City Paper is not for tourists
For 22 years of blood, sweat, and sacrifice, John Roswell Miller has been minding his manor at Bull Run Castle.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Smoking is forbidden in John Roswell Miller’s castle. That’s the No. 1 rule here. The 73-year-old Army vet didn’t lay brick after brick, lift and set hundreds of unwieldy wooden beams, and gather thousands of antiques just so his medieval manor could stink like an ashtray. No, this honest-to-God castle should smell like Camelot.
Miller has spent 22 years putting together this peculiar Virginia palace, transforming 14 acres of Loudoun County cornfield into a 6,800-square-foot, four-story fortress featuring 22 rooms, 81 doors, and 89 windows—not to mention the Tower of Love and its 27 cupids. And he might spend the next 22 years trying to finish it, too—that is, if he truly wants to finish it. Miller’s working man’s hands give him the right to rule as he pleases. His law is the only law. Even his wife was forced to go outside to enjoy a cigarette—that is, before she left him.
Of course, Miller does endorse the vitamin-rich merits of chewing tobacco; he’s been packing between cheek and gum since he was 18, and the corners of his mouth are often lacquered with brown goo. (“You haven’t been kissed until you’ve been French-kissed with chew in your mouth,” he says.) So if you happen to have a pouch of Trophy, he’ll certainly join you for a pinch. Just leave those Camel Lights in the car, OK? If Miller catches you lighting up in the Great Hall or the bone-riddled dungeon, he just might unholster that .32 hanging on his hip and take crackshot aim, especially if you’re “one of them college boys.”
Consider yourself warned.
Bull Run Castle has been waiting to go punch for punch with intruders for years. Because this edifice wasn’t built to be “a lousy little cottage with a turret on it” but “to be defended,” as the owner will tell you again and again.
Miller often fantasizes about an invasion by modern-day brigands—and he grins wildly as he does so. The bad guys, presumably, would steer their black van off the James Monroe Highway, U.S. 15, and into Bull Run Castle’s circular driveway. Maybe they would attack by morning, maybe by night: The outcome, Miller says, would be the same either way.
The brigands, you see, would encounter intimidating bulwarks at every misstep: Aldie, Va.’s, most spectacular home is anchored by a looming gray tower at each of its four corners and a flat red-brick base. A chorus line of sneering gargoyles perches high along the roof line. The front entrance—there is no back entrance—is secured by formidable black iron gates, a set of doors with a double drop bar, and a 4-and-three-quarters-inch-thick steel-girded oak door as the final show of strength. For the easily unnerved, there’s also a sign posted: “Never Mind the Dog. Beware of Owner.”
As the brigands stood flummoxed outside his home, Miller could blow them away from his perch on the roof. If they roamed the periphery, he could scope them out from the tower portals, each providing 130-degree firing capability. “All exterior walls can be fired from,” he brags. He could even lure them to the obscured east entrance, where he would drop the portcullis in two seconds flat, either trapping them…or crushing them.
And if the portcullis jammed, the marauders might catch Miller’s Braveheart act. On the first floor of the keep, the castle’s central stronghold, is the armory, stocked with swords, battle-axes, bone-handled knives, and a full arsenal of small arms—all makes, models, and calibers. There are also 12 Enfield rifles—bought especially for self-defense, as a matter of fact—and a few thousand rounds of ammo. There are no automatic weapons in the armory, but the owner “has four or five friends with automatic weapons who can get here quick.”
The massive keep is equipped with “arrow loops,” or firing portals, on each side of its massive door; these portals provide an uncluttered view of either side of the grand staircase that greets visitors just inside the front entrance.
There is no hi-tech security system, no computers. “I don’t even know how to turn one of those things on,” Miller says. Just one man, one castle, and a whole lotta weaponry.
“I’m looking for someone to show up, run around the yard, and give me a little target practice,” he says.
And on the off chance that the invaders could somehow overrun the place, Miller could always take refuge in the cellar, with its steel-reinforced high-strength-concrete ceiling designed to withstand a nuclear attack at Dulles International Airport, just eight miles away.
Indeed, the invaders would have trouble blasting through any door or wall at Miller’s homestead—a remarkable display of sturdiness considering how the place was put together. Far from a pricey repro of an Old Country model, Bull Run Castle is a patchwork marvel of spare parts and cheap labor: “I’ve never gone out to the dump without bringing something back,” he says.
