From The New York Times
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: August 30, 2008
SNELLING, Calif. — Most days, the talk here among the farmers and almond growers along this stretch of two-lane blacktop 18 miles from the nearest on-ramp concerns heat units — as hot summer days are known — and the hull split that signals the approach of almond harvest season.
A suit of armor at the entrance to the castle, which also has a moat. Diane Noz and her granddaughter Emma Huber are at right.
But there is also the Kasteel Noz, the turreted brick castle with two towers and a moat that Casper Noz, a 51-year-old contractor who was born in the Netherlands, has been obsessively building by himself almost completely by hand on weekends for the past 20 years.
“They think it’s odd, but everyone just accepts it now,” Dan Mallory, who runs the nearby Roberts Ferry Nut Company, said of the ultimate do-it-yourself project in his midst, from which a turret-silhouetted view of Half Dome in Yosemite can sometimes be gleaned through the Central Valley haze. “Casper is very meticulous.”
Mr. Noz, a father of three, has been known to throw an occasional flaming arrow from the top of the castle into a fire pit as a celebratory gesture during birthday parties. An independent contractor, he specializes in agricultural buildings, including fumigation rooms for almonds and walnuts, as well as modest home additions and remodeling — for which there is still a demand, he said, despite the foreclosure crisis set off by what he calls “the ‘have-it-today’ mentality.”
Instant gratification does not appear to be in Mr. Noz’s world view. Although he did not set out to build a castle, dissatisfaction with his own blueprints for a home with a grand entrance eventually carried him back to the landscape of his youth in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the fortified medieval city that was the home of the Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch. There, “the night views were all lit up with castles,” Mr. Noz recalled. “Things look so much nicer with a castle.”
It is one thing to have a castle built; it is quite another to build a castle. With the exception of eight months off because of injuries he sustained in a car accident, Mr. Noz has worked on his castle — designed strictly from his childhood memory — every weekend since 1988, mixing his own mortar in a wheelbarrow, forging the iron bolts, latches and other hardware, making the oak doors and fir spiral staircases and laying the bricks, about 40,000 and counting, by hand (he occasionally uses a forklift). Including slate for the roofs, imported from China, and the odd gargoyle, Mr. Noz estimates he has spent $150,000 so far, and 500 hours a year.
The grand plan is for Mr. Noz and his wife, Diane, an Iowa native who works as a special education aide, to retire here, though the castle is only half-completed, with four more towers to come. Its Rapunzel-like forms rise surrealistically from a dried-up reservoir, about a 15-minute drive from the Nozes’ home on a quiet suburban street in Denair (population 3,400). Even there, the Noz touch is apparent in the basketball hoop attached to a miniature bell tower in the driveway — with a real bell — and an indoor fish pond under the staircase, currently fishless because of a slow leak.
Mr. Noz first visited the United States in 1977 as a 20-year-old on a family vacation. Several months later, his father, Francis, a patent attorney, bought his son a plane ticket to San Francisco, where Mr. Noz eventually became an apprentice to a high-rise builder. To his European eye, California was the promised land. “I looked at those houses in America, which were a bunch of two-by-fours, and thought, boy, this is easy — anybody can build a home in the U.S.”
Mr. Noz is thought to be the first person to file plans for a medieval castle with the Merced County building department. He was required to meet state seismic regulations and load requirements, said Lydia Clary, the county’s supervising building inspector, and an architect was required to sign off on the plans. Ms. Clary said she was struck by Mr. Noz’s unusual attention to detail. “He actually vacuumed the footings, or holes for the concrete foundation, so there wouldn’t be any loose dirt,” she said.
Rosie Burroughs, whose organic grass-based dairy adjoins the castle, has watched her neighbor’s progress with fascination.
“He has an incredible gift of creativity,” Mrs. Burroughs said. Locally the castle has become the go-to place for Halloween potluck dinners and seventh-grade Renaissance field trips in which students joust with swimming-pool noodles.
But it was not always so. Mrs. Burroughs recalled her first encounter with Mr. Noz. “I had a gun drawn on me,” she said. “Ten years later, we got reacquainted.”
Even before the castle, the landscape was changing, as open grasslands susceptible to scourges of grasshoppers gave way to dusty almond orchards. The evolution was the result of Caterpillar tractors that could rip through the hardpan and drip irrigation systems that allowed orchards to grow on hillsides, away from gravity-fed canals.
Today, almond orchards are the castle’s unofficial pleasure gardens, though few outside the neighborhood know it exists. But on Labor Day, it may have its moment of glory, as foodies from Slow Food Nation in San Francisco — in what is billed as “the largest celebration of American food in history” — tour grass-based dairies, stopping at the castle for a lunch of regional wines and cheeses. Their guide will be Joel Salatin, the grass-farming hero of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.
But as a dream house, the Kasteel Noz is unlikely to stir the popular imagination in the manner of a legendary castle down the coast.
“Just like me, he had a heck of an idea,” Mr. Noz said of William Randolph Hearst. “But he didn’t lay a single brick.”