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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison's Castle


No, not the UW's Red Gym but a real castle. In 1861, a melancholy Englishman named Benjamin Walker brought his family across the Atlantic to settle on what were then the outskirts of Madison. No one seems to know why he left home or why he chose our capital, but in 1863 he erected a medieval castle on E. Gorham Street, near its intersection with Brearly.

A Bold and Sumptuous Residence

From the street Walker's Castle displayed two round turrets on either side of a tall square tower. In these turrets were a pair of sitting rooms, each octagonal in shape and warmed by a fireplace on the exterior wall. Because Gorham Street runs along a ridge, the lot sloped down in the back and the kitchen and dining room were below ground, looking out toward Lake Mendota. The bedrooms were on the upper stories of the towers. Near the lakeshore was built a stone barn in similar style, and an underground tunnel connected the two buildings. An arched stone entrance sheltered the Walkers and their few visitors as they arrived.

The interior was as impressive as the exterior. From a large entrance hall one could turn either way into an octagonal sitting room papered in gold. The room on the right was decorated in red upholstery and carpet, while that on the left was done in green. In each room intricately carved marble mantelpieces topped the fireplaces and large oil paintings in heavily gilt frames decorated the walls. The dining room set consisted of massive oak table and chairs from England, with elaborate candlabras and fine Sevres china.

An Eccentric and Melancholy Owner

Mr. Walker was recalled by a girl who visited the home as a child as "a dark, glowering, silent man" who spent most of his time in his "dark study, which always had a smell of musty books and an aromatic odor" later assumed to be liquor. "Mr. Walker paid scant attention to either his wife or his children... He seldom appeared at meals. Except on the rare occasions when he had men friends to dine, his meals were served to him in the study up in one of the towers."

In 1866 the Walkers departed Madison as abruptly and mysteriously as they'd come, selling the castle on Gorham St. to a man named Thompson. His wife or widow remained in house, and was remembered by residents as "not an amiable neighbor" who "threatened to fill trespassers with lead from one of her numerous fowling pieces" if they approached the castle.

Vanished Within Three Decades

It soon fell into the hands of a mortgage holder, but since it was cold, damp, and difficult to maintain, it lay unoccupied several years and gradually crumbled. Its most frequent visitors were UW students, who would initiate new freshmen by taking them to the decaying mansion at night and forcing them to walk the length of the underground tunnel alone. It was finally demolished sometime after 1879 and its materials used in another house, at 137 E. Gorham Street, though its stone wall lasted well into the twentieth century.

Today all that remains of Walker's Castle is the street name, Castle Place, running alongside the Christ Presbyterian Church.


:: Posted in Madison on May 1, 2013
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