Piatt, 67, takes visitors through the castles yet today, but rarely reveals who she is. She lives on the property with her husband, Jim White, 69. The couple lived out of state for 30 years but returned in 2002 to keep the family history alive and care for the 19th-century homes built by her ancestors.
Donn and Abram Piatt were young brothers when their parents, Benjamin Piatt and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased 1,700 acres in 1820.
Mac-O-Chee was built by Donn Piatt, a famed journalist and diplomat and Mac-A-Cheek was home to Abram Sanders Piatt, a farmer and brigadier general during the Civil War.
“The first generations of the people who lived on that property in those houses were well-known at the time, but they are not well-known now,” Piatt said.
Lumber and limestone to build the castles were cut and quarried on the property.
“The pastoral beauty and relaxing quality of the place is very magical although somewhat misleading,” said Piatt. “It was this complicated 1,700-acre farm with two mills, a distillery, tenant farmers and an orchard, so it was an active place.”
Though the townspeople referred to the structures as castles, the architectural styles were not uncommon for the time, Piatt said.
“They just seem a little grander because they are sitting on top of hills. Despite the fact they are made from limestone and have towers, they were not going medieval. People were building towers in the 1870s and 1880s.”
“The designed elegance of Mac-O-Chee is noticeable compared to the sort of funkiness of Mac-A-Cheek,” Piatt said. Each of the homes has its own personality.
Margaret Piatt grew up in Mac-A-Cheek, the castle completed by Abram Piatt in 1871, and home to five generations of the Piatt family.
“When I think of being a child here, I think of the outdoors, the rocks, the lawn, the lilac bushes, just these great places in nature to play,” Piatt said. “It was never boring, and I loved that.”
Mac-A-Cheek, “built as a farmhouse with a little bit of class,” is a 25-room chateau surrounded by oak, elm, locust and walnut trees.
The exterior is made from limestone blocks cut two-feet thick and inside, the ceilings reach 14 feet. The castle is three stories with a wide open top floor where Abram Piatt hosted Grange meetings. A five-story tower stands over the rest.
A combination of rich styling and odd design decorate the rooms.
A chandelier illuminates the oak and walnut raised panels surrounding the dining room and parquet floors shine, but in the library, where wine-colored fabric covers the walls, quirky wooden points have been cut around the door frames and wood trim.
Margaret Piatt recalls giving a tour to a friend who worked as a set and exhibit designer: “He looked at it with me and said, ‘Nobody designed this building. It was invented.’ I never forgot that line,” Piatt said.
“There is evidence of very thoughtful design and evidence of a kind of sloppiness that comes from people who have no idea what they are doing,” Piatt said. “I can say that these are the very qualities that people like the best about it.”
Piatt calls Mac-A-Cheek’s drawing room “the best room with the best things in it.” It was the original portion of the home that opened as a museum in 1912.
Inside are Piatt family furnishings and mementos. Two pianos, horsehair furniture and paintings of Benjamin and Elizabeth Piatt hang on the wall. The parquet floors are made of cherry, oak and walnut and the wall paneling is made of pine, ash and walnut.
On the ceiling, a fresco painted in 1881 by artist Oliver Frey, gives the appearance of looking up at a blue sky through an arbor of flowers.
A massive cabinet filled with natural history treasures collected by William McCoy Piatt is the room’s show stopper. Among the gems are Native American tools, pistols, ornamental hatchets and a tooth from a baby mastodon.
The site of Mac-O-Chee, located a mile from Mac-A-Cheek, was selected by Donn Piatt’s first wife, Louise Kirby Piatt. The couple began construction on a frame cottage, but she died before it was completed. Donn later married Louise’s sister, Ella, who was an artist. The limestone section of the home was added, and the couple later retired to the castle.
“The home is about art and inspiration,” Piatt said. “Donn and Ella could have lived anywhere but they chose to come back here partly to be around family and partly because of the setting. It inspired them to write and draw.”
J.L. Smithmeyer, the architect who designed the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., designed the 8,000 square-foot home, Piatt said. Two towers flank the structure, which is inspired by Flemish design with stepped gables, and inside are 32 rooms.
As visitors enter on the first floor an iron lamp shaped like a medieval pageboy illuminates a staircase that climbs to the second floor lined by varying shades of wood paneling.
The ornate designs originally painted on the ceilings throughout the castle remain. In the library, four portraits adorn each corner of the ceiling: Donn’s first wife, Louise, Bret Harte, a 19th-century writer, and John James Piatt, Donn’s second cousin and his wife Sarah, both poets.
The second floor offers a glimpse into the couples’ private life. The master bedroom walls are stenciled with designs similar to wallpaper with lace curtains painted by free hand along the top.
Ella kept scrapbooks and sketchbooks in her parlor as well as a machine designed to help her with physical therapy. Donn wrote in a den filled with sunlight and was watched over by a stuffed owl.
Donn died in 1891 and Mac-O-Chee was sold. Several families owned the property until the Piatt family bought it back in 1957.
“This castle was designed to entertain and is more elegant and beautiful than the other, but is in terrible need of repair,” Piatt said. “We are looking for a strategic partner because we no longer believe we can restore this building.”
Piatt said her goal is for visitors to think about their own family experiences as they tour the castles.
“All historic house museums have the potential to help people feel the sense of home, that’s really what they are about,” Piatt said. “And I think this house museum enables us to feel and think deeply about what does one generation pass on to the next?”
WANT TO GO?
The Piatt Castles are open for tours from mid-April until the end of October. They are open daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and on weekends in early spring and late fall.
A variety of activities are held at the Piatt Castles during the year including workshops, interactive events for children, concerts and Shakespeare on the lawn. The property can also be rented for weddings, reunions and meetings.
What: The Piatt Castles
Where: Mac-A-Cheek castle, 10051 Township Road 47, West Liberty and Mac-O-Chee castle, 2319 OH-287, West Liberty. Directions can be found: www.piattcastles.org/Directions
Hours: The castles are open today and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From Sept. 8-Oct. 28, both castles are open on weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: To tour a single castle: Adult, $15; Youth (age 5-15), $9 and AAA / Senior (age 65+). $13. To tour both castles: Adult, $25; Youth (age 5-15), $15 and AAA / Senior (age 65+). $20
The first floors of both castles are wheelchair accessible
More info: (937) 844-3902 or www.piattcastles.org/Home