They say a man’s home is his castle.
In the case of early Billings businessman Austin North, that was indeed the case. North built a home at 622 N. 29th St. in 1902 and 1903 that bore a resemblance to a castle, for good reason, and eventually the nickname stuck.
The stately residence was designed by well-known Montana architectural firm Link and Haire. It was modeled on the famed Potter Palmer mansion in Chicago, which was based on an English castle.
The Castle was completed the same year as the home built by P.B. and Mattie Moss on Division Street, now called the Moss Mansion.
A black-and-white 1903 photograph of the Castle shows the red-brick house much as it is today, with a large three-story turret, battlements capped with sandstone and semicircular arches over the windows. A color photo comparing the house then and now reveals the biggest difference, a glassed-in room added to the south side of the home. A physician with the last name Morrison, its second owner, used the room as his medical office.
These days, the Castle is situated in the busy medical corridor, surrounded mostly by businesses. In North’s day, the home sat on the edge of town, a dirt road on one side and open fields to the Rims.
North, president of the North Real Estate Investment Co. was an entrepreneur and real estate developer. He was described in a 1909 Gazette article as one of the city’s “original Billings boosters” who did much for the rapidly growing town.
What was the carriage house, adjacent to the mansion has been turned into a guest house that current owner Corby Skinner remodeled and uses mainly as a rental. Directly west of that, what once was a livery stable is now Juliano’s Restaurant.
The Castle has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A plaque inside the residence tells how despite its distinct medieval character, it came equipped with the modern conveniences of the time, including an early air humidifying system.
“The home was heated from a city heating plant whose steam pipes ran under the sidewalks and kept them free of snow and ice,” the plaque reads.
Skinner credits Senia Hart with saving the Castle when she bought it in the 1970s. Civic-minded Hart was known for helping preserve several Billings landmarks, including the Rex hotel, the Alberta Bair Theater and what is now the Western Heritage Center.
“Senia Hart really is the story of this house because she saved it from being torn down and turned into a parking lot,” Skinner said, sitting at a high table on the first floor of the home that also houses his public relations firm. He lives on the second and third floors.
In the 1980s, Skinner rented the third floor from Hart, and then the second floor. Then, for several years before he bought it in 1991, he rented the whole house.
Hart sold the house to Skinner with a caveat.
“She wanted it to have a public presence,” he said. “She wanted someone to maintain the house and not turn it into just an office space. She liked the idea of having people here.”
At the time, Skinner worked for the Alberta Bair Theater and did a lot of entertaining.
“I still do all kinds of fundraisers, and with my (High Plains) book festival, I have lots of literary things here,” he said.
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Between the time North built the home and Skinner bought it, it has gone through many changes, Skinner said.
“At one time there was a tea room in the basement,” he said. “There was an art gallery here, and there was a design studio on the second floor.”
Eventually the home was converted into four apartments. The now-guest house once housed Global Village, a nonprofit fair trade retail outlet, and later it was home to a sandwich shop.
By the time Skinner bought the Castle it was not only in disrepair, but the previous occupant who had an art gallery had covered most of the large windows with particle board from which to hang art.
“So the first thing I did was to rip down all the boards,” Skinner said.
Hart also had hidden all of the interior French doors in an old stairwell, he said. She let him know where they were when he bought the house.
Skinner pulled them out and easily dropped them into their frames.
“It’s sort of like they knew they were supposed to be there," he said. "That’s what gives the house so much character, they are just beautiful.”
Skinner has poured a lot of money into the Castle, redoing wiring and plumbing, replacing ceilings and opening up rooms that, in the style of earlier times, were much smaller. He also took down a lot of the lath and plaster because it was falling off the walls and left exposed brick.
A patio off one of the second-floor rooms is original to the home. It, too, has been redone several times, Skinner said.
“Once it gets totally warm, I fill it full of plants and things,” he said. “And then the trees fill out so much that it’s almost hidden, so when you’re up here, it’s almost like a tree house.”
There are some quirks in the house, partly because of its previous configuration as apartments. It has a kitchen on each floor, including four dishwashers that come in handy when he entertains.
“The other sort of funny thing about this house is there are 17 rooms in it, and there’s one bedroom,” he said.
He has a couch that he makes into a bed if he needs it, and there’s always the guest house.
Having a house on the National Register of Historic Places, "mostly just means your insurance is more expensive,” Skinner said, laughing. “And they want you to maintain the integrity of the architecture.”
What makes the Castle a little different from other buildings on the register, at least in Billings, he said, is that most tend to be museums. Skinner’s entry is his home, and his castle.