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America's finest forts & castles

From the 17th to the 21st century

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Historic forts and castles in the USA

America and Europe


    Think of castles and forts, and you probably conjure up images of historic buildings in Europe. But America has history and a historic heritage too, and – some people may be surprised to hear – this includes historic fortresses and sumptuous castles too as well as native American heritage sites.
    To put things in perspective, while many of the great castles and fortresses in Europe date from the Middle Ages, before the "discovery" of America, a good number  of Europe's  emblematic castles and military forts date from, or have been substantially rebuilt over, the past three centuries. Germany's iconic Neuschwanstein castle, the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, California was only built between 1869 and 1880, just thirty years after Portugal's iconic Sintra Palace in the Lisbon area.. Even England's Windsor Castle, reputed to be the oldest inhabited castle in the world, was considerably rebuilt in the early 19th century.
    One of the most visited castles in the West of England, Castle Drogo in Devon, was actually designed by the architect Lutyens and built between 1911 and 1930, a period of much revivalist castle building in the USA.
    As for military fortresses, they continued to be built in Europe right on up into the twentieth century. However there was a big difference between Europe and the USA in this matter. Most places in Europe that required some kind of defensive structure had had one since the Middle Ages or even longer. In the USA, this was not the case.
    Over the past 350 years, hundreds of forts and castles have been built in what today is the USA. Some had a military function, others were private residences. Many have disappeared, but others survive, in public or private hands.
    About-the-USA.com has picked out some of the most historic, most interesting, and most significant of these.

1. The greatest historic fortresses

Saint Austine Florida
The historic 17th century Spanish fort in St.Augustine Florida
Most of the strategic or defensive fortresses in North America date from the years when the most powerful European nations, Spain, France and  England, were juggling for influence and territory in the New World. The most impressive of all fortresses, actually a complete walled city (and the only one of its kind in North America) is in Canada, and is Quebec City.
In the USA, the finest historic military fortresses are:

Castillo de San Marcos   Saint Augustine, Florida.1672 - 1695. Built by the Spanish, this is the oldest  military building in the USA. It is a National Monument and open for visits.

Independence hallFort Niagara, with historic reenactment

Fort Niagara, on the shore of Lake Ontario, New York.  The current "French Castle" was built between 1726 and 1755 on the site of an earlier defensive position. Four later it was taken over by the British, who kept it as an outpost of Canada until 1796, when it was handed over to the United States. It is a fine example of French military architecture of the time. It is run by a not-for-profit association and is open for visits.

Fort Ticonderoga, New York - 1755 - 1757. This is another  substantantial example of 18th century French military architecture, in upstate  New York, between Lake Champlain and Lake George. Originally called Fort Carillon, it later fell into disrepair, but was restored  in the early 20th century. It is run by a not-for-profit association and is open for visits.

Fort McHenry, Baltimore 1798. Built by the new United States to the design of a French military architect, this fort was there to control access to Baltimore harbor, and prevent attack from the sea. It is a National Monument, and is open for visits.

Fort Alamo, San Antonio, Texas. The fort was first built as a Spanish Mission. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, it was turned into a barracks and fortified. It is the site of one of the bloodiest international battles on US soil, between Texian defenders and the Mexican army. It is now classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is open for visits.

Fort Pulaski, near Savannah, Georgia. This American fort was built starting 1829 as part of the United States' Atlantic coast defenses. It was later the scene of a siege during the American Civil War . After capturing the fort from the Confederates, the Union army was then able to block access to the port of Savannah, stopping supplies to the Confederate army. It is a National Monument, and is open for visits.

2. Impressive American castles and châteaux

Biltmore, North Carolina
A castle does not have to have been built in the Middle Ages. Most of the "castles" and chateaux to be found in the USA are less than 250 years old, and are similar in concept to castles built in Europe at the same time, often extravagant homes, pastiches of the great castles of the past. Some however stand out as interesting and original buildings in their own right. Here is a selection of the most interesting.

Biltmore, North Carolina. This is as close that you can get to visiting a French Renaissance château  in North America. The grand house was built in the late nineteenth century for the ultra-rich Vanderbilt family, in the style of the châteaux of the Loire Valley; and though it was built three centuries after the French originals, it is faithfully in their spirit. It is still owned by a Vanderbilt family company, and is open to the public.

Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley, California (photo top of page) can best be described - like the castle at Guédelon in France - as a modern medieval castle. It was completed in 2007 by owner Dario Sattui, whose dream was to recreate an Italian winery in California, complete with medieval Italian  castle. The castle was hand built by craftsmen using local stone and antique bricks imported from Europe. Among its 107 rooms is a great hall with a 500 year-old Umbrian fireplace, and wall paintings  by Italian artists; and underneath the castle are some of the largest  vaulted wine cellars in North America. Privately run - open for visits and wine tours.

Hearst Castle. A bit older, and also in California, Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, was completed in 1947 by  media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had brought back from Europe a large number of architectural antiques, including whole buildings, which were incorporated by Hearst's architect Julia Morgan. The overall style is Southern Spanish Renaissance, and the castle itself is as much a village as a castle. Today it belongs to the State of California, and is open for visits.

Nemours Estate . Wilmington, Delaware.  Another "French" chateau, built for a French American family, the DuPonts of the chemical corporation, whose ancestors came from Nemours, south of Paris. Effectively it is a French 19th century chateau designed by Paris-trained American "beaux-arts" architects Carrère and Hastings. The estate is run by the Nemours Foundation, and is open to visitors.

Chateau Laroche
Chateau Laroche, Ohio

Oheka Castle, New York. The third-largest home in the USA, this 127-room chateau dates from the early twentieth century, and is now a luxury hotel. Its concrete and steel structure is fireproof. Architecturally it faithfully resembles a French eighteenth-century chateau, complete with a sunken French garden. Private hotel, open for visits.  Book hotel room

Château Laroche - Loveland Castle, Ohio. This is a very fake and quirky, but somehow convincing, stone and brick fortified medieval castle that was built in the mid twentieth century by a rather eccentric medievalist called Harry Andrews. It is now open as a not-for-profit museum.

Lynnewood Hall   - Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.  Currently undergoing restoration. Designed by architect Horace Trumbauer, this lavish 110-room Neoclassical Revival mansion was built at the end of the 19th century for industrialist Peter Widener. It once housed a magnificent collection of old master paintings. After decades of slow decline, it was bought in 2023 by a preservation foundation.


For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

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Photo credits.
Photo top of page courtesy of Castello di Amorosa
Photo of Fort Niagara by Gardener41 - licenced CC 2.0
Biltmore photo by Dlee..

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