Altamont artist’s home, studio inspired by European fortresses
Spring green is coming to Castle Breitenbach.
Thom Breitenbach loves his land when maples and elms are in full bloom. They make the woods a little darker, maybe a touch more mysterious.
And that makes the big stone fortress off Township Road in Altamont seem a bit more ominous.
Breitenbach and his wife, Debra, have been living in their own homemade castle since 1979. The 61-year-old artist has short-range plans that could bring visitors to the three-bedroom, bluestone home this summer and fall — and long-range plans that he hopes will someday convert the residence into a museum for his work.
“I really don’t think of it as a castle, I just like the style of the building,” said Breitenbach.
“We feel very secure and safe,” he added. “I was always an introvert, so I suppose it made me feel safe. I think mostly it was just satisfying to put up something so permanent. The walls in this building are 2 feet thick, so it was very easy to heat.”
Breitenbach first thought about building a manor from another era during the 1970s. He was fortunate to have talents as both an artist and architect. His late father, Edward Breitenbach, was an architect who specialized in hospital and nursing home design — Thom learned construction and was a draftsman by the time he graduated from high school.
He studied fine art at the University of Notre Dame during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and left the university in 1972 for Italy, where he became the youngest person to win the Prix de Rome fellowship in painting. He was already interested in castles; traveling Europe and seeing the 19th century Bavarian castles of King Ludwig II convinced him that a castle back home was in his future.
Breitenbach began the project in 1976. Low on construction funds, he used stone found on his land off Township. Stone was quarried on the property, some pieces as long as 12 feet. Oaks from the woods were cut for cabinets and moldings. Hand-hewn beams and planking from collapsing barns became part of the home. Breitenbach knew paints, but he also knew other arts — he would later work on stained-glass windows, wrought-iron hardware and custom floor tiles.
“It seemed like it would be easy at first,” Breitenbach said. “But with the octagon shape in the original part of the house, I found that all the tight corners made a lot of different problems with cutting.”
While a personal castle was a nice conversation piece, there were practical applications for the home.
“One of my artist friends lost 20 years of work when his studio burned down, so I was determined at least to build something fireproof,” Breitenbach said.
There was a romantic application, too. Breitenbach threw a party to celebrate two years’ construction on the castle in July 1978, and Debra Barnes was one of the guests. They married the next July, on a stone heart they had constructed in the nearby woods.
They’ve been living with a medieval flair since 1979, but it’s not the year 1600 inside the place. “There are a lot of modern elements inside,” Breitenbach said. “There are a lot of touches from Frank Lloyd Wright. In the main hall, there’s a lot of built-in furniture. There’s a place called ‘the pit’ where we have our entertainment.”
Additions, renovations and small building projects have become part of life inside a residence Breitenbach said is still not complete. When the Breitenbachs had children, the artist decided he needed a new place to paint. New construction brought him a new painting studio, and a new office for Debra.
People who may not know Breitenbach for his castle may know him for his work. He completed his large “Proverbidioms” painting in 1975, and the piece interprets more than 300 sayings such as “butterflies in the stomach,” “rat race” and “cat’s in the bag” with a large cast of people and animals. The painting has become a popular poster and jigsaw puzzle, and, like other works, hangs inside the castle.
Opening the doors
It’s a big place for just two people, so Breitenbach has decided to share it. He recently secured a special use permit from the village of Altamont and hopes to rent the castle grounds and his painting studio for wedding receptions, birthday parties and other gatherings.
The castle has everything that fans of magic-and-fantasy films such as the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” series and television’s “Game of Thrones” might be looking for. There are twin stone guard towers at the entrance, places for banners and flags, a bell tower and rounded doors.
“I never really intended to keep this place all to myself,” Breitenbach said. “I’d prefer it to be seen and enjoyed by people. People kept coming here and saying, ‘Boy, I’d love to get married at a place like this,’ so I started thinking about it. Every time we went to a wedding somewhere, I’d start talking with the staff or talking to the owner of the venue. ... I started to like the idea.”
Breitenbach wants people to get used to the castle. Once the artist and his wife have passed away, he hopes the castle will be used as an art museum.
“So my work is preserved,” Breitenbach said. “I’ve known some really good artists, and when they died, their families didn’t know what to do with their paintings. The museums are stuffed as it is, their vaults are all stuffed in the basement. So I felt that would be nice. I’ve been treating the house as another work of art, so it’s for all the lost arts you don’t see anymore.”
Places to explore
People who rent the castle grounds will also get places to explore. Hiking trails, a waterfall and a cobblestone labyrinth are parts of the 30-acre property. “I’m going to ask people to work with a wedding planner or a full-service caterer, because I’m not providing any services,” Breitenbach said.
He hopes newcomers like the place. People who have already visited Castle Breitenbach have given the manor good reviews.
“They’re always entertained,” he said. “There’s something about a castle that’s just sort of romantic or fairy tale-ish. Just the very word makes you sort of take notice. Some people, because you can’t tell how old the stones are — they quickly sort of take on the environment, you know, and the moss grows on the outside of them — a lot of people have come here and said, ‘What did this place used to be?’ They seem to think it was a church or something.”