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Six Great Californian Castles

Scotty's Castle
36.564061200000, -117.133126300000
Because of a mixup over land ownership, Scotty’s Castle was never actually finished. You can still see piles of tiles in the basement, and the beginnings of a giant outdoor swimming pool, which was never completed after the stock market crash at the onset of the Great Depression.
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The Magic Castle
34.104577300000, -118.341788800000
With its labyrinth of hallways, secret passages, spooky phone booth, and piano-playing ghost, this former Victorian home is more akin to The Haunted Mansion or the Winchester Mystery House than it is a castle per se. There’s also a dress code that’s strictly enforced, and a secret phrase that must be uttered to gain access beyond the front lobby and gift shop.
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Scientology Celebrity Center
34.104631400000, -118.319049200000
L. Ron Hubbard himself established the former chateau as The Manor Hotel, a religious retreat for Scientologists. You can’t stay there unless you’re a Scientologist, but you can still visit the chateau – by dining at their Renaissance Restaurant, which is open to the public.
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Knapp's Castle
34.527682400000, -119.797994000000
Completed in 1920 by businessman and civil engineer George Owen Knapp, this mountain lodge was originally built on a parcel of land in the Santa Ynez Mountains along San Marcos Pass, known then as the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve. Twenty years later, only a month after the sprawling property was sold off, it burned to the ground in a forest fire.
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Hearst Castle
35.686048700000, -121.168328100000
The creation of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, it fits the bill in terms of lineage, opulence, sprawl, and drama – all the qualities you’d find in any good English castle. Built upon what Hearst named “Enchanted Hill,” the main building – Casa Grande – is actually only one of four places to sleep in the complex, which has a total of 165 rooms (58 of which are bedrooms).
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Rubel Castle
34.150318700000, -117.854540900000
Michael Rubel turned a former water reservoir into a castle, thanks to labor and materials donated by his friends, rocks collected from the Azusa foothills, and tracks and ties scavenged from a local defunct gold-mining railroad. And it only took him 25 years to complete his fortress, which he lived in until his death in 2007.
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Just because California’s history is relatively new, compared to that of England or the European mainland, doesn’t mean we don’t have history.

And although we’ve had neither court jesters nor Knights of the Round Table, we’ve got our fair share of castles. They’re just not very…medieval.

California was (and is) such a land of opportunity that if you wanted to live in a castle, you could just build one yourself. And fortunately for the rest of us, you need not be a Sir or a Lady to go visit any of these six great castles in California.

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1. Monumental Castle: Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is probably the first to come to mind when you think about Californian castles. The creation of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, it fits the bill in terms of lineage, opulence, sprawl, and drama – all the qualities you’d find in any good English castle. Built upon what Hearst named “Enchanted Hill,” the main building – Casa Grande – is actually only one of four places to sleep in the complex, which has a total of 165 rooms (58 of which are bedrooms). In fact, it’s so big with all of its gardens, pools, statuary, fountains, and zebras that they’ve got three different tours to choose from. It’s a lot to see in one trip, so you’ll have to return a few times – and take in one of their “Living History” evening tours in the spring and fall – to see all of the wonderful architecture and tile work designed over the course of three decades by groundbreaking female architect Julia Morgan.

Hearst Castle (2)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Hearst Castle (1)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Abandoned Castle: Knapp's Castle

If you find castles creepy, then what could be creepier than an abandoned castle? Tucked away in the Los Padres National Forest, high above the Santa Ynez Valley and Lake Cachuma, you’ll find the former San Marcos Mountain Lodge, a.k.a. “Knapp’s Castle.” Completed in 1920 by businessman and civil engineer George Owen Knapp, this mountain lodge was originally built on a parcel of land in the Santa Ynez Mountains along San Marcos Pass, known then as the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve. Twenty years later, only a month after the sprawling property was sold off, it burned to the ground in a forest fire. The leftover ruins are relatively easy to reach by car off of East Camino Cielo, which was built, graded, rerouted, and improved in the late 1800s and paved in 1930. Park off the side of the road, and walk down the long, winding, dirt driveway ‘til you spot a chimney. It’s a popular hiking spot despite the fact that it’s technically private property. The owners have allowed public access thus far, though a sign at the driveway reminds visitors that their permission can be revoked at any time.