Take the keep, for instance, Bull Run Castle’s 69-foot-circumference four-story structural heart. A while back, public-works crews used to build manhole shafts with a specific type of curved concrete block. When Miller was constructing his castle, he found a trove of such now-obsolete blocks made by a company that was going out of business. The keep consists of these 55- and 42-pound concrete blocks—4,700 of them, to be exact. The old man got them for $250, total. “I laid every one of those son-of-a-guns myself,” he says. “No crane was ever here. No contractor, either. There’s nothing phony about this place. And that includes me.”
Miller’s parsimony doesn’t end there. The gravel for his driveway he procured by sifting rocks from the side of the highway—then using the residual dirt as topsoil for various shrubs and plants. The stones making up the massive hearth in the Great Hall were dug up out of the creek (or, as he says, “crik”), which winds lazily through the property. The castle’s windows are another tale of Depression-style creativity; they are crafted from 230 doors that Miller’s “dear mother” bought for him at $5 apiece.
Hanging near the castle’s front staircase is a wrought-iron chandelier from John and Jackie Kennedy’s Georgetown house; an electrician gave the lighting fixture to Miller when the presidential couple moved to a slightly bigger home. The solar panels in the cathedral ceiling were also given to him. The fish for the pond he caught from other ponds in the area. And the steel steps in the cellar? Why, can you believe that someone was just throwing them away?
“There’s so much being wasted in America. All this waste. It’s a sin. Really, a sin. Just waste, waste, waste,” Miller says. “A lot of people think I’m a millionaire. Boy, are they wrong.”
With the exception of the occasional transient looking for a safe night’s rest, the old man lives here pretty much by himself. His wife, Barbara Miller, moved out about six years ago; the catalyst for this event, her husband says, was “basically because she smokes”—although he’s surrounded by a monolithic reminder that it was surely more than that. Barbara Miller now lives in Wakefield, Va., in a house bought by her husband.
“Every time I screw up, there’s a woman involved,” he says. “It’s completely unfair the way women are made. Affairs of the heart are very impractical.”
Miller’s oldest daughter, Natashia Gueffroy, 31, lives near her mother in the southern part of the state. His other two children with Barbara, Mary Knight, 30, and Warren Miller, 25, live in modest homes right here on the castle’s sprawling grounds—homes, of course, built by the old man himself.
John Miller’s most loyal companion, however, is Machen, a rare blend of Irish wolfhound, Great Dane, Turkish sheepdog, and, quite possibly, sasquatch. She spends most of the day pacing back and forth on the front lawn—and barking at the customers lured in by the “Antiques” sign outside, at the mailman, at anyone who isn’t the man who feeds her.
Miller, born and raised in Reading, Pa., the only child of working-class parents—and a distant relative of Daniel Boone, he likes to add—rarely leaves his creation these days. Can’t afford to miss a customer.
A “not retired” construction worker, Miller will take the occasional sojourn to Wal-Mart. Or Home Depot. Or the Arthurian dining experience that is the Wok ‘N’ Roll Chinese Buffet in Manassas. And on Sunday morning, he’ll run his normal routine of errands—post office, bank drop-off, Safeway for Hostess doughnuts—then bring breakfast to his fellow parishioners at Middleburg Baptist Church. “Church is a good habit to get into, and an easy habit to get out of,” he says.
Other than those infrequent forays, however, he’s almost always at Bull Run Castle. Digging tunnels. Telling stories. Telling customers who’ve come for antiques that “virtually everything in the castle is for sale.”
A “pro at flea markets” and a noodge at auctions, Miller has crammed every corner of his castle with tchotchkes both exotic and mundane, deadly and delicate. For a building so large, it doesn’t have a whole lot of room to move inside. The passageways are cluttered by old books, old newspapers, old Playboys; rooms tilt with piles of camouflage, supply satchels, and medals. This bounty of odds and ends provides the interior with a swirl of smells—burnt wood, yellowing paper, the earthy odor of way-back-when.
