One was built to keep you out, and one was built to draw you in…what they both have in common is the biblical Apocalypse. Nestled away in Blount and Loudon County are two divinely inspired doomsday castles just 30 minutes away from each other. Each is a labor of love and a work in progress, built by the hands of their dedicated architects over the span of decades. I met with Dean and Karen Fontaine of Millennium Manor and Floyd Banks Jr. of Greenback Castle to see what this doomsday-ing was all about.
Millennium Manor sits just 2 ½ miles from our campus, on N Wright Rd. Its gray stone rises imposingly over its surprisingly low stone walls. While called a castle, it looks less like a castle and more like a villa in Tuscany. This made sense after its current owner, Dean Fontaine, explained that the original owner, William Andrew Nicholson, used Roman architecture as inspiration.
Nicholson started building Millennium Manor in 1937. With only the help of his wife and their son, they constructed a castle that he believed could withstand the Rapture. According to Dean Fontaine, Nicholson planned to live in the castle with his family through the 1000 years the Book of Revelations says will be the reign of Jesus and the dead. It may be easy to think of Nicholson as a religious fanatic, but Fontaine says he was mostly seen as an intelligent and well-spoken man who held deep beliefs, never trying to evangelize. This could be due in part to Nicholson’s belief in pre-determination; those who would be saved had already been selected, and there would be no helping those who weren’t.
Unfortunately for Nicholson, he and his wife passed away before they had the chance to see their castle used for its intended purpose. Because he believed he would live forever, Nicholson had no will, and so the house sat unoccupied until it was bought by a Maryville resident. They eventually were unable to care for it, and then the Millennium Manor became a problem for the city. They decided that the castle should be torn down, but the city couldn’t find any companies willing to take on the arduous task. This is where Dean Fontaine stepped in and bought the castle in 1995 for $40,000. Since 1995, the Fontaines have been caring for and restoring the home, and the beauty of the space is a testament to the love they very obviously hold for it.
Even without impending Armageddon, the building is impressive and speaks volumes to Nicholson’s masonry talents. The castle is built entirely out of Tennessee pink marble, using Roman arch and keystone architecture. All the castle’s walls are load-bearing, with the thinnest wall clocking in at 19 inches thick. The castle consists of 14 rooms, a two-car garage, a gazebo, a well, and the roof holds a cistern used for catching rainwater.
As our tour moved through the second story of the castle, I was impressed with how beautiful everything looked. There were windows in each room that allowed sunlight to stream through, and the creamy stonework seemed soft rather than scary. It was easy to forget that this was a doomsday castle, and you could easily envision it as an Airbnb or event space, which is precisely what the Fontaines intend to do. In fact, they just hosted their first wedding on the property a few weeks ago. The place is decked out in medieval faire—none of the decorations were original due to looters taking what they could find in the time that the city had ownership of the building.
Then we moved downstairs, which the Fontaine’s lovingly call “The Dungeon.”
“The Dungeon” definitely had a different feel than the sunlit upstairs. It sits underground and holds at least six rooms, all with the same thick walls but no windows. When you descend the uneven stairs, the only light comes from a single bare lightbulb hanging in the middle of the hallway. One room, Mr. Fontaine’s movie room, was painted entirely matte black, and when you walked inside, it felt like you had been submerged in the deep sea. This level of the castle screamed “DOOMSDAY” in every room you entered, except the kitchen, which was ironically super cute, with a handmade porcelain sink and tiny window. If you take the tour, make sure to ask for a snack from one of the tins.
After seeing Millennium Manor, I made my way about 25 minutes westward to Greenback, TN to see Greenback Castle, otherwise known as “The Fortress of Faith”. The directions were simple, and a small, hand-written sign signaled where to turn on a small gravel road. When I arrived, the castle’s creator, Floyd Banks Jr., was waiting for me in the front. It was a quiet day with one other family visiting the property, giving us a chance to speak and for Mr. Banks to walk me around the castle.
Banks started the castle in 1947 because he “wanted to attract the ladies and be king of his own castle,” but as Banks built, he said God took over and instructed him. Instead of using the castle to attract people to connect with him, he now wants the castle to attract people to connect with God. According to Banks, it is built entirely by hand, and the artwork etched into the concrete was done by Banks with just the tip of a nail. The castle’s size is impressive, and it has a charming hodge-podge of decorations and paintings that instantly reminded me of The Orange Show in Houston, TX. Wine and beer bottles surround tree trunks; severed doll heads are placed in windows, action figures; wishing wells, tombstones, all kinds of knick-knacks, glass pieces, golf balls, and anything you can think of have been repurposed into an adornment for the building or property. Greenback Castle has been a labor of love for Banks for the past three decades.
Banks explained that he sees visions in the concrete walls of the castle. When a vision comes to him, he paints around it to reveal its shape. One such shape was the pale horseman of the Apocalypse, as mentioned in Revelations. According to the Bible, the pale horseman is the 4th horseman and represents Death. Banks took this as a sign that, perhaps, the biblical end of times was coming soon. This phenomenon, pareidolia (seeing faces in everyday objects), is not unique to Banks. It is a common way humans try to assign meaning to patterns.
Where Banks differs from Millennium Manor’s William Andrew Nicholson is that because he believes the end of times is near, he wants people to visit his castle rather than shut them out. He believes that by visiting the castle, you will see that we are not alone in the universe. Banks shared other interesting visions and theories, but what I found most striking about him was his kind and gentle nature. Outside, under oak trees wrapped with vines heavy with muscadines, he showed me a graveyard he created for all the unwanted stray dogs that unfortunately perished on his property. He would lovingly give them a name, bury them, and make a tombstone for each one. While under the vines, I spotted clumps of orange-striped oakworms, which will eventually turn into brightly colored orange and yellow moths. When I pointed them out to Mr. Banks, he seemed delighted with them and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt them.”
He also feeds the squirrels on his property and told me the story of how, in his younger years, he planted over 60,000 pine trees and was dubbed “The Pine Tree Man” by WBIR in their Heartland Series. At 76, Floyd credits God with his ability to keep working on his building. What was interesting to me about the castle is that it seems to be perpetually in flux. As long as Mr. Banks keeps adding to it, it will never be finished.
Who is to say whether the visions Mr. Banks experiences are real or not? He believes what he believes and lives a happy life, content with continuing his building, caring for the animals on his property and spreading his message. As for me, I left Greenback Castle still a skeptic to my core, but as I drove back into Maryville, I was greeted by a large, vivid double rainbow. I’m sure Mr. Banks would think that was no coincidence.
Both castles are open to the public. Millennium Manor holds tours on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.. Tickets can be purchased for $15 per person. Greenback Castle is free to the public seven days a week; Floyd Banks Junior just asks that you depart by sundown.