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Pennsylvania couple's home really is their castle

By Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 29 2010 12:56 p.m. MST

Cara McCandless and Barton Branstetter's castle-home in Marshall, Pa. (SHNS photo by Robin Rombach / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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

Then, 12 years after their 1994 wedding, the Pennsylvania couple added a new chapter to their romance.

After finding a 3-acre lot in Marshall, a township near Pittsburgh, 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 leading across a dry moat to the front door.

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

"It was important everything be period," says McCandless, a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist. She and her husband, a radiologist, have three children.

As the couple began the four-year construction process, their guiding principle was historical accuracy. They sent 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, McCandless explains, the proportions would have been all wrong, and the result would have looked like something found 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. Trees and vines close to the fort would provide something for invaders to climb on.

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 cobbled together over the centuries. Its rooms were destroyed in the 1640s during a civil war, 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 faced with a cast-concrete, stone-like veneer. The home also features 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 Pennsylvania 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.

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 McCandless.

Other details that speak to the couple's medieval state of mind: spiral staircases that turn to the right on their climb to the roof (making it easier to defend yourself with a sword when facing down); a period kitchen complete with fireplace in the east tower; and a bookcase in the library that swings open to reveal a hidden staircase. There's also a portcullis protecting the entry.

Back in the Middle Ages, castle defenders would 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," McCandless says, gesturing toward the rooftops in the distance. "This is our favorite place in the entire castle."

(E-mail Gretchen McKay at gmckay(at)post-gazette.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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