Saint John, New Brunswick

The story below was taken from the New Brunswick Reader Feb.28/98

Castle of Disenchantment

Castle of Disenchantment
The South Bay residence was built to celebrate a fairytale romance, but it has its share of tragedy.

By Anne Baker

   On a bluff overlooking South Bay on the western edge of Saint John sits a family home unlike any other in the province of New Brunswick. It is a 20th-century structure, but it looks much older. Although it is known as the "Castle" it is not the home of royals, nor has it ever been. Among it's many owners the most illustrious was the brother of a senator, but he was not the first nor was he the most colourful. Both of those honors go to E. Parker Baker, the man who conceived of the castle and began construction in 1912, creating what a newspaper of the day called "an ornament to the locality."

   The newspaper also called it a "beautiful residence," but that sentiment is arguable. Gary Hughes, in his book of Saint John architecture Music of the Eye: Architectural Drawings of Canada's First City 1822-1914 called architect Neil Brodie's design delightfully eccentric, and this assessment is difficult to deny. There is no one word in the vocabulary of architecture that quite describes the castle's style which Hughes calls Gothic in outline, but classical in decorative program.

   Describing E Parker Baker is almost as difficult. Born in Saint John in the mid-1880s, he was the son of B. Franklin Baker and Mary Gault Baker. He grew up to be a handsome young man, lover of fine clothes and extravagant living. He became a shrewd investment banker and a partner in many area business ventures, but he was also a schemer who was not afraid of risk.

   He turned the head of Gladys Wellwood Walker of South Bay, the daughter of Dr.James Walker and Katherine Nice Walker. Gladys had attended the Ottawa Ladies' College and had once written her mother these words: " I never intend to get married unless I meet somebody that comes up to all my ideals and that I get so fond of that I can't live without. I believe there are hundreds of girls that get married without understanding what marriage means."

    Three years later, on April 18, 1911, Gladys was married to Parker Baker at her father's home. Parker loved money and all it could buy, and her family enjoyed considerable wealth. It was Dr. Walker who gave the young couple the money with which to build the castle and the land overlooking South Bay on which it is situated. When the couple's son Walker was born on September 24, 1912, he was brought home to their house on Alexandra Street just off Douglas Avenue in Saint John, but plans for the castle's construction were under way.

   The family finally moved from the city to the country in 1915. It was a fairy tale beginning to their lives at South Bay. The family was welcomed through heavily carved columns that set off the massive two-storey portico entrance. Large circular bay windows afforded them magnificent views of the bay and of the St. John River. Newspaper coverage reported on such improvements as "lighting and heating" and a kitchen with "all modern comforts." Hardwood floors gleamed in every room and everywhere expensive materials and decorative detailing added to the castle's elegance. Outside, the house was encased in limestone laid in Portland cement, the stones from the quarry of Randolph and Baker. On the grounds were sweeping stone walls, a lovely pergola, a circular driveway, magnificent lawns and gardens. It was an imposing piece of architecture.

   Parker and Gladys were opposites in personality and temperament. He was outgoing, charming, full of confidence. He was also reckless, especially with money. He earned a fine living, but he spent lavishly and often foolishly. More than once, his wife's family money helped him out of hot water, but there came a day when it could not.

   Gladys was quiet, introspective and deeply religious. She was an everyday painter who thoroughly enjoyed the fields surrounding her home, the creek named for the Walkers and the shore of her beloved South Bay. She entertained with pleasure, but her favourite moments were spent quietly alone with her paintbrushes or with her young son who became known as "Bookie" because, like his mother, he loved books.

   There is no evidence that Parker or Gladys ever referred to their home as "the castle." It is a descriptive word used in South Bay. And, alas, the home did not fulfil it's promise of a fairytale life for the couple. Parker had invested heavily and lost, not just money of his own, but that of clients. He fled from New Brunswick under a cloud and became an exile of sorts in New York City in the early 1920s. He continued to make fortunes in the United States, at one time as a partner in the film business with J. Arthur Rank, but he also continued to lose great fortunes on unsuccessful ventures, and he died in the mid-1970s, estranged from his son and living in genteel poverty in a lovely Dutch Colonial home overlooking the Hudson River at Newburgh.

   When Parker left New Brunswick, Gladys sold the castle and moved with Walker to her parents' home next door. There was an attempt at reconciliation with Parker, when she and Walker moved to New York for a brief period, but it did not take; the couple later divorced.

    It was a shocking development in the 1920s, one which the romantic and idealistic Gladys never got over. She took tremendous pleasure in her son, raised him with a loving hand but she never re-married and did not venture far from her father's home where she died in 1941.

   The castle has passed from one owner to another over the years. Each family that has resided there has a story to tell, some of them quite dramatic, even tragic. For many years Gladys looked across Walker's Creek at the wonderfully exotic home of her short marriage and painted it in soft watercolours. She painted it in all seasons. Some of her pictures render it as stately and serene. In others, it looks sad and dejected. The pictures speak of her own life as the castle's first lady.

E.Parker & Gladys Baker

   The castle still graces the bluff overlooking South Bay and is still a family home. The stone walls are gone; the pergola could use some restoration. But the imposing house remains, a reminder of the ambition and excesses of its first owner, E Parker Baker.

    Anne Baker lives in South Bay, Saint John. Her husband's grandfather was E. Parker Baker.