Thornewood redux: American Lake mansion gets a makeover

Tacoma News Tribune
CRAIG SAILOR; Staff writer
Published: 05/18/11

Two early 20th century business tycoons wanted to impress their brides with gifts that the women wouldn’t forget. Both men had English manors dismantled and shipped brick by brick to the South Sound. There, they were reassembled into magnificent mansions.

Same story, two different houses – Lakewood’s Thornewood Castle and the fictional “Rose Red.” But as fans of the Stephen King TV movie know, “Rose Red” is Thornewood Castle. The film and a follow-up were shot there in 2000 and 2002.

The real businessman, Chester Thorne, built his 27,000-square-foot mansion on the shores of American Lake in 1911. Today, it’s owned by Deanna and Wayne Robinson and is run as a bed-and-breakfast. Filled with art, antiques and furnishings, the landmark home shines as it once must have 100 years ago. But things weren’t always so pretty at Thornewood.

When the Robinsons bought Thornewood Castle in 2000, it was a sad grande dame, shipwrecked on the shores of American Lake. Its great halls had been carved into a warren of rooms and kitchenettes to accommodate its life as an apartment building. The once-100-acre estate had been pruned away to a mere 4 acres.

Still, it was love at first sight when Deanna Robinson first saw the old building. “We have our own little Camelot here,” Deanna said.

She now looks back at that time with fewer stars in her eyes. “I had more guts than good sense.”


Born in 1863, Chester Thorne was a native New Yorker who made his way to Tacoma in 1890. He was a co-founder of the Port of Tacoma and owner of the National Bank of Tacoma. He served on numerous boards including Tacoma General Hospital, Annie Wright School and The Pierce County Social Hygiene Society. He built Thornewood for his wife, Anna.

Thorne died in the house on Oct. 16, 1927. A leather-bound booklet distributed at his funeral stated, “He treated wealth as broadening his opportunities for service rather than for the gratification of his personal desires. Simple in his tastes, he expended large amounts for the welfare of others.” The Tacoma Ledger, a predecessor of The News Tribune, summed up its obituary, “Tacoma today mourns the loss of a devoted son.”

The oak staircase is one of the features Chester Thorne brought to his American lake castle from a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor he purchased in England in 1907. (Photos by Janet Jensen/Staff Photographer)

Medieval stained glass is incorporated into most of the windows at Thornwood castle. (Photos by Janet Jensen/Staff Photographer)

Medieval stained glass is incorporated into most of the windows at Thornwood castle. (Photos by Janet Jensen/Staff Photographer)

The oak staircase is one of the features Chester Thorne brought to his American lake castle from a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor he purchased in England in 1907. The 27,000-square-foot mansion has been restored to its former glory after years of neglect and alterations. (Photos by Janet Jensen/Staff Photographer)

The gentleman's parlor, with moulded ceiling, sits just off the front entrance of the castle. (Photos by Janet Jensen/Staff Photographer)

Anna continued to live on in the house until her death in 1954. The couple had one daughter, Anita. At one point 40 servants and 28 gardeners served the family.


In 1907 Thorne purchased a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor in England and had it shipped, in pieces, to American Lake, where its bricks, oak paneling, oak staircase and medieval stained glass were incorporated into Thornewood Castle, designed by Kirtland Cutter. Gigantic Tenino sandstone blocks form the foundation for 18-inch-thick walls.

The shards of stained glass incorporated into the windows date to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Robinson said. They were once owned by an English duke who spent 40 years collecting the shards. Deanna says King Henry VIII was responsible for destroying some of the windows.

When the Robinsons took ownership of Thornewood, they had nearly 100 years of renovations to dismantle. An elevator shaft, put in by Anna Thorne, sat right in the middle of the great hall. Wood paneling had been painted white, and ceilings had been lowered by 3 feet. The sunken garden, Deanna says, had become the neighborhood dump.

