Fireman renovating stone fortress built to withstand Armegeddon

Fireman renovating stone fortress built to withstand Armegeddon

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 6:53 pm
By: AP

By AMY McRARY The Knoxville News Sentinel ALCOA (AP) — Built to stand 1,000 years past an Armageddon that never came, Millennium Manor sits on an Alcoa street corner like a mysterious marble castle. A blue dragon on a yellow triangle flag waves from a roof flagpole. That roof, curved and 3 feet thick at its thinnest, rolls over stone walls. Those walls, hand built during the Great Depression and World War II, are at least 4 feet thick. Gargoyles squat on ledges; stone lions guard front steps. Indoors, a suit of armor stands on a ledge; axes, spears and flags of Scotland and Wales decorate walls. The mix of Roman architecture and medieval form is both castle and curiosity. It’s been home since 1995 to Dean Fontaine. He’s restoring the 14-room house he admires for its design and indestructibility. Indestructibility was the goal of the house’s builder. William Andrew Nicholson and wife, Fair, moved to Tennessee from Pickens County, Ga., in the 1930s. A carpenter and stone mason, Nicholson got work at the nearby Alcoa plant. He was 61 in 1938 when he began building a fortress of gray and Tennessee pink marble. The task took eight years. Nicholson believed the world would end in 1959 but he and 144,000 other righteous souls would live 1,000 years. When ’59 came, he refigured the end at ’69. When he died in 1965, none of his 10 children moved to his rock bastion. Over time the manor of rounded walls and arched doors was used by Jaycees as a Halloween haunted house and by beer-drinking, pot-smoking teens as a graffiti canvas and hangout. Though still sturdy, the neglected house faced possible condemnation when Fontaine bought it for $40,000. He’s spent a sum he’d rather not tally to restore the less than 2,000-square-foot building. An upstairs 9-by-15-foot room he and girlfriend Karen Wells just finished with new wiring and recessed lighting cost about $10,000. Fontaine and his black cat, whose name — Puff — belies his menacing first impression, live on the home’s first floor. Saying he abides in a castle brings such disbelief that the city of Knoxville Fire Department captain doesn’t bring it up. “Who lives in a castle? No one believes me,” he says. But an all-rock house is a perfect fit for a firefighter, says Wells, a Rural Metro senior paramedic. The bastion’s sheer permanence drew Fontaine to buy it. “Every week we see people lose their homes,” he says. “The work we do here is going to stay.” ——— To stay a long time was William Nicholson’s plan. He dug a 60-foot well near the Armageddon-resistant manor. He planted fruit trees and bitter orange shrubs, whose fruit fights scurvy. Fontaine, who’s collected some 500 photos and articles about his home, says Nicholson never named it. Others called it the “rock house” or Darby’s Castle after a 1973 Kris Kristofferson song. Fontaine uses the Millennium Manor tag Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle gave the dwelling in 1957. How Nicholson built Millennium Manor was as unusual as why. His building style came from ancient Rome. He first set up wood forms. Upstairs, to make smoother interior walls, he put rubber tarps over the wood. Nicholson stacked stones on the forms. When the stone was stacked, the mason set a center keystone that kept the rocks steady. He poured cement over the stones to fill cracks, then removed the wood form and tarp. Some walls and ceilings bear concrete lines from long-gone planks or wrinkles left by a tarp. Nicholson didn’t build interior stairs between the floors. Both are entered through exterior doors. But he did create a citadel. “It’s rock here, rock there and rock all through,” says Fontaine. “With this architecture, you couldn’t tear it down.” ——— Restoring a fortress can be a Herculean task. Nicholson’s architecture was time tested but some of his materials don’t hold up in this millennium. Concrete he smoothed on walls is crumbling; paint peeling. Some weeks, Wells says, she and Fontaine work 20 to 30 hours on building projects. Other weeks they’re lucky to squeeze in two or three. Their work is often tedious and dirty. Pressure-washing ceilings and walls sprays bits of sand, grit and cement. While each of the 14 rooms is about the same size, they’re different enough that materials must be customized. “You can’t get something from one room and use it to fix another,” Fontaine says. Before he could renovate, he had to hack out a jungle. “The first summer I spent hauling off five dump truck loads of trash and brush.” He began by working on six downstairs rooms that open off a long hall. He learned as he went along: painting floors, converting one room into a kitchen, another into a dining room and two into bedrooms. When Wells and Fontaine began dating, she brought some needed style to the work. They are making three upstairs rooms into a bedroom, kitchen and bath. Their first finished room, in a taupe and metallic copper color scheme, includes recessed lights, new wiring and a candle chandelier. The room is heated by a restored antique stove; window air conditioners and stoves cool or heat the castle. What Fontaine calls the room’s 14th-century style will continue as they rescue more areas from peeling paint and plaster. They plan to add concrete to the roof that’s sprung a few leaks, renovate more of the upstairs and redo the first floor with more flair. Eventual plans call for a stone dining room and tower to take advantage of a rooftop view of Mount LeConte. Fontaine is working to get Millennium Manor on the National Register of Historic Places. He opens his home each Memorial Day for tours; more than 200 people came this May. “I feel I’m not so much an owner as a caretaker,” he says. “People here feel like it’s their landmark.” ——— Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com Published in The Messenger 6.25.08

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