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Icons Among Us: The Castle

Gothic arches, myriad details, intriguing history


In the slide show above, take a tour of Boston University’s only Castle.

A castle doesn’t easily fit into an urban campus, being better suited for the English countryside. For starters, where’s the moat?

But Boston University’s Castle is iconic, “definitely a landmark,” says Keith Morgan, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of art history. “It has great visibility because it’s on Bay State Road. Many public functions take place there, so even non-BU people associate it with the University.” The vine-covered Tudor revival style mansion, once home to BU’s presidents, now serves as a formal function space, part inspired architectural anachronism, part functional space, part mascot.

The Castle’s beginnings
The Castle was built by William Lindsey, a businessman who made his fortune designing an ammunition belt for British soldiers, used in the Boer War and World War I. While in England, Lindsey fell in love with European architecture and customs. He wanted to bring home features of England’s Athelhampton House, which he had visited and admired. According to accounts from the Castle’s chief draftsman, George Bosworth, Athelhampton House’s many windows, stone dormers, and Gothic details inspired popular local architect Horace Chapman, whose firm Chapman and Frazer designed many homes in Brookline and Newton. Plans were presented to Lindsey in 1904, the building completed in 1915. The single family home cost $500,000, a veritable fortune at the time.

The Castle joined other mansions belonging to Boston’s prominent families, substantial anchors on Bay State Road, says Morgan. It is one of the few still standing.

“The Castle was almost a last gasp of development,” he says. “The private passenger automobile was providing an option for people to build in the suburbs, but Lindsey still chose to build his house in Boston.”

Before the Charles River Dam was built, the river came right up to the back of the Castle. The water rose and fell with the tide, and narrow Back Street was all that separated the homes on Bay State Road from the water; in its first decade, river water would spatter the Castle’s windows during storms. About 1930, the state began to fill in and narrow the Charles, creating an embankment that made way for Storrow Drive.

Lindsey’s oldest child, Leslie, was married in the home in 1915. Tragedy struck when she and her husband, honeymooning on the RMS Lusitania, died when the ship was torpedoed by the Germans. In his daughter’s memory, Lindsey commissioned the Leslie Lindsey Memorial Chapel to be built next to Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street.

Medieval touches
According to historian Bainbridge Bunting, writing in Houses of Boston’s Back Bay, the Castle displays “the most convincing medieval effect in the area.”

Lindsey was a fan of Gothic literature and wrote Gothic novels, according to Arthur Krim, a planner at the Massachusetts Historical Commission. “The Gothic forms of the Castle represent Lindsey’s personality,” Krim says. “The house was meant to express his spirit.”

Although there are other touches of Gothic architecture on the BU campus, the pointed arches of the College of Arts & Sciences and Marsh Chapel, for example, Morgan says that the Castle, with its strong Gothic influence, was unusual along Bay State Road.

Design and architecture
Buff Amherst stone was chosen for the building’s exterior because of its light color. Visitors often are surprised by the attention to detail on the building, starting at the large oak door and continuing inside. The same artist who sculpted many of the figures in Boston’s Trinity Church created the Castle’s intricate stone carvings of gargoyles and other subjects. The family crest of Mrs. Lindsey, with a small swan, adorns the entrance gate.

The Great Hall (or foyer, for us common folk) has a carved oak double stairway, mahogany paneling, a beamed ceiling, and a huge Gothic hooded fireplace. A stained glass lantern chandelier suspended from a two-story-high ceiling supposedly came from Arundel Castle, the family home of the Dukes of Norfolk in West Sussex. It is made of gilded metal and colored glass panes, with a gilt crusader leaning on his sword inside.

The Great Hall contains an antique bronze door purchased by Lindsey in Italy. Its panels, dated to 1580, depict the Temptation of Eve and the Three Graces. This is just one of the antiques Lindsey collected in his travels, some donated to the Castle by his descendants.

Other rooms on the first floor include a library, a music room, and a dining room. The Castle has several carved mantels, ornamental plaster ceilings, built-in bookcases, and big bay windows overlooking the Charles.

The architectural style of each room varies. “It’s almost as if the builders wanted the people living there to be able to move around the house according to their mood — have your coffee in one room, your dinner in another, read in another,” Morgan says.

Lindsey’s second-floor bedroom (now an office) leads to a steep, narrow secret stairway that ascends to a third-floor study, where he wrote his Gothic novels.

Unfortunately, Lindsey did not have much time in the Castle of his dreams. He died in 1922, seven years after the building was completed. But his icon, unlike many others from that era, remains.

A gift to BU
BU acquired the Castle in 1939, a gift from Oakes Ames and Trustee William Chenery (Hon.’38) and his wife, Marion. From 1939 to 1967, the Castle was home to three BU presidents, Daniel Marsh (STH’08, Hon.’53), Harold Case (STH’27, Hon.’67), and Arland Christ-Janer. After Christ-Janer moved out (mainly because students in the 1960s protested the house’s opulence), the Castle became a function space.

John Silber (Hon.’95) wanted to return the Castle to its former role as the president’s quarters and live there, according to a 1975 Daily Free Press article. But the University had converted it to function space, and Silber instead moved to a home at the edge of campus, in Brookline.

And now …
Today the Castle is used by the BU community for meetings and lectures and can be rented for weddings. Administrative offices are on the second floor. In 2008, its architecture and style attracted filmmakers shooting the Kevin Spacey movie 21. They filmed scenes there, and many BU students filled in as extras.

The BU Pub is located in the building’s basement, with outdoor seasonal seating on the back patio. The pub, open to faculty, staff, alumni, students over 21, and invited guests, serves sandwiches, salads, and more than 70 varieties of beer.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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4 Comments on Icons Among Us: The Castle

  • Anonymous on 10.05.2009 at 12:25 pm

    What a fantastic piece! The photos are amazing. If there were only more of them. Great work, Amy!

  • Emma on 10.05.2009 at 9:53 pm

    Hillel Addition?

    What was with the addition of the (old) Hillel House to the West side of the Castle? Whose idea was that back in the day?

  • Anonymous on 10.06.2009 at 2:53 am

    The Castle has been serving for years

    as a melting pot for international students, who have been invited to many exciting event over there.

  • Patty on 10.13.2009 at 11:50 am

    Awesome Article

    Great article! The castle looks so beautiful. I loved the photos and learning the history of the castle.

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