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Nine on Nine: Michael Desplaines – Saving a Castle

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 14, 2011

Michael Desplaines is the executive director of Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough, NH. He began as executive director last year and has made many strides in the Castle’s ongoing preservation efforts. He took time out from his busy early-season schedule to speak with us about the Castle, its history and his vision for this unique and historic property.

1. How long have you lived in the Lakes Region and what brought you here?

Michael: “I moved to the area in April of 2010 after starting at the Castle in March of that year. The position at the Castle brought me to this great area.”

2. Can you describe your job, because it is a rather unique occupation; not many people are in charge of preserving a castle.

Michael: “Well, I oversee all of the operations of the Castle, including food service, retail and admissions, our facility rentals division, and grounds and maintenance of the estate. Of course I can’t do all this by myself, and I’m lucky to have a great management team and a very hard-working and committed Board of Directors and volunteers that help us share this treasure with over 60,000 visitors a season.”

3. For those who don’t know, what is the history of Castle in the Clouds? Who built it, when, why and what has the property gone through over the years?

Michael: “The Lucknow Estate was built during 1910 to 1914 by Thomas Plant, a self-made billionaire who built it as his retirement home. He was a Mainer, from Bath, and made his fortune in the shoe business in Massachusetts. He died penniless in the early 1940s as a result of bad investments, and as such the house was never modernized or redecorated and exists as a perfect example of early 1900s Arts & Crafts style architecture, both inside and out. The next owners were the Tobey family of Plymouth, NH who logged the estate, and used the home as a summerhouse for about a decade. They sold it in the 1950s to the Robies who named it Castle in the Clouds and opened it up to visitors in the late 1950s. The last private owner, the Stichts, built the bottling company to bottle water, and for a short time brewed Lucknow beer. They sold it to the Lakes Region Conservation Trust (LRCT) in the early 2000’s so that the estates’ 5,500 acres would be preserved forever. The LRCT transferred ownership of all the historical buildings and 100 contiguous acres to the non-profit Castle Preservation Society (CPS) in May of last year. CPS runs and operates the Castle museum and its associated functions.”

4. What’s it really like to be in charge of such a unique property?

Michael: “It’s an honor really, to know that the Board of Directors selected me as their first Executive Director after a national search. It’s also quite a responsibility, as it’s akin to running a museum, a restaurant, a wedding facility, a retail operation and a public park all at once!”

5. Tell me about your background; where did you grow up, what was your occupation before this and what brought you to the Castle?

Michael: “I grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and attended Saint Raphael Academy and later the University of Rhode Island, where I majored in Horticulture. In the mid 1990s I  served in AmeriCorps, and was stationed at an inner city YMCA in Fall River, MA. I was responsible for running an environmental education program for inner city youth. I loved the YMCA and they liked me, and eventually I ran my own facility. I learned a lot about non-profit administration and fundraising at the Y, and later I worked as an administrator for the public school system in Cranston, RI. I moved to my vacation home in western Maine in 2002, and worked for seven years at the historic McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, ME, where I was their Executive Director for the last five years of my tenure there. I saw the job posting for the Executive Director position at the Castle on the American Association of Museums website, and jumped at the chance to work at such a multifaceted, prestigious museum in northern New England.”

6. The busy summer and fall seasons are coming up. What does it take to ready the property for visitors and what will people see when they come to the Castle?

Michael: “We begin planning for the season in January (we open traditionally on Mother’s Day weekend). By February, we have already planned our events and programs for the season, and by April we are working on the physical grounds (leaf clean-up, setting up tables and replacing garbage cans, landscaping, etc.) Right now we’re planting our most ambitious and beautiful gardens yet!”

7. What are your favorite seasons in the Lakes Region; can you also tell me what your favorite times of year are at the Castle now that you have had the opportunity to experience four seasons in the area?

Michael: “Well, I’m an avid skier so I love winters, and winter also affords me the time to get away.  (I love the Caribbean.) Summer at the Castle is the best I think, because we get to meet so many families from all over. Early in the season (May and June) are special as well as the lilacs are blooming and it’s a quieter time to visit. It seems like you have the place all to yourself!”

8. When readers learn that there are ongoing preservation efforts at the Castle, they perhaps wonder if the structure is in disrepair. What is the shape of the building and what is being done to further preserve it?

Michael: “From the outside the buildings look fine, but structurally there has been so much damage due to benign neglect and decades of deferred maintenance by previous owners. We recently finished fixing many leaks that had structurally damaged much of the oak timber framing around the Castle’s many dormer windows. We now will focus on an ambitious interior restoration of all the Castle’s rooms. The basement is also in need of massive work; it has been taking on water for years (we’ve put a stop to that) and will take quite a bit of money to restore. The lower Gate House at our main entrance is slated for a complete restoration, which will include new classroom space inside, and a unisex handicap accessible bathroom. Due to the structure’s poor condition it is estimated to cost over $400,0000.”

9. How do you raise funding for such a huge project?

Michael: “We send out two yearly requests for restoration funds, one in the spring and one in the fall. We also have a terrific Development Coordinator on staff that looks for grant funding for our many projects. Our volunteer committees also host fundraising events, and we hope that one day the business operation of the Castle will eventually help to pay for restoration work.”

10. What do you do in the winter months when all the tourists are gone? Have you spent any time at the Castle during the winter and if so, what is it like up there?

Michael: “We have three employees, including myself, that are year round, and two that are part-time year round. Planning, fundraising, purchasing, and marketing are all things we work on in the winter months. This winter we developed our new membership program ‘Friends of the Castle.’  We keep regular office hours up here at the Carriage House in the winter, and in inclement weather we sometimes telecommute from home.”

11. You know a lot about history and preservation. What is it about the Castle and its history that interests you?

Michael: “That it’s a story of a self-made man who went from rags to riches to rags, and that the house remains so fully intact without any changes. It’s a time capsule from 1914 that you can walk through. The mountain top setting also adds to its spectacular nature and draw.”

12. Where would you like to see the Castle in five or 10 years?

Michael: “I’d like to see us designated by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark. Currently there are only about 3,000 properties in all of the U.S. with that designation. I’d like to see the gatehouses completely restored and my secret wish is to have the spectacular Lord & Burnham Greenhouse that used to exist up at the Castle re-built as well!”

13. With your knowledge of preservation, have you ever dreamed of restoring/bring back to former glory any other Lakes Region properties such as Kimball Castle in Gilford?

Michael: “I am currently pursuing my Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Plymouth State University, and I’ve learned about many amazing properties in our state that need to be saved. Restoration expert Steve Bedard, who is helping us to restore the Castle, often says that you never hear anyone say after a historic building is destroyed, ‘Geez I’m glad that’s gone!’ They always say ‘What a shame that building is gone and why did we let that happen?’

14. What do you think Thomas Plant would think about you, the preservation efforts you work so hard on and about his precious Castle at this point in time?

Michael: “As a fellow French Canadian, I hope he’d like me! But seriously, I think he would be very humbled and proud. Plant never cut a single tree on his land for money, even when he was penniless. Our preservation of the land through the LRCT is a tribute to that.”

15. What are your future plans?

Michael: “Well this summer we’ll be opening a new ‘snack shack’ in the fields by Shannon Lake serving Gifford’s ice cream, and this December we will feature our second ‘Christmas at the Castle’.

16. Other than the Castle, what is your favorite spot in the Lakes Region?

Michael: “I love Center Harbor; it’s so charming. Winnipesaukee Bay Gulls and Canoe are two of my favorite food spots there.”

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