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An Inside Look At That Turreted Fortress Above Highway 1

Art, architecture, and local history fill this annual tour of Sam's Castle given by the Pacifica Historical Society.

Taking a tour of Sam’s Castle — the turreted fortress built on a hillside hovering over Highway 1 in the Sharp Park neighborhood of Pacifica — is like walking onto a theater stage or film set of a historical play or movie.

Statues and griffins adorn the castle’s parapets and grounds. Art, antiques, period pieces, oriental rugs and decorative items fill the interior of the 20-room castle, and docents dressed in period costumes impersonate characters from the castle’s long history of eccentric inhabitants and guests.

Every August for more than five years now, the Pacifica Historical Society hosts tours of the castle, raising funds for various projects. This year’s tour took place last week, raising funds for the installation of the handicapped lift for the Little Brown Church restoration, which can’t open its doors until the building is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. One of the oldest buildings in Pacifica, the Little Brown Church is currently being refurbished as a Pacifica Museum Center with exhibit space and room available to rent for public events.

In addition to raising money for the Little Brown Church restoration, the self-guided castle tour, which cost $25, includes a very short shuttle bus ride from to the castle’s entry gate at 900 Mirador Terrace, as well as refreshments in the castle’s downstairs sunroom. For a $5 donation to help preserve Pacifica’s heritage, visitors inside the castle can have their picture taken in a royal chair with a red velvet crown, cape and sparkly scepter.

At the castle’s threshold, dressed in clergy robes and a cross, a docent playing Rev. Herschel Harkins, the Presbyterian minister of the Little Brown Church, which played a part in some of the lives of the castle’s inhabitants, greets the tour-goers.

From there the group moves down a dimly lit narrow corridor, lined in oriental rugs, to the foyer and meets the ghost of Henry Harrison McCloskey, an Irish immigrant who worked as an attorney for the Ocean Shore Railroad. McCloskey first built the castle in 1908 as “Bendemier,” a replica of the Scottish castle where his wife spent her childhood. McCloskey wanted a sturdy home after his San Francisco home was severely damaged in the 1906 earthquake.

It's learned that the exterior “stone” of the castle is made from 90-pound concrete blocks made to look like stone. San Francisco architect Charles MacDougall developed the details and Math Anderson, a local carpenter and builder of Anderson’s Store, did much of the interior woodwork. Several concealed doors and rooms were added to the castle in later years.

Throughout the tour, visitors also learn that when McCloskey died in 1914, ownership of the castle changed six times, recorded in history as once being an abortion mill, a lively roadhouse called Chateau La Fayette, a communication center for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and then a boarding house overrun with 20 cats and an owner known for keeping watch over the Sharp Park area with a spyglass. Stories of these wild and fascinating times are all told during the tour by the costumed docents, wandering the rooms of the castle, acting as “ghosts” from this distant past.

Then, in April 1959, visitors find out from the docents that the castle landed in the good hands of Sam Mazza, a theater painter and decorater for 20th Century Fox, who bought the castle for $29,000, invested another $10,000 to fix up its run-down condition and promptly made the castle his hobby, filling the interior and grounds with art, decorative items and furniture, much of which had been removed from theaters during remodeling or demolition or had been used in films or the stage.

This explains why the castle is furbished with so many artistic and theatrical treasures. Gold-leaf mirrors, marble busts and oil paintings adorn the foyer and main staircase as well as the living rooms and bedrooms replete with porcelain vases, carved bureaus, a massive yellow oak highboy and dining room table, Art Deco chandeliers, Oriental inlaid furnishings once belonging to actor William Holden, Charles Templeton’s four-poster bed, and Clark Gable’s “Folklore and Fairy Tales” scepter and cape.

Mazza and his wife Mary lived in San Francisco but used the castle as a get-away and place to entertain friends and honored guests.

Since Mazza was the last owner, many refer to the castle as Sam’s Castle, but it’s been also known as McCloskey Castle, and “we have been calling it Pacifica's Castle lately,” said volunteer Deidra Kennedy, publicity coordinator for the Pacifica Historical Society and volunteer curator of the castle’s decorative arts collection. “It has been known by all those names. Sam Mazza was the last owner, so I personally think Sam's Castle is best.”

Currently the outside grounds of the castle are off limits to the public because “the ground is slippery and the paths are overgrown,” said Kennedy, “but the Pacifica Garden Club will be working with the Sam Mazza Foundation next year to install an indigenous and water wise landscaping surrounding the castle, and the dangerous tree limbs will also be pruned.”

Some of Kennedy’s favorite pieces inside the castle include the Robert Martin small landscape in the Ladies Dressing Room off of the Grand Le Bain on the first floor.

“I also appreciate the Johnson Bros., from England, sets of brown Staffordshire china in the kitchen,” said Kennedy. “There have to be 200 pieces all together. I adore the feeling of whimsy in each room. It is as if Sam were still with us, and there is always a party going on.”

Mazza died in 2002 but left the castle to a charitable trust, the Sam Mazza Foundation and its board of directors, so that the building and treasures inside will be preserved.

“We are so very grateful for the Sam Mazza Foundation, our volunteers, the good folks of the local Peninsula, Coastside and East Bay communities that came to visit us and spend time enjoying this unique and wonderful place,” said Kennedy. “If you didn't see it this year, watch for our tours next August, and come and learn about Sam’s Castle.”

For more information about Sam’s Castle or to make a donation to the Pacifica Historical Society and the Little Brown Church, visit pacificahistory.org.

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Bob Stine August 25, 2011 at 01:41 PM
I hate reading about events I'd like to go to AFTER they took place! I guess I missed the announcement of the event. I would have loved to go.

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