Nemacolin Castle Getting a Facelift

Photo by Frances Borsodi Zajac Rocky Brashear, president of Brownsville Historical Society, shows off one of several trees that were cut down at Nemacolin Castle because their falling branches caused damage to the building and grounds.

Workers on scaffolding at Nemacolin Castle in Brownsville loomed above the ground, repointing masonry on the east wing and front of the building — the side of this historic National Road landmark in Fayette County that faces the Monongahela River.

“So far, it’s going good,” said Nathan Mikula, who worked with Anthony Coles and Steve Wisniewski, all of Escajeda Masonry and Chimney from Pittsburgh.

Brownsville Historical Society received a county tourism grant for the project that started in mid-April and will restore this side of the castle’s facade. Located at 136 Front St., Nemacolin Castle is owned by Fayette County and operated by the historical society, which also owns the contents.

The tourism grant is a program funded by Fayette County’s hotel tax and administered by the commissioners and the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

The historical society has been working diligently on improvements to Nemacolin Castle, according to Rocky Brashear, historical society president. The castle is the former home of the Bowman family, which opened a trading post at this site in 1789 and expanded it through the 1800s into the castle that contains 22 rooms. Nemacolin Castle is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We started spending the funds to make this right,” said Brashear, noting the historical society is using money raised from tours, special and private events as well as applying for grants.

Since 2017, the historical society has paid for removal of six large trees that damaged the castle as falling branches led to the breaking of downspouts and gutters, allowing water to come into the building.

Other improvements included roof repair, installation of an equipment shed and enhanced outdoor lighting.

“We lit up the front of the castle as bright as we could so when you leave Washington County, and you come across the Lane Bane Bridge, the first thing you see in Fayette County is Nemacolin Castle,” said Brashear.

The historical society has installed wrought iron fencing, including gates, similar in appearance to the original cast iron fencing.

“The gates are not to keep people out. It’s to keep history in,” said Brashear, noting the public is always invited to walk the grounds and that people come here to take photos, such as for prom and homecoming. “We have visitors come from all over the country.”

The historical society has installed security cameras and police patrol the area.

Brashear said the historical society spent $44,000 last year on improvements that also included repair of the steam heating system lines, which were leaking. Brashear explained the castle has three heating systems: steam, electric and forced air.

The historical society also had the electrical system enhanced. And a sound system was added with speakers installed inside and outside the castle so the public can enjoy Victorian music.

The historical society hired a painting company to paint inside rooms as funds become available. The company so far has painted the first-floor sitting room and library in original colors after repairs were made to walls where plaster crumbled from water damage.

“When the roof leaked, water came through,” Brashear explained.

In May, the company will paint the carriage entrance and the foyer.

Bowman family portraits that hang on the walls were not damaged, but the historical society would like to have these paintings professionally cleaned someday. Volunteers, meanwhile, removed the library books, cleaned them and put them back in their original order.

The historical society added new curtains for several rooms and is planning to have the hardwood floors throughout the castle professionally sanded and stained to restore their luster. Society members also hope to have a window in the tower repaired and the outside stone walkways improved this year.

Brashear said Fayette County is sending employees to repair damage to the study floor, which partially collapsed in the summer of 2018 due to water that seeped in from the outside. The room has been closed off until the work is completed.

In addition, inmates from SCI-Fayette state prison come weekly to cut the grass as part of its Community Work Program.

Other plans are to reconstruct the carriage building, repair retaining walls and add more fencing. A Conestoga wagon that formerly sat on the grounds has been found in storage in Brownsville and will eventually return.

The historical society wants the public to enjoy the castle, working not only on improvements but on increasing visitation.

They have hosted special events, such as an annual tea party, held recently in the library, foyer and sitting room.

“People love it. They come from all over the area: Pittsburgh, Butler County, Ohio, West Virginia,” said Brashear. “We had 40 people. We had to turn people away.”

The public can book private showers and weddings with small ceremonies held inside the foyer or larger weddings in the backyard.

Private tours are available, including those for school groups and coach buses.

To accommodate the latter, the red caboose that sits in the parking lot will soon be moved to the Monongahela River Rail and Transportation Museum, also on Brownsville’s North Side. This area will be improved to allow buses better access to the castle.

Groups can also book the castle for private paranormal hunts that last into the night. Brashear said three are already booked this year.

That’s in addition to regular history, ghost and Christmas tours the castle offers.

“From September to December, we sold out all our reserve tours,” Brashear said. “People are already reserving their tours this year.”

The castle is using Eventbrite.com to book tours and offer reserved times, although the castle will still accommodate walk-up traffic.

Guests are permitted to wait for tours inside the building when it’s cold, and a handicapped-accessible portable toilets is installed on the grounds during the tourist season in addition to inside restrooms.

Nemacolin Castle will open for the season May 18 with the National Road Festival, featuring Civil War and Colonial America re-enactors, music and vendors.

Volunteers are always welcome, including students wishing to perform community service.

More information on Nemacolin Castle is available on its website at www.nemacolincastle.net, as well as its Facebook page.

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