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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Enchanted castle: Resort hotel in Ohio woods transports visitors to another time

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE TRAVEL WRITER

LOUDONVILLE, Ohio - It's one of those winding, wooded country roads where you're not even tempted to drive any faster than 20 mph. Since turning off State Route 3 a few miles back, we notice that the pavement has gotten narrower and the surrounding woodlands thicker.

Small wonder, since we're on the edge of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest, one of Ohio's largest and thickest.

Around what seems like the 100th switchback, we catch sight of it through the trees, looming high over the mostly bare branches of the surrounding hickory, aspen, and ash trees. It's a sprawling stone and wooden building, full of peaks and lookouts and turrets and towers.

It looks like something that's been ripped out of a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales and deposited in the woods of central Ohio.

And in a way, it is.

This is Landoll's Mohican Castle, literally a fantasy come true for a self-made Ohio book publisher and millionaire.

About seven miles south of the Ashland County city of Loudonville, the secluded castle is actually an upscale resort hotel, opened two years ago by Jim and Marta Landoll, former owners of a multimillion-dollar publishing company. It stands on the highest point in the area, at an elevation of about 1,350 feet, and is on a 1,100-acre private estate in the Appalachian foothills of the Mohican Valley.

As castles go, this one isn't your cookie-cutter Disney model. Its roof lines have more of a Gothic look, with towers and spires of varying heights poking up here and there from the three-story main building, which was constructed almost completely from timber and stones salvaged from the property. Antique chimney pots can be seen in several places on the steeply angled roofs.

The 64-year-old Landoll delights in the appearance of the building, which he designed himself.

"I didn't want to have it go straight up and have that, you know, 'dental molding' at the top," he says, referring to the battlements traditionally seen at the top of castle walls.

He says he sketched out the castle's exterior in about 20 minutes, "and it turned out pretty much the way I had it."

There are four viewing towers on the castle, three accessible only to guests and one lower one with an external spiral staircase that visitors can use. "I've gotten some criticism for that one," Landoll says, "but I just wanted people to be able to go up and have a look around."

Inside the castle are 11 guest suites, each decorated differently, but all lavishly furnished. All have either a king or queen bed, and most have a sofa sleeper as well.

Some have 20-foot, beamed cathedral ceilings and iron-leaf candelabra chandeliers, while all have hardwood floors with thick area rugs, overstuffed sofas and chairs, gas fireplaces, kitchenettes with refrigerators and microwaves, and dining areas.

There is double insulation in the walls and around all the water pipes, so the rooms are practically soundproof.

The bathrooms have Jacuzzi tubs, granite counters, and brass fixtures, but what's really impressive are the Italian floor tiles, which have heating coils in them. Flip a wall switch and voila! - no cold feet in the morning.

Landoll says the tile floors alone cost between $14,000 and $20,000 per bathroom, and each suite cost as much as some homes to build.

There are four more suites in cottages a short distance away from the castle and accessible by cobblestone walkways.

At the top of a nearby hill is an indoor swimming pool and fitness center. The building contains a workout room with a few machines, a game room with billiard table, massage and tanning rooms, a whirlpool, and a sauna. At one end of the pool is a waterfall that forms a kind of private grotto.

To keep down utility costs, the castle complex is heated and cooled by an ingenious geothermal system, which employs a number of 350-foot shafts bored into the ground.

"I hate paying for fuel oil," explains Landoll.

For the curious who aren't ready to pay the relatively steep room charges ($190 to $495 a night) to stay at the castle but still want to see what the place looks like, daily guided tours are offered to the public for $5.

The story of how the castle came to be built in the Ohio woods midway between Columbus and Cleveland has many of the elements of a real-life fairy tale.

Landoll came from a working-class background, and his father died when Jim was just 8. One of several children, Jim pitched in as best he could to help support the family. One of his early jobs was delivering The Blade for a time in Huron, Ohio.

"I remember I sold enough subscriptions one time to win a trip to Washington, D.C.," he recalls.

As a teenager, Landoll liked to draw, and later, when he was in the military and stationed in Germany in the early 1960s, he sketched several of the castles he saw there.

"Even then, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun to build a castle sometime?' " he says.

Those thoughts were put aside, however, when Landoll left the service. He worked in a series of jobs over the next several years, and by 1979, he was living in a motor home in Loudonville, virtually broke. He wanted to start a printing business, and, drawing on his artistic abilities, he began producing coloring books at night in a local print shop. To save money, he rode a bike to work whenever the weather permitted.

