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AMERICAN ALBUM

Colorado Quixote building his castle in the air : But some family members feel rooked as father devotes his life to a dream of turrets and tourists.

March 14, 1994|ANN ROVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ISABEL, Colo. — Toiling alone in a remote central Colorado forest, Jim Bishop has spent the last 25 years hoisting stone and hewing timber to construct a medieval-style castle that he never expects to complete, or live in.

Instead, Bishop wants to leave the castle--crowned by a metallic fire-breathing dragon and 160-foot-tall stone spires--to future generations as a monument to one man's stubborn individualism and resourcefulness.

Hidden behind evergreens on a 2 1/2-acre sliver of land he bought as a teen-ager midway between the tiny Rocky Mountain towns of Rye and San Isabel, the castle attracts 50,000 visitors a year.

Never mind, as the 50-year-old ornamental-iron worker says, that "nothin's plumb, nothin's level, nothin's straight" on his massive edifice. Tourists who clamber over and through the castle's buttresses, narrow spiral stairways and dark chambers liken the experience to stepping into a fairy tale.

"I walked up a little tree-lined path into a clearing and there stood this magnificent stone castle," said Marvin Smith, 61, a stained-glass artist who recently visited the structure. "I felt like I had stepped into a time warp and half expected to see knights on horseback ride up."

But the lord of this turreted citadel is a sinewy builder clad in a tattered plaid shirt and ragged jeans, his back now permanently bowed from laying more than 47,000 tons of stone--all of it scavenged from surrounding gullies and roadsides.

Without pausing from his labors, Bishop will regale visitors with the story of his obsession--provided they don't get in the way during tasks that include lifting stone and concrete parapets 120 feet overhead, or maneuvering wheelbarrows along eight-inch-wide planks suspended 100 feet above the ground.

For this is a work in progress, and Bishop is bewitched by his mission.

"I'll never finish it in my lifetime," said Bishop, who plans to begin work on a 13-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall stone wall that will surround the castle and hide secret rooms and passageways.

"Every year till I'm dead and gone, I'll be building that wall," he said as he shoveled a load of sand from his rusty, yellow 1974 Datsun pickup. "The castle is a weightlifting trophy. If you're going to lift weights, you might as well build something."

Lacking architectural drawings or a steady stream of cash to finance his dream, Bishop's progress is dictated by will, whim, weather and donations from enchanted visitors.

The Bishop family turned the castle into a nonprofit corporation that accepts donations. They distribute a portion to charities and use the remainder to buy materials for construction.

"No books, no rich daddy and no bankers," said Bishop, who despises rules, regulations and bureaucrats. "Nobody tells me what to do."

Nobody needs to. Ideas tumble from Bishop's brain faster than he can lay stone, sprouting into features such as onion-domed turrets, bell towers and elaborate iron trusses supporting a massive roof of tempered glass.

Jutting from one gable is a 25-foot-long dragon's head, with scales formed of more than 800 steel plates salvaged from a local hospital kitchen. Its hinged jaw breathes fire 10 feet into the air, thanks to a set of propane tanks on the floor below.

Bishop wants to suspend a bedroom from huge chains three stories above the main floor where, he said, "honeymooners, families, anybody can camp out."

"It's going to get even greater than that," Bishop shouted from his perch on a high scaffold as 50 m.p.h. winds whistled past. "I'm not easily satisfied."

Friends and relatives agree and say that his devotion to the castle has exacted a painful toll on those closest to him.

Bishop's youngest son, Roy, was 5 when he was killed by a tree felled by his brother in 1988.

And Bishop's work at the castle has strained the loyalty of his wife of 27 years.

"He's so single-minded about his castle that he doesn't even hear what I say about other things," said Phoebe Bishop, 47. "I've ended up being the one who took care of everything at home and helped keep the (family) iron business running."

Bishop's oldest son, Daniel, 21, was more blunt: "It was his life . It took away a father from us."

Bishop sympathizes and acknowledges that his effort has gobbled up time that could have been spent with family.

"I didn't go to the kids' high school games, and they've always worn secondhand clothes and sat on secondhand furniture. I've always been so concerned about where I was going to get my next bag of cement."

Still, the way he sees it, "I'm only young once, so I regret every day that I'm not working on the castle."

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