“What do you want?” Miller barks to customers when they first walk in. “Antiques, collectibles, trouble? I got anything you want.” The meet-and-greet area just inside that thick front door is cluttered with dozens of chipped-frame paintings, the most notable of which is a cartoonish Don Quixote raising a saber to the sky. The Man of La Mancha is $85; the irony of this particular literary figure watching over this particular manor is absolutely free.
Guarding the doors of the 21-foot-by-31-foot banquet hall—the Great Hall, actually, made significantly greater by its enormous hearth—are an Egyptian sarcophagus ($1,200) and a 1953 RCA TV ($300). There’s also a suit of armor ($2,500), which you can accessorize by wandering into the keep and scoring a $50 Excalibur-esque sword and leather sheath.
To the right of the keep is the antique shop proper, a too-much-to-look-at gallery of figurines, medals, horseshoes, rubber chickens, “commie badges,” old-time photos, and a Rutherford B. Hayes tie pin. Miller has been a collector of junk since he was 9 years old—and much of that junk has found its way in here.
And if you’re looking for something a bit more romantic than a “galaxy fighting sword” ($100), climb the stairs to the Tower of Love (aka La Tour Amour), a circular pink-hued room at the top of the keep. Here you’ll find cupids frolicking, cupids playing lutes, cupids kissing ($325)—and one creepy wombat-size cupid that hangs from the ceiling.
Everything is for sale here. And that includes the castle itself, Miller says, which can be yours for $1 million.
It’s giving nothing away to say that Miller’s bark—a nonstop grumble of tough-guy braggadocio and competitive put-downs—is far worse than his bite.
His wife, his daughters, and his pastor at Middleburg Baptist all call him a “character” with a wink-wink sigh. Yes, he’s an eccentric, and his penchant for hyperbole can wear a listener down. But despite the well-rehearsed act he puts on for his guests, this much is also true: He’s not crazy.
Then again, he’s not always PC, either; for instance, he’s talking about running a classified in the local paper: “I’m in the market for a young lady, under 40, good-looking, hardworking, likes castles, and has about $400,000 in the bank.”
“It’s certainly a myth that a 73-year-old can’t be very active in the sack,” he informs. “That’s a crock.”
Miller makes no apologies for what he says or does, and this steadfast refusal to budge is both his greatest strength and his most limiting weakness. “In 1980, I started telling all my friends, ‘I’m gonna build a castle,’” he says. “And when I say it, it happens. Or I’m dead. I’ve never said, ‘I wish I would have…’ That’s not me.
“Of course,” he adds, “the reasons I give for building a castle”—he wanted an antique shop and didn’t want to pay rent—”are completely inadequate for any sane person.”
There are certain times, of course, when even this man of constant swagger is wont to give in to the pull of introspection. He wonders if he “created a monster.” He wonders why he started this whole thing at all. He wonders if the price of his castle-on-the-cheap was too high after all.
That said, Miller is unfailingly proud of his accomplishments, and he reels off his personal history as if picking a fight—a personal history that doesn’t revolve around his loved ones so much as it celebrates the things he’s built, bought, and sold.
In 1955, Miller borrowed $1,500 from a friend and purchased a house in Mount Vernon Woods, Va., near Fort Belvoir, for $14,500. In 1963, he requested relief from active duty from the Army after more than 13 years of service as a combat engineer, “because I didn’t want a desk job,” and entered the world of construction. After fixing up his first home (“digging a pool with my own hands”), he sold it for $86,000. He then bought the house across the street for $41,500. After significant home improvements—”I did ’em all”—he would sell the second house for $168,500. With the money made, he bought 22 acres of Loudoun County land for $3,100 per acre. He would later sell off about eight of those acres, for $81,000 total, to help finance his masterpiece.
Miller had visited plenty of castles during his military tours of Europe. He was also influenced, he says, by the layouts of such local architectural wonders as Monticello and Mount Vernon. And sure, he had read various books on forts and castles, which helped him blueprint three such structures, each vision getting smaller as he balanced the checkbook. But perhaps those tomes weren’t as influential as the other books he was reading: “Swiss Family Robinson is one of my favorites. And Treasure Island. And Edgar Allan Poe.”
