The House That Fear Built
By Mike Kilen / Staff Writer
|Alcoa- Dean Fontaine smirks at the idea that he's
a millennium nut. But he IS spending a lot of time in a stone fortress lately.
Fontaine owns a two-story Armageddon-proof structure in Alcoa Tenn., that he calls "Millennium Manor Castle." He's fixing it up after vandals and drunks nearly destroyed the enormous oddity in an otherwise faceless company town a short drive from the Great Smokey Mountains.
Fontaine points to the stone walls and shakes his head in wonder. "The thinnest wall I could find was 19 inches thick," says the 36 year old bachelor.
Why so thick?
"For general Armageddon purposes."
Surrounded by a stone fence, the castle sits high on a hill on North Wright Street, the site of much local lore about its creator and speculation on the potential comings and goings of Jesus Christ.
The rational Knoxville fireman with little prior interest in architecture or local history, Y2K or the Second Coming, is now caught up in heavy-duty renovation, research and millennium humor.
William Nicholson, the castle creator, arrived in Alcoa from Georgia in 1937 as a replacement worker for the Alcoa aluminum plant that formed this small town. He was long-haired and wiry and was married to a slightly built wife named Fair. Fontaine discovered that Nicholson was once shot by a service station owner in Georgia, while allegedly drunk and abusive. But he doesn't speculate whether he came to Tennessee after his recovery and found religion.
Owner admires Millennium Manor for its beauty as well as its strength (Photo Caption-) Above: Local rock and Tennessee marble make up the castle, which boasts a 423-ton roof- strong enough to hold several tanks. Right: Area teen-agers used the castle as a hang-out, leaving their marks on the walls.
It is clear, once Nicholson moved to Blount County, that the man took the Bible literally, especially Revelations 20:6: ".Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years."
In other words, Nicholson needed a place that could withstand the wear and tear of 10 centuries. He figured 1969 was the start of the reign. He had much work to do.
After buying a lot for $500, William and Fair Nicholson hammered away at the task. Rock by rock, they meticulously constructed the giant fortress themselves, with no machines or nails.
"He built it with no plans at all," says Nicholson's daughter Ruby Gibby of Thomaston, Ga. "He could build anything."
Nicholson was approaching 60 years old and local residents at the time marveled at the site of the thin couple hauling tons of rocks to the site six to eight hours a day after working a shift at the plant.
It took the Nicholsons nine years. He hauled Tennessee pink marble from a nearby quarry in his flat-bed truck. Some pieces weighed as much as 3oo pounds.
He built a ramp and a cart to wheel the rock himself up to the roof, which is estimated to weigh 432 tons.
The 14-room home is Roman architecture of arches and keystones throughout, which requires precise construction to insure its strength, says Fontaine. He first built a frame for the long arched hallways and built the rock around them. The two floors are built like a cross. The long main hall on the top floor has six rooms off it with a utility room and a sauna on one end. The main hall on the bottom floor, or dungeon, runs in the opposite
direction, with another six rooms off it.
Then he poured as much as 4,000 bags of concrete to seep through the rocks, although Fontaine says an architect told him it was so sound he wouldn't have needed it.
Several tanks could sit on the roof.
All around the grounds are signs that Nicholson was ahead of his time in terms of millennium survival tactics. Fruit trees were planted for vitamins- pear, apple and orange- and a stone well that is six stories deep was made for his water supply. Fontaine rappelled down the well himself for research.
Over the three years since he bought the castle, Fontaine continues to
marvel at what he finds.
The four-foot thick floors. The pipes deeply embedded in the walls. The stone sauna. The magnitude of constructing a 3,000 square foot structure with simply back-breaking labor and some concrete.
"He wasn't an in-your-face evangelist," says Fontaine. "He had quite a bit of it done before anybody even knew what it was for."
As the home neared completion in 1945, traffic jams formed on North Wright. Gibby says her father gladly led people through the place.
It was said he was preparing to live, not to die, and called the home "Stone Heaven."
Sadly, his wife died in 1950 of cancer at age 72. He was devastated but told the newspapers his wife's "Faith just wasn't strong enough." Neighbors, though, said helping build the castle hastened her death.
In the years that followed, Nicholson was often seen sitting on his stone patio facing the Alcoa plant across the road where he worked.
His millennium plans were botched in 1965 when he grew ill. Luther Roland, the pastor of the Pleasant View Church next door, tried to tell him that his beliefs didn't square with Scripture; the 88-year-old told the pastor that, "I wished I could believe like you do, but I can't."
He died four days later. The home was left empty for 6 years before it was bought at auction for $3,900.
Owner Juanita Shaw rented it out for more than 10 years. But Tom Shaw, her husband, says it was a "pain in the neck," and became a magnet for vandals.
Other than occasional use as a service club's Halloween haunted house, it was only used as grist for ghost stories and beer guzzling.
The city was set to tear it down. Fontaine overheard the news on TV, while coincidentally drawing up plans for the home he wanted to build.
He was immediately taken by the structure. Here was the perfect fireman's home. He'd seen his share of fires and tornados destroy people's dreams.
"You spend your whole life paying off a house and some idiot drops a cigarette and it's gone," he says.
It's Fontaine's contention you couldn't destroy his castle with much less than an atomic bomb.
He bought it for $40,000 and figures to put in at least $60,000.
A good share of the early work involved cleaning up the property. He has hauled seven large trash bins of waste and cut back the head high weeds. He fixed up the small "Kit House" behind it to live in while he renovates. It's the same little place Nicholson and his wife lived in while they worked on the castle.
Fontaine intends to repair concrete, plumbing, heating and electrical, put in stone fireplaces (there are seven flues) and even equip the kitchen with marble shelves.
The castle is still scarred by misspelled graffiti ("Jesues") and has no windows or doors.
He expends significant effort chasing out teens who have used it as a party spot for generations.
"I have people pull up all the time and say, 'Hey man, I got high there in 1965.'"
He caught two people naked in the home's kitchen not long ago and says there were more than 100 "911" calls to the residence the year before he bought it. The castle is now equipped with motion sensors; he's been known to shoot intruders with paint balls. Most of the townspeople support him, however.
It's one of the few interesting structures in a town full of homes built by laborers after 1900. "I don't think there is anything historical about it," says Maryville historian Elmer Mize. "But it is a curiosity."
In fact, 200 hundred people showed up for a recent open house. Fontaine estimates more than 1,000 have toured since he bought what locals call the "stone house."
He expects to complete the castle in three years, focusing on 14th century themes. He's saving to purchase suits of armor. Architectural scholars, he says, have shown interest in holding college classes at the castle.
There are no signs he expects to live 1,000 years, however. "On New Year's Eve I'm thinking about having a party- $500 a plate," he jokes. "Survive the Armageddon or triple your money back!"
Yet Fontaine has developed a link to the castle's creator, toiling during off hours, facing skepticism from friends and hunting for replacement marble.
"A lot of people think he was crazy. But he accomplished something," says Fontaine. "I respect that. He put his faith into action."
If anyone has old photographs, articles,
personal stories, or any other information on this landmark,
please contact me.