of Italian street scenes or molding concrete sculptures of galloping steeds, snarling lions, and mighty Greco-Roman gods, many of which still stand guard on the castle grounds. (His daughter Lina once said, “If you want to make my dad happy, give him a bag of cement.”) Coming upon the castle on now-bustling Highway 6 in honky-tonking Santa Fe feels like a fever-dream. The home is still in the Pignataro family; Franca lives there. 

The American castle came back into fashion of a sort in the 1950s with the rash of ironic, Route 66-era kitsch-castle motels, putt-putt courses, and gas stations along our highways and main roads. It took decades longer for the unironic American castle to return, and you can probably thank (or curse) Walt Disney for that. A generation weaned on The Wonderful World of Disney and its iconic Cinderella Castle once more saw magic in kingdoms, and more than a few people decided they wanted palaces of their own.

By the 1980s, Texans were again building residential castles—and they’ve been getting more lavish ever since. For the most part it seems to be a DFW thing, as today’s Metroplex abounds with examples. Here is one currently on the market: For $3.95 million, you can take over an eight-bed, ten-bath, 20,000-square-foot Southlake manor sporting at least seven witch-hat turrets. Make merry and guffaw at the antics of your very own jester as you gnaw juicy joints of roasted meats and slosh goblets of strong wine in the wood-paneled formal dining room. Jeer the young rabble at their amusements at the baseball diamond directly across the street from your one-and-a-half-acre domain. And aye, m’lord, there’s ample room to stable your mechanized steeds and war machines in the twelve-car garage.

Meanwhile, Fort Worth’s Façade Nord was built in 1998 by attorney Gene deBullet as a tribute to his French and Scottish heritage. The home, valued at $2.5 million in 2014, is a replica of his maternal ancestors’ Scottish manor. Here’s how it was described at the time by Fort Worth’s CBS 11 News:

The grand foyer is lined with pictures of his ancestors, including old pictures of Napoleon and his wife.

Built in 1998, the 6,600 square feet home has five bedrooms and five bathrooms.

But deBullet says there’s more. “It has 60 arches and multiple turrets.”

One of the home’s three bars is in one of the turrets. “It’s got a crow’s nest bar, which is about 50 feet off the ground. It doubles as a card playing room.

But you need not be a paid-up member of the 1 percent to have a castle. As examples in Bellville and Buckholts prove, lords of the manor of more modest means can construct DIY strongholds of their own, so long as they are handy stonemasons—and infinitely patient.

Perhaps inspired by the old gallows-topped castle-jail downtown, Bellville’s Mike Newman has had a lifelong fascination with the structures that only intensified when he traveled to Europe as a young man. Newman has owned and operated his namesake downtown bakery for more than thirty years, and about twelve years ago he started plowing the profits from his ancient trade into a castle on a dirt road in the woods a few miles north of town.

Over the course of eight years, Newman and a single helper built the whole thing by hand, and unlike the builders of the suburban Metroplex castles, Newman stresses period authenticity over luxury. The building is ringed by a moat and accessed via a handcrafted one-and-a-half-ton drawbridge, complete with a working portcullis. “Since Home Depot was fresh out of drawbridges, I had to build one of those suckers,” he once joked. A small chapel offers solace to the faithful; a dungeon stocked with medieval torture devices awaits heretics and traitors; several crenellated, forty-foot-high turrets rise above the pile; and there’s even a working catapult to repel howling mobs of Austin County marauders.

Newman, an avid sailor who has crossed the Atlantic in an open boat, lives in the castle and takes his rest on rough, handmade period furniture of his own design, but we peasants may visit his domain for $15 tours (lunch included) or book the Brazos Valley fastness for weddings, wine tastings, murder mystery nights, and other events.  “We see a lot of school children and Boy and Girl Scout troops,” Newman has said. “I think the castle acts as an inspiration to kids. They see that they can make their dreams come true if they work at it.”

That’s also the guiding spirit of John Greiner, the octogenarian jack-of-all-trades of Milam County, northeast of Austin. A honky-tonk singer, model airplane flyer, and pyrotechnics designer, Greiner toiled for thirty years on his now-complete castle on 34 acres in the backwoods near the hamlet of Buckholts. Back in 1978, Greiner built a cardboard model castle and later decided to bring it to life. Countless hours of labor and 140 tons of stone later, Greiner found himself in possession of Eagle Crest, a sixteen-room, 5,500-square-foot castle complete with dungeon, “jungle room,” and rooftop observatory.

He somehow also found time to lay one-and-a-half miles of track for a one-eighth-scale model railway, the tiny locomotives powered by coal. By himself, Greiner laid down 25,000 ties and secured them in place with more than 100,000 screws and washers; built two little railway bridges over creeks on his property; and threw in a wooden Old West-style ghost town, complete with saloon, telegraph office, and Wells Fargo office.

Sure, Greiner has mixed historical periods on his land, but amusement parks do the same thing all the time, with their Olde English villages abutting Wild West towns. “You can set your mind to do anything, and doing it makes you unafraid to try other things,” Greiner told the Temple Daily Telegram in 2014. “I like to build and create things and to make people happy by entertaining them. But a person must have the drive and focus to do things and must be willing to work.”

Like the late Pignataro (the cop/chicken rancher/restaurateur/artist), Greiner and Newman have a wide range of talents and interests—Newman is a baker/sailor, and Greiner is a singer/miniature railroad builder/fireworks designer. Both seem unbound by contemporary notions of how we should live. Not for them, it seems safe to say, are Crossfit or Netflix. Is it any surprise, then, that these Renaissance men want to live in Renaissance castles?

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