Palace in Wonderland

Palace in Wonderland

E very time the foundry bell rings, another couple has tied the knot at Bill Miller’s Castle, an ornate and elaborate reception venue in Branford. The large bell, resting within a wood-shingled structure outside, dates back to the late 1800s, and was salvaged from an Ansonia foundry by Bill Miller himself.

As antique and rustic as the “castle” may seem, the imaginative architectural features that make that classification plausible only came together in the 1990s. Once upon a time, in the late 19th century, the property held a horse barn, which later became Holly’s Barn, a family restaurant. In the early 1960s, Miller bought the property and turned it into a dance and gymnastics studio, the successor to a facility he’d run on Edgewood Avenue in New Haven.

A dancer and gymnast himself, Miller was also a stage entertainer; he and his family were familiar faces at local and not-so-local venues—at shopping mall openings, the New Haven Arena and the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, to name just a few. Bill Miller’s Dance Art Center housed trampolines, bars, balance beams, mirrored walls and floors covered with mats for tumbling. Rings hung from the dark wooden ceiling beams; you can still spot the metal hooks that once secured them.

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Miller’s daughters, Lisa Miller Smith and Cheri Miller Weymann, who now own and manage the business with their brother, Jan Miller, warmly remember the days of teaching dance and gymnastics alongside their father. From the beginning, people asked to rent the hall for weekend parties, and in time the banquet business blossomed. “We were cleaning up the equipment every Friday night to get space ready for parties, and then putting it all back after the weekend” until, eventually, “the banquet business became bigger than the dance business,” Lisa says. In the early 1990s, her father went into full “castle mode,” beginning with the addition of some incredible stonework. The family often heard people referring to the building as “the castle” because of its changing outward appearance, and newspapers referred to Bill as “the king of the castle.”

It’s been 23 years since the transformation of the building into a Route 1 landmark, yet to walk inside Bill Miller’s Castle today is to step much further back into time: Miller salvaged much of the interior from various local sites and buildings, for history’s sake and also for the future’s. “Bill was green before its time. He knew what that meant,” Lisa says.

Standing on the back deck of the property, you can see an arched wooden lamppost that at one time illuminated the Merritt Parkway. Miller’s daughters say some of the interior wood originated from local tobacco barns. Windows with diamond-shaped panes adorn the walls after decades of letting sunlight in at Yale University, and “some of those hanging lights came from the old Taft Hotel in New Haven,” Lisa says, pointing towards the ceiling. Bill discovered other treasures at soon-to-be-demolished estates, including colorful stained glass windows that glisten throughout the castle. He also scoured estate sales, to furnish and accessorize the castle’s many rooms.

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Another remnant of the past, one closer to home, is a mirrored disco ball which shimmers at the center of the dining room. Cheri fondly remembers Cheri’s Shack, the discotheque she started back in the mid-1960s, which hosted dance parties with live bands and dancers. “It was go-go disco very much like Austin Powers.”

Back to the present, Bill’s daughters describe how their father would drive by buildings and take pictures of images that caught his eye; they recently discovered cupboards of old photographs that he had clipped for inspiration. “He loved the peaks in ceilings, and the details that made a space more interesting,” such as the window-covered turret that reaches for the sky through the castle’s pitched roof.

Bill passed away almost two years ago, at age 88. “He was going strong all the way through,” remembers Lisa. The family is now in the process of renovating his old apartment, located above the main dining room, to provide additional space for private events.

The castle “was his baby, his whole life,” Lisa says, and the family knows the significance of what he left them. Bill Miller’s castle keep is well-kept indeed.

Bill Miller’s Castle
834 East Main St (Rt 1), Branford (map)
(203) 488-4583 | contact form
billmillerscastle.com

Written and photographed by Liz Rubin.

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Liz Rubin writes about local businesses and personalities for the Shoreline Times and has also written for Madison Patch and Shalom New Haven. She loves living in Connecticut, where the mountains, the ocean and New York City aren't far. Liz resides on the shoreline with her husband, two children and a goldendoodle named Bo.

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