Pratt's Castle Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Historic Ameri-can Buildings Survey, (HABS VA, 44-RICH 74-)
This is a long story told short about a small thing in a big place.
Beneath the floorboards of a now vanished castle's foyer lay a box that during the first decades of the 20th century received the hopes and desires ― and spare change ― of visitors.
It was in Pratt's Castle. Historian Mary Wingfield Scott, in her classic Old Richmond Neighborhoods book, describes Pratt's ― intending a backhanded compliment ― as "the most astonishing house in Richmond."
England-born William Abbott Pratt, a civil engineer/architect/landscape designer/photographer, created his towered, crenellated place upon one of Richmond's most visible promontories, the brow of Gamble's Hill. Then, it was a neighborhood of wrought-iron porches and the "Connection Tunnel" for the shortest railroad with the longest name: the 1.25-mile line chartered as the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Connection Co.
Pratt built the house for his collection of art, artifacts and books. Rolled sheet iron scored to look like stone covered the wooden frame. The "castle" stood on a foundation of James River granite. From England, he brought stained-glass windows depicting the seasons, coffered ceilings emblazoned with chess pieces and chandeliers.
Pratt's strange house became a casualty, however, of commercial expansion. Though preservationists pleaded its case, the place was systematically taken apart in 1958 by the Ethyl Corp., now NewMarket, for its world headquarters campus.
No plaque marks the site. The obliterated castle became as much a memory and legend as one of Poe's fables. The stained-glass windows vanished. Some gothic-style ornaments are in the Valentine Richmond History Center collection today.
The place had some 20 rooms, none of them the same size or height, hidden passages and a secret stair, an armory room and a 50-foot-high turret. Shortly after the April 1865 Evacuation Fire, an enterprising photographer clambered its height to get an incredible panorama of Richmond's burnt district.
By then, Pratt couldn't afford his house on the hill. He moved to Charlottesville, where he designed a few buildings for the University of Virginia, (none remain) and practiced architecture in Waynesboro until his 1879 death.
The house then went through a succession of hands. These later residents knew they had a residence that piqued the curiosity of any who caught sight of it. Almost everybody wanted his or her picture taken before it in the grassy place at the end of Fourth Street. At a two-day 1940s open house, an estimated 14,000 people trooped through Pratt's. Some of them stopped at the wishing box and slid in their supernal questions and coins.
The money went to charities. But what became of the notes from the Pratt's Castle Wishing Box?
Perhaps these slips of paper, retrieved from their place of wish fulfillment, containing the dilemmas of the heart, the acquisitive and inquisitive demands to the muses of fortune, may yet be moldering in string-bound packets within a forgotten trunk, or shoved into the back of an old bureau. These notes would be among Richmond's best possible hidden jewels.