Though Deanna, an admitted Anglophile, saw the possibilities and romance of the dilapidated estate, Wayne took some convincing. When she first took him to see the property, Wayne’s response was less than enthusiastic. “You’ve got to be kidding. What on earth are we going to do with this?” she recalls him saying.

The Robinsons, at that time the owners of the Auburn Avenue Dinner Theater, faced a long and expensive rehabilitation. But as they were closing on the property, help came from an unexpected source.


When producers were looking to film Stephen King’s ABC television miniseries Rose Red, they knew Thornewood Castle could be the stand-in for the fictional haunted mansion.

The film company spent six months building the set and then filming the movie. They completely rebuilt the interior of the great hall, mixing new paneling and flooring with old and installing a new but period-looking fireplace. Crews attached dead vines to the outside of the house and on filming nights filled the front yard with fog. One night, the Robinsons awoke to find the crew installing lighting in their private bathroom.

The company returned two years later to film a prequel, The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer.

Thornewood also appears on film from time to time in movies including the Daniel Day Lewis film There Will Be Blood. But the Robinsons don’t say yes very often. “I turn down film requests all the time,” Deanna said.

The publicity has been good for business, Deanna says, but some fans have a little trouble separating fact from fantasy. “Sometimes it gets a little tough when you tell people Rose Red is fiction. You just give up. … I didn’t know Stephen King has so many fans.”


Like the great hall, the ballroom was divided into apartments. When the Robinsons dismantled the renovations, they discovered an ornate, multicolored moulded ceiling. Today, the ballroom is used for receptions, weddings and corporate functions. Sideboards and china cabinets from Europe line the walls. Near the front door, with its massive lion-shaped brass knockers, is a red-painted gentleman’s parlor. Its walls are lined with old newspapers, Gregorian chants, teacups and photos by Asahel Curtis.

The Robinsons keep one wing of the mansion private for their use only. The rest is open to guests who will probably never feel crowded. Only eight bedrooms are let overnight.

“They can go to England and never leave home,” Deanna says.

The Grandview room is decorated in greens and has a large bath, brick balcony, kitchen and view of the lake. Chester and Anna’s separate bedrooms are both available to guests.

The Presidential room, so named because both Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft stayed there, has a commander-in-chief-worthy view of American Lake. Huge corkscrew pillars mark the corners of a poster bed.

One bedroom, formerly the sewing room, is done in a patriotic theme with portraits of the Robinsons’ family members in military uniform. “I call the Army my finishing school. Being a bum is not an option in my family,” Deanna says.

During the November-December holiday season the Robinsons decorate Thornewood with 17 Christmas trees, lights, garlands and other holiday cheer.

Outside, spacious gardens and lawns surround the house. The highlight is a playing field-sized walled sunken garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers (stepbrothers John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.) The pair designed many of Seattle’s original parks a hundred years ago.


If your home is famous for being haunted on film, it invites the question: Is Thornewood itself haunted?

On that subject, Deanna is as evasive as a misty apparition.

“There’s nothing bad in this house. We’re filled with angels,” she says. Pressed, she admits that some visitors have reported seeing a female figure in Anna’s bedroom.

The Robinsons turn down frequent requests from ghost-hunting TV shows but allow paying visitors to make their own investigations. Unlike “Rose Red,” there aren’t long secret passages in Thornewood. But the guest bathroom in the great hall is behind a secret paneled door, and Deanna says they discovered a hidden room behind a bookcase in an upstairs bedroom. They have yet to make entry there.

It’s not that Deanna doesn’t believe in ghosts. In fact, she says there will definitely be one ghost-in-residence sometime in the future.

“I fully intend on coming back and haunting the place,” she said.

Renovations and improvements are a constant theme for the Robinsons. Monthly utility bills alone cost $4,000 to $6,000 a month. Deanna says the business doesn’t take in enough to cover what they spend, but she’s sanguine about it.

“The house is big, it’s a part of history and we want to share it,” she said.


Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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