Jan 01, 2020 02:27PM
There’s a quote on love attributed to the actress Loretta Young that goes like this: “Love isn’t something you find. Love is something that finds you.” A romantic sentiment that works when it comes to who you marry, but where you marry is usually a different story. Finding the right venue can feel like a treasure hunt—but with a twist. When it comes to weddings, what couples are looking for is magic—finding a setting and creating a celebration that matches the event of their dreams. Or movies. Or social media. And what could be more magical, more alluring, more tailor-made for a wedding than a nineteenth century castle, by a lake, with a rich history of scandal and romance? Welcome to Belhurst Castle.
Gazing at the castle, it looks like it would cost a royal fortune to hold a wedding on-site. But no. “If you want to get married here,” says Carmen Brennen-Bain, Belhurst’s events coordinator, “we’ll work to make that happen.” Tall and slim with large, arresting eyes and a wide smile, Carmen knows, to the core of her being, what it takes to make a wedding happen. It’s evident she’s sincere, and goes the extra mile or three to deliver a wonderful celebration for every couple, even those on a limited budget. In her thirty-two-year career at Belhurst, Carmen has served at, bartended for, planned, and orchestrated over 10,000 weddings. Ten thousand. She is exquisitely tuned to the emotional and financial pressures a couple face when it comes to their wedding. An enthusiastic ambassador, Carmen emphasizes Belhurst’s commitment to flexibility with a customized approach to every celebration. It’s an uncommon perspective in the world of destination weddings where “packages” tend to be the industry norm.
Belhurst is situated on the edge of Seneca Lake, a dreamy, deep body of water—thirty-eight miles long from northern tip to southern end-point, and two miles wide—that cuts like a blue-edged sword between ripe hills decorated with woods, farms, and vineyards. But despite its rural feel, the resort property is less than two miles from the center of downtown Geneva. It’s a prime location with easy access to three international airports—Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo—making it an easy-to-reach location for out-of-town guests.
In 1992, current owners Duane and Deb Reeder acquired the property from Robert and Nancy Golden. The Reeders continued to build on the reputation of Belhurst as a fine dining restaurant and inn. Two upper floors of the castle and one outbuilding had been converted by the Goldens into twelve guest rooms. The Reeders added more rooms by converting a second outbuilding and a ranch house, erected on the property by former owner, Red Dwyer, into guest accommodations.
In 2003, a major expansion, 30,000 square feet of space, began. It transformed the property into a modern resort, yet the style of the newer construction and the seamless transition between old and new maintains the nineteenth century castle as the focal point of the property. Included in the expanded facilities is the Vinifera Inn, which offers another twenty luxury guest rooms on-site. Another ballroom, the Meritage, is housed in the addition, and complements the older, elegant ballroom in the castle. A pub-style eatery, Stonecutters, has the ambience of a posh club car from the days of stylish railroad travel. Its casual, sophisticated atmosphere is enhanced by two stand-out features: a magnificent wall of windows, facing the lake, directly behind a gleaming wooden bar and a grand, stone fireplace surrounded by mission-inspired armchairs and settee.
Stonecutters complements the more genteel, china-and-stemware atmosphere of Edgar’s, a restaurant reminiscent of another era, with dining areas tucked into graceful rooms on the castle’s first floor. In a nod to its past, Edgar’s still carries a prime rib entrée, Red’s Prime Rib, that’s been on the menu for over eighty-five years.
Onward to the Belhurst Estate Winery and Gift Shop, opened in 2004. The shop offers their own award-winning wines, beers, and hard cider. Tasting flights that pair wines with chocolates or cheese, and a craft beer flight that pairs selections with snacking favorites are a feature of the shop. Wine tours of the many Finger Lakes’ wineries, a popular activity for wedding parties, can also be arranged. Rounding out the on-property services is the Isabella Spa—Salon opened in 2010. Everything needed to relax, soothe, and beautify the body—pre- or post-wedding—can be had at Isabella’s.
Carmen and marketing manager Carly Morabito both point to the “one-stop shop” experience in a beautiful setting as a major attraction for wedding parties, and they note the area amenities also add to Belhurst’s popularity. There are five near-by hotels, plus Belhurst’s sister property, White Springs Manor, that offer rooms at different price points to accommodate a variety of budgets. Geneva has a rich array of restaurants and bars, shopping and entertainment. The famed gorge and racing venue at Watkins Glen is an easy forty-minute drive south along Seneca Lake’s western shoreline. With all the pluses, it’s no wonder that, between May and October, Belhurst Castle averages five weddings every weekend, Friday through Sunday. Since September there have been over 1,000 wedding inquiries looking at 2021 dates. Only a fraction of the calls turn into reservations but, even with that, available openings more than a year out fill fast.