Knapp Castle (2)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Knapp Castle (1)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Folk Art Castle: Rubel Castle, Glendora

At “Rubelia” in the foothill community of Glendora, Michael Rubel turned a former water reservoir into a castle, thanks to labor and materials donated by his friends, rocks collected from the Azusa foothills, and tracks and ties scavenged from a local defunct gold-mining railroad. And it only took him 25 years to complete his fortress, which he lived in until his death in 2007. Michael was a self-proclaimed kid who never grew up and never grew out of his childhood passion for building forts, so he built his out of cannonballs, wheels, bottles, and whatever else he could find. In his castle’s two towers, you’ll find a rare and pricey clock, a variety of bells, a whistle that goes off at noon, fake cannons, and a death trap gate that serves as the front door. On the two-acre property, you’ll find a water tower, a water tank used for a swimming pool (once filled with koi fish), a windmill, an old Santa Fe Railway caboose, some old gas station pumps, a cemetery of cast-off headstones (but no accompanying graves), and lots of chickens. The Glendora Historical Society conducts tours by advance reservation only.

Rubel Castle (2)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Rubel Castle (1)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Religious Castle: Scientology Celebrity Centre, Hollywood

The former Chateau Elysee in Franklin Village was a long-term residential hotel built as a replica of a 17th century French-Normandy castle, one of several chateaux that sprung up in Hollywood in the 1920s. It was slated for demolition when the Church of Scientology purchased it (with donations) to become their "Celebrity Centre." In fact, L. Ron Hubbard himself established the former chateau as The Manor Hotel, a religious retreat for Scientologists. You can’t stay there unless you’re a Scientologist, but you can still visit the chateau – by dining at their Renaissance Restaurant, which is open to the public. On Sundays, you can partake in their prix fixe, all-you-can-eat brunch buffet, or you can go have lunch during the week. The food is good, and the service is impeccable. They might even give you a tour, so you can see L. Ron Hubbard’s actual office and other Scientological highlights. No photos are allowed inside – and if you see any celebrities, don't say anything

Bonus: Aimee's Castle, Lake Elsinore

In 1929, the most famous person in Hollywood was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who took L.A. by storm when she founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel at Angelus Temple. Aimee was so famous that she was mobbed all of the time, followed relentlessly by the paparazzi, and plastered all over the front pages of all the tabloids. She needed a quiet place to pray and to keep a low profile, so her “castle” (though she never called it that) had a secret tunnel entrance that allowed her to enter the house from the garage without being spotted. Remarkably preserved, it’s now owned and run by The Rock in Lake Elsinore, a FourSquare church, which occasionally opens it up for tours. It’s worth a drive-by just to catch a glimpse of the outside.

Aimee's Castle (1)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Aimee's Castle (2)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Members-Only Castle: The Magic Castle, Hollywood

One of the hallmarks of a castle is that it’s notoriously difficult to get into. The Magic Castle in Hollywood may not have a moat, a drawbridge, or an archer who’s shooting arrows from a turret, but this clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts does try to keep the riff-raff out by requiring its attendees to be members. And how do you become a member? You must be a magician, and you must audition for them. This is serious business – so much so that they’ve (temporarily?) suspended their “Associate” membership level, which used to allow dues-paying non-magicians access to the castle. Now you can only join the waitlist… or start learning sleight of hand immediately. With its labyrinth of hallways, secret passages, spooky phone booth, and piano-playing ghost, this former Victorian home is more akin to The Haunted Mansion or the Winchester Mystery House than it is a castle per se. There’s also a dress code that’s strictly enforced, and a secret phrase that must be uttered to gain access beyond the front lobby and gift shop. That’s also the last place you can take photos inside the Castle (though there usually is a roving professional photographer who’ll take your picture, for a fee).

The Magic Castle

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

6. Unfinished Castle: Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

You can’t talk about Californian castles without mentioning Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley – but it’s currently closed to the public because of flood damage, and it may not reopen until 2019. That being said, mark your calendar now, because Scotty’s Castle is amazing and worth planning ahead. Up in the turret, you’ll find the pièce de résistence of the entire castle: a Welte pipe organ, installed in 1928 with moving slats hidden in the wall that open to allow for sound. The annual summer organ concerts always sell out, despite the deathly high temperatures in July. Walter Scott was Death Valley's most famous and celebrated resident, drawing tourists out to his famous "castle" to meet him and hear a tale or two about his gun-slinging days with Buffalo Bill, racing trains, melting chinaware, discovering gold, and rescuing old ladies on the side of the road. Never mind that Scotty never actually lived here (though he did sleep there sometimes). Because of a mixup over land ownership, Scotty’s Castle was never actually finished. You can still see piles of tiles in the basement, and the beginnings of a giant outdoor swimming pool, which was never completed after the stock market crash at the onset of the Great Depression. Even unfinished, the castle was able to thrive and sustain essentially off the grid for decades, by power of water (and the Pelton water wheel) and battery (specifically, nickel iron alkaline storage batteries, by Thomas Edison himself). All the surrounding roads are closed, so don’t try to drive past it right now. But when it does reopen, be sure to tour the underground as well as the interior.

Scotty's Castle (3)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Scotty's Castle (1)

Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

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