Brian McCue didn’t have big plans for his new home, not at first ...
Brian McCue of Montague and his 'castle'
looking strait up in the small turret
Third floor room
Third floor balcony view
River rock door panels
Brian McCue is a big kid on his big swing
side view through fence
Driving by Brian McCue’s house, which you probably wouldn’t do, you might not notice the tree-shrouded home just inside the neck of a dead-end street. If you did pass by and happened to look up from the badly pitted road, you might be surprised to see Rapunzel.
The Rapunzel doll, visible in an upper window of a turret, isn’t the only surprising element of the house. After all, turrets themselves aren’t particularly common in rural New England, battlements still less so.
What remains of the original house was built around the turn of the last century and the rest over the past two decades, but it looks to be of another time and place entirely; the fantastical old Europe of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
McCue, who says he’s “probably 59,” didn’t set out to build a castle.
“It didn’t start out that way, I was just building a house,” McCue said. “I think the fairy kingdom interceded.”
McCue’s sense of design isn’t particularly restrained and as he began to embellish his house, people started calling it a wedding cake, a church, temple, cathedral or palace. “You name it, I’ve been called it,” he said. “Everybody started calling it a castle 5 to 10 years ago so I figured what the hell, built this tower.”
When he bought the house at 240 Greenfield Road it wasn’t on a quiet dead-end street and it wasn’t remotely eye-catching. Photographs show a squat, single-story shoebox with a peaked roof. The walls were of uneven dimensions and the floor sloped a good 16 to 18 inches from the front door to the back.
A few scraps of the original building remain in the bones of the new, but most of it is gone. First, he leveled the floor and replaced the foundation, put in a well and septic system. When the preliminaries were in place, he built up around the old house, then ripped out the core.
When a turret showed up, people started to call it a castle.
Surrendering to perception, he added a tower, 32 feet tall and complete with battlements.
The addition isn’t easily visible from the road, nor is the majority of the property. An elaborate wood fence of filleted trees, not straightened to boards but showing the natural contortions of the trunks, hides much of the front and side yard.
The side yard includes a scattered Stonehenge of massive granite blocks re-purposed from the foundations of the bridge that once crossed the nearby railroad. One portal of stacked stone, two granite slabs supporting a third, looks out over a portion of the much lower back yard. McCue maintains fairy light-lined paths through the dense growth of blackberry and raspberry bushes. Also in the mix are a branch-frame pavilion, vegetable garden and sweat lodge.
The house sits on 3.5 acres reclaimed from scrub forest and abutting forest owned by the power company and railroad.
The demise of the nearby railroad bridge turned McCue’s section of Greenfield Road into a dead end shortly after he began work, a state of affairs he is perfectly happy with. Not only did the railroad workers obligingly donate and install the stone pillars on his property, the decrease in passing cars has ended the traffic bottlenecks caused by drivers slowing to stare at his house.
“When I started building this, cars would stop all along here,” he said. “I was anticipating some sort of major crash and shortly thereafter the bridge went.”
Railroad employees weren’t the only people to contribute to the cause; McCue said people give him stuff all the time. The living room trim was milled from factory lumber, the cap to a gate in his fence came from a factory supervisor with no use for the former roof vent.
Broken pianos are also a significant presence; McCue hosts an annual piano-burning in Tucson, Arizona. Why? “It’s art,” he says. McCue said they burn only broken instruments, and an intact piano in his living room backs up his protestations that he does not hate pianos. A sound board, it turns out, makes an excellent porch railing.
Far above the porch, the donation of a ship’s portal led to a ship theme for one level of the tower, complete with a wooden ship’s wheel mounted to the railing. This, like the tower itself and a tree swing in the backyard, is for the kids.
A hazard of having a spired turret mounted to the front of the house — complete with a life-sized Rapunzel doll in the window — is that children will show up, parents in tow or vice-versa, for tours.
While McCue claims no particular interest in fairy tales or castles, his castle is full of fairy pictures and statuettes, crystals and glitz. Ninety percent is stuff people gave him, he said.
McCue lives there with his girlfriend, two cats, and a fairly steady stream of guests that occasionally swells to oceanic proportions. Until recently, McCue hosted Halloween parties that numbered up to 600 guests, invited or otherwise. When he went outside one night to find the street entirely choked with cars and a group of college kids approaching with alcohol, which he is against, he used the parking situation as an excuse to end that tradition.
McCue’s day job is not carpentry, but his profession is well-represented in the house that doubles as his business address; he owns Renaissance Painting of Montague and the exterior shingles are brightly stained in yellow, red and green.
Like other local businesses bearing the renaissance name, McCue’s company began in the Renaissance Community of the 1970s.
McCue was a member of the commune from its earliest days, still hosts huge Renaissance reunion parties at the house and both his business and his hobby stem from his experience there.
“That’s when I discovered I loved building, that’s why I spend pretty much all my time building, all the time I can,” he said. “I wish I knew when I was younger that I like to build. I wouldn’t have done six years of college in management and marketing.”
He helped build the commune’s Gill quarters and he and the others decided to take an interest in business after everyone ran out of money.
McCue continued in the painting business and kept carpentry and construction as a hobby. Despite years of practice, McCue describes himself as more of a ship’s carpenter than the genuine article.
Although 99 percent of the work is his, the precise work of fitting the oak trim throughout the house — recycled from a courthouse in Gardner — he left to an expert. The brick spiral staircase that runs from the basement to the second floor was designed by a former roommate and while many of McCue’s sentences end with variations on “but the building inspector wouldn’t let me,” he credits the inspector with saving him thousands of dollars through simple design suggestions that wouldn’t have occurred to him.
While McCue may not have wanted a castle initially, it is what he has. Of the many names applied to his house he seems to have embraced “Wizard’s Castle,” the label bolstered by his gray mustache, a carved staff someone gave him, and business cards designed by an ex-girlfriend proclaiming him Brian the Wizard. His grandchildren loved the cards, he said.
In any case, it’s not done yet. The tower remains to be dressed in faux stone, the kitchen is temporary, and he plans a huge shingle mosaic of a dragon for one side of the house, among other things.
“Done? Nowhere near it,” he said. “Never.”
Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.