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A Return to Glory

Colorful Antelope Valley Castle Spruced Up to Greet Potential Buyers

April 09, 2000|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER — Steeped in mystery, lore, tragedy and scandal, a remote, stone castle that for decades has been cut off almost entirely from public view is being dressed up to again receive visitors.

Its 10-acre lake, which once sported the powerboats of the rich and infamous, is being dredged. Its mile-long landing strip, where guests used to arrive "for weekends of ribald and wanton debauchery," according to a 1982 environmental impact report that seems to have been influenced by novelist Jacqueline Susann, is being cleared of overgrowth.

And the kindly pastor, the current caretaker of the 1924 castle modeled after one in Ireland, is ready to receive selected outsiders with glasses of wine before tours of the grand rooms, now decorated most prominently with his wife's vast doll collection.

Shea's Castle, named for the tragic development baron who co-founded Hancock Park and other wealthy Los Angeles enclaves, is up for sale. The asking price for the eight-bedroom, 7 1/2-bath, seven-fireplace, two-kitchen castle and the 512 acres it sits on is $3.3 million.

"I think a lot of people were upset with us in the past because we would not let them in," said Ramin Zomorodi, whose family heads a group of investors that has owned the estate for the past 15 years. "But we were not prepared for them. We had plans."

He stood by the estate's tall wrought iron gate off a dirt road that twists its way through vast expanses of scrub brush and occasional Joshua trees. About a mile in the distance was the castle.

The gate is as close as almost all inquiring historians, tourists and archeologists have gotten to the castle and its grounds, which have Indian petroglyphs and other reminders of ancient inhabitants.

"It's like the Wild West," said Zomorodi, who grew up in Iran watching dubbed Westerns on television, as he looked out over the landscape about 10 miles west of Lancaster. " 'High Chaparral,' John Wayne. It reminds me of all that."

The castle's isolation has only fueled speculation about its history, which encompasses privileged but troubled lives, Hollywood connections and a supposed curse.

Zomorodi, 38, smiled when the curse was mentioned. "I don't believe in that," he said. "But if it helps sell the property . . ."

Historical accounts of the castle are so conflicting that few agree on dates or even the names of figures from its colorful past.

By some accounts, Richard Peter Shea (a.k.a. John Shea) supposedly lived on a ranch in this area west of Lancaster when he was young and still poor. After making his fortune in Los Angeles, he returned to the Antelope Valley in the early 1920s and bought the land where the castle now sits. He hoped that a move up to the quiet area with its clear, dry air would boost the health of his frail wife, Ellen.

Antelope Valley Welcomed Castle

News of the construction project was greeted with jubilation in the Antelope Valley, which had suffered several years of drought. "It is rather difficult today to picture the joy and excitement that prevailed as the first rumors circulated that a man named Shea was about to begin building a 14-room castle," said one of the workers on the project, Rudy Schwandt, quoted in a 1988 pamphlet by local historian Grace Pickus.

A crew of more than 100, including its own cooking staff, was hired to put in roads, build fences and haul the granite blocks needed to construct the home.

Carved into one stone near the castle foundation is "1924 Shea's Lodge," and most accounts agree that that's when construction began.

Plans called for walls that were in some spots more than a foot thick. Alcoves were fashioned of rock, plaster and thick woods. One of the castle's crenelated turrets has a spiral wood staircase leading to the roof. A system of metal piping, coils and radiators provided heat from circulating hot water.

A 20-foot-high stone dam on the grounds held water for the lake, and a stable was built in the shape of a mini-castle.

It's unclear when the Sheas moved into the mansion, but their time in the castle was not happy. Ellen Shea's health did not markedly improve, and they lost much of their fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

The couple then moved back to Los Angeles, where Ellen Shea died in 1932. A few months later, her husband walked into the ocean. His body was found near Venice Pier, and attached to it was a small container that held her ashes.

Numerous owners followed, including one who leased the property for a time to Roy Rogers. The cowboy star supposedly trained his famed horse, Trigger, there.

Most Infamous Owner Leaped to His Death

Thomas Lee, the most infamous owner, took over in 1948. Lee got his money from his father, Don, who not only founded the first radio network in Los Angeles but also the city's first television station.

Thomas Lee supposedly put in the airstrip and put on the parties. His escapades made headlines, and just months after purchasing the castle, a court declared him incompetent.

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