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This man's castle could be your home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- If you've ever wanted to live like royalty, here's your chance: Berkeley Castle is going on the auction block.

No, not THE Berkeley Castle. This pile of West Virginia sandstone is a scaled-down knockoff of the famed English fortress where King Edward II was murdered in the 14th century.

But the 12-room, turreted mansion overlooking one of America's first resorts has a colorful, if slightly shorter, history of its own.

Built more than a century ago by a wealthy Maryland businessman to woo a young bride, Berkeley Castle has been one of this picturesque town's top tourist attractions, next to the warm springs where George Washington and his gentrified peers once bathed.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world have paid $5 each to listen to a tape-recorded account of the castle's history and peer through grates into dark, wood-paneled rooms furnished with antiques and 19th century knickknacks. Scores of couples have rented it out for weddings.

Now, with the death earlier this year of the castle's most recent owner, Walter M. Bird, his widow and son are selling the landmark and all its furnishings today in separate auctions.

"I'm going to take the tradition and divide it up among the public and let them take [pieces of] it away with them," says Walter M. Bird Jr., who grew up here donning a period costume to shepherd tourists around.

Bird, 49, now a truck driver living in Warrenton, Va., says the castle and its contents are being sold to support his 84-year-old mother, Elva, who lives in a Washington-area nursing home.

More than 150 prospective buyers have trooped through the castle since its sale was announced, and about 100 bidding brochures have been handed out. But how many actual bidders there will be is "a flip of the coin," says Valaria DeVine, president of Great Estates Auction Co., the North Carolina firm handling the home sale.

Although guarded about identifying possible bidders, DeVine did say the property has drawn the attention of historic preservation enthusiasts, businesses looking for a corporate retreat and at least one group of ghost-hunters who expressed interest in converting it to an institute for the study of the paranormal.

No one has died in the castle that anyone can recall, but local folklore has sprung up about ghosts roaming the halls, and the museum has even catered to the legends with special spook-seeing tours.

"In the bidding, the ghost is included, no extra charge," DeVine says.

Anyone wanting the castle, or a piece of it, needs to get a move on. Registration for the home auction begins at 9 a.m., with bidders required to present a $25,000 certified check as a deposit. Bidding on the furnishings begins at 10 a.m., and the house itself will be sold at 11 a.m.

As with many such auctions, the house is offered "where is, as is." Although appraised by the Morgan County assessor as worth $387,500, the castle and its 3.75 terraced acres will go for the highest bid, even if it is far less than the appraisal.

"It's a risk, but it's a risk that needs to be taken," says the younger Bird as the last crop of tourists wanders through on Wednesday before the museum closes to prepare for the auction.

The castle is designated as a West Virginia and national landmark, but its buyer appears to be free to renovate, alter or even demolish it. Private historic sites are not regulated as long as they did not receive any government funding. DeVine says she feels confident it will all work out for the best.

"The thing that is so wonderful about this house is the romance that went into building it," the auctioneer says. "Hopefully, someone's going to buy it and restore it to its former beauty."

The castle's colonel

The castle was built by Col. Samuel Taylor Suit, for whom the Prince George's County community of Suitland was named. The wealthy businessman, born around 1830, made his fortune building a distillery, developing roads and railroads, and investing in the stock market.

According to the castle's history, Suit fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War and later served as ambassador to England under President Ulysses S. Grant. A history of Prince George's County, however, says Suit's title, "colonel," was an honorific he picked up about the time he got into the distillery business in Kentucky. The ambassadorship also is unclear, although historians agree he entertained Grant and other dignitaries, and dabbled in dipomacy.

In any event, Suit apparently became smitten with Rosa Pelham, the young daughter of an Alabama congressman. She may or may not have figured in the dissolution of Suit's second marriage in the late 1870s, but his offer to build her a castle on the hillside overlooking Berkeley Springs reportedly won her hand.

They were married Sept. 4, 1883, when she was just 22 years old, and construction on the castle began two years later, with German stonemasons hauling chunks of sandstone from eight miles away.

The castle was unfinished, however, when Suit died in 1888. He left his widow with most of his fortune and three young children to raise.

Rosa Suit never remarried and by all accounts entertained lavishly once the castle was completed. She reportedly staged dances and parties there until her husband's money ran out in the early 1900s. Hounded by creditors, she moved out of the castle and lived in a shack nearby, raising chickens and vegetables until a son took her to live with him out West.

Over the next four decades, the castle did service as a dance hall, tea room, writers' retreat, museum and hostel. In 1954, Walter Bird, and a partner bought the place. Bird, a telephone worker in the Washington area, later acquired sole ownership and moved his family to the castle. They operated it as a tourist attraction and banquet hall for more than four decades.

Judging from the 37-cent picture postcards on sale in the Great Hall, the castle and its furnishings have seen better days. A Victorian blouse, once sparkling white, is brown and drooping from the display stand now. A water mark , probably from a roof leak, stains the canopy of Rosa's four-poster bed.

Showing a reporter around the castle on Wednesday, the younger Bird recalls growing up living in an apartment in the back of the castle, and giving his share of tours in the family enterprise. He and his younger brother, who died in 1974, had the run of the place after hours.

"We used to get the key to the Coke machine, take all the change out and go into town to buy cigarettes," he recalls.

Bird confides that this final tour has stirred up emotions.

"As much time as I've been in this place, and know every crack and crevice, I find myself appreciating it more and more," he says. "In another three days, it'll be gone. It's hard to realize."

Sentimental journey

He was not the only one moved. Pat Allen drove up from Winchester, Va., with her husband and friends to see the castle one last time.

"We haven't been up here since our children were in Scouts," Allen, who is 62, says. "We're just kind of nostalgic."

The announcement the castle would be sold caught many in this town of 700 by surprise, and they question what will become of their community's quirky fixture.

"It's quite unique," says Barbara Fye, a sales clerk at Mountain Laurel, a nearby shop selling wearable art and handcrafts. "It reminds me of a miniature castle in Europe.

"We're all wondering what's going to happen with it," she adds. "Who's going to buy it? Will it become a hotel, a restaurant?

"We're kind of hoping for the best."

Researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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