Medieval meets modern
Palo Alto, Calif.
"The Castle" is how neighbors around this country hillside refer to the noble stone structure. The first view you get of the house is its high round tower, which suggests a medieval character. It's not just imagination. It's part of the plan. The home was built by a medievalist, Catherine Crary Elwood, albeit a thoroughly modern medievalist who happens to have a driving interest in the history of the 12th century.
The wheat-colored stone walls, designed to blend into the golden hillside in summer, look as if they might have been carved by Norman stonemasons. The building blends into its oak-studded acre as agelessly as the ruins of an ancient castle. The pale green cement tile and fascia match the lichen on surrounding trees.
Inside the two-bedroom structure, the walls are the same as on the exterior. The tower makes a round and very efficient kitchen. But before you reach this room, you walk through a spacious loggia, one wall of which is the edge of the tower. This shape provides interesting angles that allow a powder room and guest closet off the wide entryway. Round stone columns two feet in diameter on nine-foot centers buttress the major walls throughout.
Wouldn't it be difficult to furnish so unusual a house? Catherine Elwood indulged her love of history in small objects d'art and an occasional period piece. She tempered the comfort of contemporary upholstered pieces with fabrics reminiscent of medieval tapestries.
The two-level master bedroom suite looks out on treetops. It provides the luxuries of a library, sitting room, study, and bedroom combined. The living room has cathedral ceilings and a large fireplace. An angular nook created specially for the grand piano leads your eye across the room to high windows opening onto the concrete terrace.
From the terrace there is a view that encompasses most of the Santa Clara Valley. Below is a lake on a golf course and Stanford University. Thirty-five miles to the north is the skyline of San Francisco . . . a view similar to the one you see looking toward Paris from Henry IV's chateau in St. Germain-en-Laye.
It was in Europe that Mrs. Elwood's fascination with the medieval years began. In the '50s her late husband, Wayne, was sent to Brussels to represent a large UScorporation. Mrs. Elwood used the two years for educational sightseeing for their two sons.
To bring more knowledge to their adventures, she (who insists she hated history in school) did penetrating research into early France and the area that is now Belgium. Being as fluent in French as in English made library research easier, but she found it wasn't quite enough. So she taught herself medieval French.
In the deeper research this afforded she ran into several historical mysteries. And some solutions. Back in the United States she started a novel to present her theories. Her first volume turned into a trilogy, however, which is now receiving the finishing touches.
So, being so stepped in history, the Elwoods decided to build on their house, bordered by a 1,400-acre wilderness park, to fit into Mrs. Elwood's time element.
Finding an architect with the same feeling and enthusiasm for a period long considered to be so "dark" and uninteresting might be a problem. (Mrs. Elwood will quickly point out that those years weren't all that dark. "They have been overshadowed by the Renaissance," she says, "but there was a great deal of beauty in the Middle Ages, much of which remains today, like the cathedrals, their stained glass, sculpture, jewels, chalices, and even fabrics.")
A picture in a magazine led the Elwoods to Earl Nisbet, an architect in Soquel, Calif., who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's.
"He brought my medieval thinking completely into play in the house," Mrs. Elwood says. "It was a perfect translation of my historical interest into the language of contemporary architecture."
It's true that not everybody has the interest or wherewithal to translate an interest into a building as did Catherine Elwood. And today, she no longer lives in her medieval-modern castle. But it was a great help to her in keeping the ambiance of her novel. And it's fairly certain that she will be thinking about the Middle Ages long after her trilogy is finished.
The present owners of the house have added another bathroom and divided the all-purpose room into two more bedrooms. They use the house as their home base when they are not living in their native Philippines, where they have a home that neighbors there also call "the Castle."