By Gretchen McKay


Marshall couple’s home is their castle

Categories : Uncategorized
Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Cara McCandless and Barton Branstetter have never forgotten their storybook wedding trip to Thornbury Castle Hotel in South Gloucestershire, England. King Henry VIII spent 10 days in 1535 in this grand country fortress with his beloved Anne Boleyn.

Yet it’s what they did 12 years after their 1994 wedding that really makes for a great story.

After finding a 3-acre lot in a quiet Marshall subdivision, they asked architect Alan Dunn to design them a castle of their own.

Modeled after Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, the 7,000-square-foot house is about as medieval as you can get in modern times, with battlements and turrets, arrow slit windows and even a drawbridge that leads visitors across a dry moat to the front door. It’s certainly the most unique stop on Sunday’s annual Wesley Spectrum Tour of Homes in the North and South Hills.

The feudal feel continues inside. The Great Hall is so great that the couple can fit more than 100 fellow members from the Society for Creative Anachronism inside with nary a worry of anyone stepping on another’s costumed toes or the hem of her hand-stitched gown.

“It was important everything be period,” says Ms. McCandless, a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist. Her husband is a radiologist with UPMC Presbyterian Radiology Associates. They have three children.

As the couple began the four-year construction process, their guiding principle was historical accuracy. They sent Mr. Dunn to England and worked closely with general contractor Jim Horan to get the details right. Had they scaled the cast-stone house down to suburban sensibilities, Ms. McCandless explains, the proportions would have been all wrong, and the end result would have looked like something you put on a miniature golf course.

That also explains why the castle was built at the bottom of a hill instead of just a few yards from the street, like all the other neighboring mini-mansion Colonials. Remember, medieval castles were built for defense. So in addition to narrow, vertical windows from which inhabitants could shoot arrows and “murder holes” through which they dumped boiling water or rocks on attackers’ heads, there’s almost no landscaping, other than the trees that shield it from the street. Trees and vines close to the fort would provide something for invaders to climb on.

However, because a real family of five has to live here, there is a “modern” wing with children’s bedrooms and a playroom with ping-pong and foosball tables. There’s also an enormous walk-in slate shower in the master bath and a workout room in the basement, where the couple — known to their SCA brethren as Baroness Ariella of Thornbury and Baron Byron of Haverford — practice their sword work.

The couple chose Bodiam Castle as their architectural blueprint because unlike most English castles, it was built in one style over just a few years (1385-89) instead of mish-mashed together over the centuries. Its rooms were destroyed in the 1640s during a civil war, however, so the couple turned to Penshurst Place, a sprawling medieval estate in Kent that dates to 1341, for their floor plan.

Back in the day, a castle would have been built by hand over many decades or even centuries using stone quarried on site. Taking advantage of today’s “green” technology, this modern version is crafted from energy-efficient insulated concrete forms faced with a cast-concrete, stonelike veneer. It also has radiant heat flooring, buried utilities and recycled rubber slates on the roof. Its 37 wooden doors, however, were handcrafted to period style in England and the exquisite post-and-beam framing in the 30-foot-story Great Hall was built old-style without nails; it’s held together with mortise-and-tenon joints.

Rob Rich of Hagerstown, Md., and local artist Christine Hutson created the giant murals that bring the Great Hall’s white plaster walls so vividly to life (and cleverly hide modern-day distractions such as outlets and HVAC vents). As was common practice in the 14th century, they used centuries-old hand techniques and powdered pigments. And they made intentional “mistakes” in their artwork: Look closely, and you’ll see someone shooting an arrow from behind his head and a horse with a twisted bridle. That’s the family and their coat of arms depicted in the mural with the tree.

If you’d rather spy on the crowds below, take a peek through the long, narrow squint in the corridor outside the second-floor guest room. It offers a bird’s-eye view of the Great Hall.

“This is where the lord or lady would go after they retired if they wanted to look or listen, and no one would see them,” says Ms. McCandless.

Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Other details that speak to the couple’s medieval state of mind are spiral staircases that turn to the right on their climb to the roof (that makes it easier to defend yourself with a sword when facing down); a period kitchen in the east tower with a fireplace; giant iron chandeliers crafted locally by Iron Eden; and a bookcase in the library that swings open to reveal a hidden staircase. There’s also a portcullis protecting the entry. Alas — or maybe thank goodness — there are no winches to raise and lower the gate and trap enemies while burning wood or rocks were dropped on their heads.

Back in the Middle Ages, castle defenders would also have shot arrows at the enemy from embrasures in the roof’s crenellated walls. In this modern medieval home, the roof serves as a gathering place for family and friends.

“Look at the view,” Ms. McCandless says, gesturing toward the rooftops in the distance. “This is our favorite place in the entire castle.”