The Truth Behind This Abandoned Missouri Castle Is Captivating
The ruins of what was meant to be a magnificent castle stood atop a bluff in St. Louis County overlooking the Mississippi River. 30-foot walls, a sunken stone pool, sunken gardens, and the wide steps of the grand stone staircase remained for years, slowly crumbling and being retaken by nature and vandals. Other features, such as the gargoyles that once perched on top of the castle walls have long been gone. The plans were grand, but never completed, for what was going to be a structure rivaling the mansion built by August A. Bush Sr. at Grant’s Farm.
George F. Wood-Smith was born the son of a doctor in Glasgow, Scotland in 1880. After earning his degree in marine engineering from the University of Edinburgh, he came to this country in 1900 at the age of 20, and worked building ships on the east coast. In addition, he was an engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed tank cars and railroad switches. He got into the oil business in the early 1900s just as the automobile industry began to boom. After amassing his fortune, he moved to St. Louis and in 1914 he started to build his magnificent castle on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
The castle was to be built on 420 acres, and Wood-Smith commissioned St. Louis architect Raymond E. Maritz Sr. to draw the plans. According to the blueprints and documents on file with the Missouri Historical Society, Wood-Smith's castle was planned to have 20 spacious rooms, including 11 bathrooms, a dining room, and two swimming pools, one outdoor and one indoor. The plans also called for a billiard room, numerous guest rooms, spacious servant’s quarters, sunken gardens, a tower, a waterfall fountain, tennis courts, a golf course and a stable.
He employed many local people to put in the sewer and water systems, and opened a quarry on site. The sunken gardens, towers and massive stone staircase were built and the fountain was started. At a time when the average worker took home $13 a week, Wood-Smith was spending an astounding $1,000 a week on his castle, spending nearly $50,000 per year between 1914 and 1920 in salaries and supplies. Although rumors existed as to the reasons why, work on the castle stopped in 192O when Wood-Smith ran out of money. Although he resumed work sporadically over the next several years, the stock market crash of 1929 stopped it for good.
He was talented at making money, but he was also very good at spending it. While working on the castle in the 1920's, Wood-Smith built a 12-room house on the grounds of what is now Sherwood Country Club, a nine-hole private course at the end of Fine Road. The house, now vacant, still stands. According to his daughter Bonnie Ferbert, he built the nine-hole course for his friends without telling her mother.
The Goldenrod Showboat is said to have made stops at the boat landing on the Mississippi at the foot of Wood-Smith's property to entertain his family, friends and neighbors. His son, Julian Smith-Wood, in an interview before he died, said that his parents' lives had been "something out of the Great Gatsby," including a memory he had of his mother sitting regally in the seat of her Duesenberg convertible flanked by two Russian wolfhounds.
As mentioned previously, there were many rumored stories as to why Wood-Smith never finished the castle. One story was that his young son fell to his death while playing there. Another is that he fell in love with a younger woman. Although the family did suffer a tragedy when Wood-Smith’s daughter fell into a cistern well and drowned, and Wood-Smith was in fact quite a bit older when he married his secretary-wife, none of these rumors are in fact true. The truth was that he simply ran out of money.
Even after these financial setbacks, however, Wood-Smith kept moving forward. He started a new career at the age of 68 as a vocational instructor after earning a teaching certificate from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He taught for several years, and died in 1961 at the age of 81, essentially broke. His son Julian remembered him as having "a keen mind that wouldn’t grow old," and that he was "a pretty smart man until he died" and "knew quite a bit about everything." According to his children, he never talked much about the castle or the past in general and was always looking forward.
Let’s take a look around, shall we?
The land now belongs to Union Electric. As of 2012, the remains have been cleaned up and maintained to prevent further deterioration, and they have installed security measures and cameras. It has also been recently rumored to have been demolished.
Special Thanks to
www.dupontcastle.com/castles/woodsmit.htm for much of the information included in this article.
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