Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Having fun storming the castle

High on the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains lies a storied building called Kip's Castle. Originally built by textile magnate Frederick Kip and his wife Charlotte, this medieval Norman-style traprock and sandstone structure has seen other lives housing a controversial ashram and a law firm. Now it's an Essex County park.

I remember hearing about Kip's Castle back in the 1980's when it was a retreat center proclaiming the teachings of of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. His arrival, with several disciples in tow, created significant concern in Montclair, where many residents had heard about unorthodox rituals that had been conducted at his Poona, India compound. Rumors abounded, including that thousands of the guru's followers would descend on the community around the castle, leave orange dye in laundromat washers... you name it. None of it came to pass, though, and the Bhagwan left within a few years to establish another larger ashram in Montana.

Following the ashram's departure, Kip's Castle was largely abandoned and fell into disarray until it was purchased by a New Jersey law firm for its headquarters offices. After they rehabilitated the house, the firm also wanted to develop townhouses on the property, resulting in legal action by the host town of Verona. Eventually, the firm sold the property to the County of Essex, which uses the mansion and carriage house for county offices, leaving the remainder of the property open to the public as a passive park. In other words, there are no ballparks or picnic benches, but you can visit and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday.

I've long wanted to check out the property, and my curiosity was well satisfied during a recent visit. Ivan and I were headed to Garret Mountain on a different quest, and when I saw the sign for Kip's, I couldn't resist. After walking the perimeter of the house to take it in, we wandered the grounds, some of which was apparently landscaped in the past, with other parts totally left to nature. It reminded us in many ways of the work of Central Park architects Calvert and Vaux: pastoral and natural, using the contours of the original landscape. The entire property seemed to be surrounded by a rustic stone fence, and any man-made features were constructed from the same type of materials.

A little research revealed that Charlotte Bishop Williams Kip designed both the house and the landscape, and had even included an octagonal rose garden in her plans. Roses weren't evident on our visit, but Ivan found it a promising birding location, observing six or seven different species with very little effort. Observing the number of white oaks on the lot, along with the proximity to Garret, he supposed it would be an excellent draw for warblers during migration.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the park, the county is still working to determine the exact usage of the house and grounds, but in the meantime, it's a quiet, scenic retreat well worth a visit.

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