Weddings can and are scheduled outside the “season.” In fact, for couples on a tight budget, moving outside the May-to-October weekends makes sense, and here’s why: beginning November 1 and running through April, there’s no minimum expenditure required. The minimums are used by Belhurst rather than charging a venue fee—an amount paid that only covers reserving a venue space for a set number of hours. Instead, during the prime wedding months, Belhurst sets a minimum dollar amount to be spent at the property. How the couple meets the minimum is up to them. They can pick and choose. For example, any food, ceremony, and bar choices can go toward fulfilling the minimum expenditure. Minimums also vary. In season, for a Saturday wedding, the minimum is $12,000, but have the wedding on a Friday and it drops to $8,000, or on a Sunday and it goes to $5,000. And again, from November 1 through April, there’s no minimum at all. Carmen works with every couple to ensure they have the wedding they want to fit the budget they have. She isn’t kidding when she says she can make a Belhurst wedding work for every couple. Perhaps the emphasis on personalization stems from Belhurst being a family-owned business. The Reeders are on-site, daily. Or maybe the flexibility comes out of Belhurst’s storied history.
Formerly a Seneca Indian village, the first non-Indian construction on the Belhurst acreage was a glass-making enterprise, first one west of Albany, called the Ontario Glass Manufacturing Company. When that operation halted in 1824, the land was divided among the company stockholders. A William DeLong won the prize, having received the largest, most desirable tract of land. Lickety-split, Mr. DeLong sold his most desirable tract to a Mr. Joseph Fellows, former resident of Warwickshire, England, who called Geneva home beginning in 1820. It’s with Fellows that Belhurst’s story takes off.
In 1830, a Mr. Henry Hall arrived in Geneva from London to make his home on the lakefront property owned by Joseph Fellows. Disparate stories are told of the mysterious Mr. Hall. In one version, he rented the “Hermitage,” an up-to-date cottage erected by Fellows, and lived there as a recluse with only a servant. After his gruesome death from blood poisoning in 1836—acquired when he broke his leg and refused to get treatment—Hall’s neighbors discovered that his real name was William Henry Bucke, a man in hiding from the authorities for having embezzled serious money from the Covent Garden Theatre. It was also rumored that he’d married his stepmother, a famous actress, or was she an opera singer? In any event, she supposedly met a tragic end, drowned, and as a result haunts the place to this day.
The real story of the jinxed William Bucke is recounted by David Sackmyster in his carefully researched book, The Belhurst Story. Bucke had some affiliation, it seems, with the Covent Garden Theatre, though there’s no documentation that cements his credentials as the theatre’s treasurer. He did, however, appropriate ticket money and, together with Isabella Robinson, a beautiful actress, left England for America. Isabella was introduced before sailing to Bucke’s son, William Jr. as his new stepmother. Though it’s a juicy detail for gossip, she was not William Sr.’s stepmother-wife. Whether she and Bucke were married is murky.
On the sea voyage, William changed his name to an alias, Henry Hall. He changed his son’s name to William Nathaniel Hall. Henry and Isabella met a fellow traveler on the ship, James Simons, who comes back into their story years later. The three-member Hall household, Isabella, Henry, and William Nathaniel, made their way to Geneva where they met James Fellows. Henry Hall used Fellows as his real estate and investment broker. Henry put all of the investments into Isabella’s name, and also had Fellows draw up a deed of trust in her name for the lakeshore property he purchased from Fellows. It was on this property that Henry erected a residence, the Hermitage, close to where the castle stands today.
As the months went by, Henry’s behavior became more bizarre and reclusive. For example, he had the Hermitage windows boarded up, and he saw no one other than his acquaintance from the ship, James Simons. Henry’s isolation deepened and neighborly goodwill faded. In 1834, Henry drew up a will “in which his estate is devised to Joseph Fellows in trust for Isabella Robinson and his son, William Nathaniel Hall share and share alike.” Not long afterwards, creditors from England showed up looking for him. But Henry’s crafty move to create a trust for Isabella and his son meant there was little left the creditors could collect. A settlement was reached. The debt hunters left. Henry Hall stayed, but his reputation went into the outhouse. Geneva was a small town. Word leaked out about the British creditors. “This gave rise to misgivings and a ready acceptance thereafter of mystery...those who had been duped were ready to believe and probably to start anything—even stretch it a little,” David Sackmyster wrote. One of the rumors that circulated was that Hall had constructed a tunnel from the Hermitage to the lake, a precaution for when Scotland Yard paid a visit. It wasn’t true, but it made for more good gossip.