Over the years the company grew, and Landoll managed to secure licensing agreements for many popular children's characters and stories. Its first licensed character was Popeye, available for the "bargain" price of $50,000 because no other publisher was interested in the spinach-eating sailor, Landoll says. After a time, the by-then not-so-little publishing firm from Ashland, Ohio, was doing business with the likes of Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, and DreamWorks.

In 1992, a fire destroyed the Landoll plant, but within 60 days, Jim and Marta had operations back up and running at about 80 percent of capacity. What Landoll was proudest of, he says, is that "we delivered on all our commitments without missing a single deadline."

By the mid-'90s, Landoll Publishing had become something of a heavyweight in the publishing business, producing all sorts of children's books and educational materials, as well as consumer titles in cooking, gardening, and many other areas.

"We had 850 employees, including 60 artists, and a total of 500,000 accounts that included the majority of retail stores throughout America," Landoll says. "Just about anyone with young children would be hard pressed to not have at least a few Landoll books on their shelves."

In 1997 Landoll and his associates sold the publishing business to the Chicago Tribune for a cool $100 million, and he and his wife began spending more time at their country estate near Loudonville, which had previously served as little more than a weekend retreat.

That's when the idea for a castle re-emerged. Landoll designed the exterior himself, and construction began in November of 1997, with Landoll serving as the general contractor. Interior work began in early 2001, and the hotel was opened the next year.

Landoll compares constructing his fantasy castle with plotting out a story for young readers. "It's almost like doing a children's book, but in real life," he says.

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Since throwing open the castle doors in June, 2002, the Landolls have added a restaurant and gift shop, making the estate more of an attraction for area residents as well as overnight guests.

The restaurant, called Legends at the Castle, serves lunch, dinner, and a Sunday brunch that is so popular among both guests and the locals that reservations are almost a necessity.

The dinner menu features such fare as Black Angus beef from the estate's own cattle herd, tomato-seared Atlantic salmon, and rosemary pork loin.

Locally grown organic blueberries have a prominent place on the Legends menu. Harvested by Amish girls each summer from more than 12,000 bushes on the estate and then quick-frozen, they appear in lots of the restaurant's offerings, including an unusual and tasty blueberry vinaigrette dressing and Legends' signature dessert, the Blueberry Piefin - a hybrid of a pie and a muffin - that contains seven varieties of berry.

Even the bar's offerings are big on blueberries, with several drinks made with blueberry syrup.

Herbs, spices, and vegetables used in the restaurant are grown in the estate's own greenhouses, which also provide many of the flowers and plantings for the grounds.

A giant stone fireplace separates the restaurant from a gift shop, where candles, crafts, pictures, and other collectibles are sold.

Between the hotel, restaurant, and gift shop, the Landolls employ a staff of about 60, including some of their children and their spouses. "Quite a difference from when we had 850 people," Landolls says with a smile.

Many of the castle's guests know nothing of Landoll's former business, but some remember reading Landoll books to their children.

"You'd be surprised how many people still associate the books with the castle," he says with a laugh. "I tell them to bring [the books] here when they stay and I'll sign them. Then they're worth more to them."

Castle guests are welcome to wander on some 30 miles of trails that crisscross the estate , and for those who'd rather ride than walk, mountain bikes and golf carts can be rented by the hour or day. Horse-drawn carriage tours (or sleigh rides in season) of the estate are available, too.

During the winter months, the castle's fairy tale effect is heightened by a million tiny white lights, which glow throughout the grounds at night from Nov. 1 through March 31.

The castle and its grounds are popular locations for weddings, particularly a wedding terrace that's framed against a backdrop of an arched stone trellis overlooking a waterfall. By the end of November, Landoll says, a new banquet hall and event center capable of holding 500 people will be completed and available for use.

The Landolls live in an A-frame house on the grounds, and both are active in the management of the castle complex. Yet Landoll is not the sort to be content reigning over his central Ohio kingdom. The non-compete clause he signed when he sold his publishing business expires by the end of this year, and he says he plans to get back into publishing in partnership with one of his sons. In preparation, he's made two trips to China in the past year in connection with the venture, which he's not ready to talk about in detail just yet.

"But we'll still have a hand in things here at the castle," he adds. "I couldn't walk away from a place like this."

Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade.com or 419-724-6131.



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