From 1980 to 1986, Miller, his wife, and his three children—all in their preteens when Miller put his plan into action—worked on the periphery of the property, clearing and grubbing and making a trail around the perimeter for horses and fire precaution. “We ate enough beans to fill a dump truck in those days,” he says. They also built a 30-foot-long arch bridge, for transporting supplies and detritus to a clearing over the creek. Why arched? “Any dummy can make it straight.”
“I taught my kids how to work,” Miller says. “My kids didn’t go to college. They didn’t need to….The best thing I got going for me is that I never went to college.”
For the first two years, the Millers, commuting on weekends from Mount Vernon Woods, lived in a tent on the grounds. Two years later, they got “tired of putting the tent away wet,” he says, so Miller built them a round house made of stone, large enough for a couple of mattresses, and a brick outhouse. But washing their dishes in the creek soon also became tiresome, so Miller built his family a small cabin. And soon enough, he expanded the cabin and brought his family to Aldie for good.
And all the while, he did what he could to make them believe in castles.
“When it came to working, we really didn’t have much of a choice,” laughs daughter Mary Knight. “I don’t think we complained a lot. You can only work so much as a kid. We’d all go up there, do some work, and then come back and play with our friends. Gosh, it all seems so long ago, I can barely remember living in that tent.”
In 1986, Miller & Co. would finally be ready to begin working on the castle itself, which was aligned north-south so as to catch the winter sun. To lift the heavier materials, the lord of the manor built a double-pulleyed tripod elevator. The work was grueling, but “scar tissue is tougher than what was there before, so I’m better for it,” he says.
He would involve the children in all facets of building, teaching as he went. (Miller has another son, John Parker, from a first marriage, who would be put to work, too, when he visited for the summer.) It was an education, to say the least.
“I would say we hated working when we were doing it,” says daughter Natashia Gueffroy. “But now I appreciate it, because I’m restoring a Victorian myself these days. And there isn’t anything I can’t do. And that’s because of my father.”
Gueffroy still remembers “putting the cement down on the castle’s first floor” and “handling these rolls of barbed wire” used to reinforce the concrete. “We had blisters on our backs. That’s a lovely childhood memory, isn’t it?”
If Miller sometimes came off like the Great Santini with a tool belt, there was no denying his innate talents to build things high into the sky. “It took a lot of brains to build that place,” says friend Fred Karl, owner of Haymarket Motors, a mechanic’s shop. “Round stuff [like the keep and the towers] is very hard to do. And it’s amazing that he did it all without a crane, setting beams and blocks, just like how the Egyptians built the pyramids. He’s quite a man.”
In 1991, after just five years of work, the Millers moved into the castle, constructed, the owner likes to say, “on $16,000 a year.” Spare parts and all, the castle “will still be standing 200 years from now,” Miller says. “Most definitely.”
Since its opening, Bull Run Castle has played host to a club of 75 vampires (“they’re not afraid of crosses; I found that out”), a wedding of medieval buffs (“we get all types”), and a guy who likes to spend a little too much time in the dungeon (don’t ask). Miller also attracts a handful of antiquers each week, usually folks who have driven by the castle hundreds of times—and are finally brave enough to pull in for a look-see. He’s always a gracious host, but if they ask the wrong questions, they’ll get the same crusty answers:
Guest: “You did the stonework?”
Miller: “I did the whole damn castle!”
Guest: “You built the front door?”
Miller: “No, I bought it at Hechinger’s! What do you think?”
Someday, if Miller can get his four themed bedrooms—the English Tack Room, the Queen Anne Room, the Victorian Room, and La Francais Chambre a Coucher—in hospitable shape, he’ll apply for his B&B license.
There are other projects to be done, as well, including the completion of a 90-foot tunnel, which will end at the creek in a fortification equipped with firing ports and a double set of gates. Oh, and he wants to make a gazebo, a tennis court, and a wine cellar. And an ecumenical chapel in the Great Hall (“and a wet bar for the Episcopalians”). There are even plans for a second castle, “maybe in Spain, where the land is cheap.”
But for Miller, it’s really not about finishing Bull Run Castle at all. It’s about never being done. Because once he’s done…
“This is his life,” Knight says. “The castle is his life.”
“I don’t believe he wants to finish the castle,” Gueffroy says. “It keeps him alive.”
And keeps a certain member of the family far away.
