Denise Davine, 47, has fond memories of growing up in the Wilson Castle in Proctor. She and her friends played hide and seek for hours in the 32 rooms on the 115-acre hillside estate overlooking Killington and Pico. The game wouldn’t be as much fun today, however, when the floors in some of the rooms are sagging dangerously and the intricate elegance of the hand-stenciled ceilings, marble verandas and brick turrets is peeling, fading and crumbling at an alarming rate.
In response, a nonprofit entity called Friends of Wilson Castle has been formed, and its members are hoping to raise $350,000 for the first phase of repairs, which includes securing the deteriorating structure and installing a new heating system.
Despite the current condition of the castle, it’s not hard to imagine how this place looked in 1867, when it had just been completed at a cost of $1.3 million. The 84 stained-glass windows still transmit a rich, milky light; the hand-carved cherry paneling is burnished to a deep sheen; and the 13 bronze and tile fireplaces stand ready for a roaring blaze.
John Johnson, a Vermonter who went to medical school in England, built the castle for the woman he married there, a wealthy member of the aristocracy. They lived there for just a few years, and when Lady Johnson died, Dr. Johnson couldn’t afford the upkeep or taxes. The castle was repossessed in the 1880s, and many of the antiques were either auctioned or given to employees who had never been paid.
The castle has been in Davine’s family since 1939, when her grandfather, Herbert Lee Wilson, bought it at a tax sale, intending to use it as a summer escape from his home in Missouri. Wilson was a radio engineer and built Rutland’s first AM radio station, WEWE, in the castle’s stable. He moved to the castle full-time when he retired in the 1950s, and opened it to the public for tours, weddings and events in 1962.
Running the castle and its nonprofit Wilson Foundation has been Davine’s full-time job since she was 18. “It’s very precious to me,” she says during an interview beneath the arched entranceway. “I’d hate to lose it.”
Terry Cavacas doesn’t have the same personal connection to the castle, but she still cares deeply about it. She and her husband worked there briefly in the 1980s, and when they revisited the castle last spring, they were troubled by its decline. “I noticed it was really changing,” Cavacas says, pointing out the water damage from leaks in the slate roof and the toll the elements have taken on the porous English brick façade. “It seemed sad.”
Davine, who lives in the caretaker’s quarters, was no less saddened, but the fees of the 15,000 annual visitors to the castle are barely enough to pay the tour guides and the $17,000 property tax bill, let alone the expensive repairs.
The fundraising effort, which has a page on Facebook, hasn’t reaped any donations yet, but Cavacas and Davine are hoping to make the castle a bigger part of the community and thereby strengthen its appeal. “A lot of local people have forgotten about this place,” Davine says. To help them remember, the foundation held “An Evening at Wilson Castle” on September 12, with hors d’oeuvres and live music.
Ultimately, Davine wants to spruce up the castle enough to bring back weddings, proms and anniversaries. “But we’re a long way from that,” she says.