Controversy continued to swirl around the Hall household, but not for long. In a fit of ugly rage, to which Henry was prone, he went after his son in the summer of 1835, chasing the boy around the property trying to cane him. The childhood gods intervened. Henry took a tumble and broke his leg. By now, daft and paranoid, he refused to send for a doctor. Blood poisoning took hold and, within days, Henry Hall née William Bucke died. Enter James Simons. After a suitable period, Isabella sent William Nathaniel to fetch him—he lived about ten miles distant. James arrived and together he and Isabella sold the Hermitage back to Fellows for a tidy sum. Isabella and William Nathaniel left Geneva with James. Isabella and James were married in 1836. Their happiness was short-lived. Ten years later, she died and was buried in a small, family graveyard in Yates County. She was forty-four years old.
The next owner of note was Harrison G. Otis in 1852. He’s noteworthy because he named the estate “Bellehurst,” which Otis interpreted to friends and family as “beautiful forest.” That connotation still stands. In 1885, Mrs. Carrie M. Young Harron bought the property from the United States Trust Company, which brings us to another love story. Carrie left her husband, Samuel V. Harron—Secretary of the Royer Wheel Company—in New York City and moved to Geneva with her son and a man she introduced as her “manager,” Louis Dell Collins, somewhere around 1886. Carrie and Dell Collins started improvements to the property right away. By 1888, Carrie had divorced her husband and married Collins. She’d also had the Hermitage torn down in preparation for the mansion she planned to build, the Belhurst Castle that still stands.
It took a total of fifty men four years to complete Carrie’s dream house. In the construction, one man died when he fell from the Castle tower and another “went insane while putting on the roof,” though what that looked like is anybody’s guess. The building is an example of the architectural style of H.H. Richardson, who designed Trinity Church in Boston. Geneva architect Thomas Lyon White once stated that Belhurst was in the Richardsonian Romanesque tradition. He described the castle as “made of Medina limestone, and its dormers, and balcony, and turrets, and crenellations give it distinction. The craftsmanship of the interior, the carved oak and mahogany is exquisite. There are marble fireplaces in almost every room.” When Carrie died in 1926 in Savannah, Georgia, Belhurst Castle passed to her grandson, Hal Harron, Jr. He lived there for a short time, but later leased, then sold, his grandmother’s castle to another colorful character, Cornelius J. Dwyer.
Dwyer, called “Red” by his wide circle of friends, was an up-by-the-bootstraps kind of businessman. In 1932, he leased the Belhurst property, eventually purchasing it from Harron, Jr. His vision was to turn the place into a tony restaurant/speakeasy and gambling casino. In 1933, that’s exactly what he did. Dining downstairs, gambling upstairs. During Prohibition, the liquor arrived by boat from Canada through the canal system. After Prohibition, it came through the front door. Red turned Belhurst, which he called the Belhurst Club, into a premier restaurant and casino, though in 1952 the Kefauver Commission convinced Red to stop the gaming. He did, but he continued with the restaurant until he sold the property in 1975. At the height of its glory, Clementine Paddleford, the diva of food critics, wrote a glowing review of Belhurst for the New York Herald Tribune, and James Thurber, celebrated humorist and New Yorker magazine writer, was a regular at the club. Dwyer’s tenure was the stuff of movies.
The tradition of excellence continues. Based on 2019 reviews, Belhurst Castle was a recipient of the 2020 Best of The Knot award, a serious recognition of quality from a nationally acclaimed, ginormous wedding planning website. In the wedding business world, it’s a coup. But this comment from Carmen is more telling, I think, than any award. When I asked her what kept her in the coordinator position, she said, “The first time I meet a couple, they’re overwhelmed—lots of ideas for what they want but no real understanding of what it will cost or what it will take to make it happen. We work together. And when it’s done, in the first thirty seconds of the celebration, I get to see their dream unfold.”
Carmen is on-site for every wedding, hello to goodbyes, making sure the magic goes as planned.
For more information on Belhurst Castle and pictures, pictures, pictures, check out belhurst.com. Or follow Belhurst on Facebook and Instagram.