“He’s the hardest-working man that I’ve ever known,” says Barbara Miller, from her home, about 160 miles from Bull Run Castle—and half a world away from her native England. “However, the castle started to mean more to him than his family.”
Though polite and good-natured, Barbara Miller prefers not to speak at length on her days living in Aldie. She still comes for the occasional visit; she was there for Easter, in fact, and joined her “character” of 35 years for church.
But a drop-in visit is about all she can handle. “The worst part about living there was having people walking in and out of your home,” she says. “I liked the antique shop, but not when it intrudes on your privacy.”
And the best part? “Let me think about this for a minute….” she says. “Being in the country, I guess.”
As far as her husband is concerned, she says, “You can’t go starting a tunnel when a bedroom still needs to be finished.” And adds: “You’ve got to have a life other than that castle.”
About his wife’s feelings, Miller says, “My wife lives 160 miles away. So we get along just fine.”
At the Wok ‘N’ Roll, Miller has his own table. “They know I like to be close to the crab legs,” he says of the smiling waiters circling around him. He enjoys showing off his appetite, scarfing down six plates of perilously battered seafood and chicken—and mocking his guest’s measly four plates.
“Heck, I’m not even full yet!” Miller taunts. “I still have room for ice cream! You’re nothing!” He explains that he’s “competitive by nature. If I’m working on a project with you, I’d have to do everything faster and better than you.” Even, apparently, if that project is wolfing down mounds of deep-fried fish.
When dinner is finally finished and he moves on to Home Depot and Wal-Mart, Miller displays a crude wonder at his surroundings. This guy really doesn’t get out much. When buying a Philips tubular light bulb in the hardware store, he holds it up and says, “Would you look at this thing? Written all over it: dildo!”
At Wal-Mart, where he’s shopping for marigolds, he pauses midaisle, looks around, and says, “Ever notice how many fat people there are in America?” Then he buys three packages of “all butter” oatmeal cookies, because Miller is a working man, and working men are “always in good shape.”
But he shows some rare compassion for his guest, who gags on his first attempt at chewing tobacco. “Jeez,” Miller says with genuine worry, “you’re not supposed to swallow it.”
And in the car on the way home, Miller will do his best to come up with the real reasons for building Bull Run Castle.
“I wonder subconsciously if I’m trying to build something that someone else can’t tear down,” he says, after telling a story about building forts when he was a 10-year-old hellion in Reading. “We’re all psychologists if we live long enough, trying to figure out the whys and the hows.”
After a beat, he adds: “As you get older, you realize that time goes so fast. I’ve screwed up. But I’ve had a lot of blessings, too.”
Driving his battered Mercedes in the rain, he starts getting excited about going to church the next day, about going to “adult Sunday school,” his pre-service discussion group.
At Middleburg Baptist, a woman will come to solicit donations for the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home for troubled kids. Instead of sending money, however, Miller will want the church to “adopt” one of the troubled teens. What he will really want, of course, is for one of the kids to help out at the castle: “I’ll teach ’em how to work. That’s for sure.”
He will introduce his pastor, Bill Thigpen, who will whisper, “John is an interesting man, to say the least. He keeps inviting me to the castle to see the dungeon, but I’m afraid he’ll lock me in there.” Miller likes to tell the story of how he—dressed in a gorilla suit—once showed up at Thigpen’s door with a sign hanging around his neck reading, “I Eat Preachers.”
During the service, Miller will try to set up his guest with two women in the pew in front of him. “He’s an eligible newspaperman, you know?” He will try to drum up support for his proposal to hang both a Christian flag and an American flag in the sanctuary. He will sing the hymns—”We Have Heard the Joyful Sound,” “Tell the Good News,” “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”—louder than anyone else.
But all that will come tomorrow, the best day of his week, as far as he’s concerned. Serving the Lord, then serving in his castle.
As Miller drives down the James Monroe Highway, the cutting rain falling faster, his castle looming into view, he begins a story about how he started a boxing and wrestling program in the Army. “Killer Miller,” they called him. That’s when he learned that “you can jump on someone’s head and not hurt it.”
He was a lousy boxer. He wasn’t much of a wrestler, either. But as he was getting knocked around the ring, Miller came to a realization that has allowed him to make castles out of cornfields, no matter what the obstacles:
“I can take a helluva beating,” he says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.