A couple from Houston on a mission to save a 1930s castle in Santa Fe, Texas

Ian Dennis and his wife Kristen smiled as they held the keys to their ruined castle, fully aware of the challenges ahead to save it.

This week, the couple bought the Santa Fe Castle, also known as Pignataro Castle, located off Highway 6 in Santa Fe, Texas, about 35 miles from Houston. The property’s 2022 assessed value was $807,380, according to the Galveston Central Appraisal District, but Dennis says he paid more than he was worth.

“It was the only way to do it because there was a lot of interest, but I was the only one who wanted to restore it,” Dennis said. “This is a very high end commercial property, the land itself is very valuable, but for me the value is in the chateau itself.”

According to Santa Fe Area Historic Foundation, the castle was built around 1934. Only legends and myths explain why it was built. It has been in the Pignataro family since 1970 and at one point fell into disarray.

Dennis is from the north of England, which he says is ironic because he says castles were traditionally built to keep the English out. He moved to the Houston area to do cosmetic tattooing and said he was “risking everything” to focus on saving the castle.

“It’s one of those things where you see it, and you get a little obsessed with it, and you fall in love with it, and then you find out it’s for sale,” Dennis said. “It’s worth taking the risk.”

Ian and Kristen Dennis plan to save the castle and turn it into a museum, bed and breakfast and maybe more.

Natasha Snyder Photography

A piece of history

Robert Bear of the Santa Fe Area Historical Foundation said the castle was built by John Christensen’s ex-wife in the 1930s. Christensen was a Danish immigrant who came to the United States in 1891 with just $16, according to Bear.

Christensen would work on the Galveston docks and save enough money to own the first Ford car dealership, John Christensen & Co., on Galveston Island. After Christensen’s death, it is believed that his widow had the castle built on a farm owned by Christensen.

Many legends surround the history of the castle. A legend has it that Mrs. Christensen built the castle to give it to the Catholic Church as a retirement home for nuns, but the church didn’t want the castle – so she made it her home.

Another says a wealthy Texan had the castle dismantled in Europe and rebuilt in its current location as a home for his mistress, according to the Foundation. Or the castle was built by an eccentric woman to live out a childhood fantasy.

Regardless of how and why the castle was built, ownership changed hands in 1954, 1966 and 1970 when Franco Pignataro, a Sicilian-born royal policeman turned American chicken farmer, became a restaurateur. bought the castle because it reminded him of his home.

Pignataro converted the 26-room castle into several apartments, installing a fence, iron gates, a concrete swimming pool and gazebo, and importing most of the furniture from Sicily.

“After that, there was a little pizzeria there,” Bear said, “and then after that, it just went down.”

An aerial view of Santa Fe Castle in 2022.

An aerial view of Santa Fe Castle in 2022.

Courtesy of Ian Dennis

save a castle

Dennis said the castle didn’t need renovations, it needed saving.

“Everything needs fixing, from the foundation to the roof, to the windows,” Dennis said. “Anything that could be done must be done.”

Dennis said the odds were stacked against him and his wife, but added there would be no saving him if they made the purchase in a year or two. Currently, Dennis and his wife do not live in the castle because it would be too dangerous.

After finally renovating the property, Dennis wants to turn part of it into a museum and has several ideas on what to do with the rest.

“The great thing about a place like this, which is so unique and captures people’s imaginations, is that we can do with it whatever we want,” Dennis said. “As for living in it, probably not. We’d rather it be a business. We need to make some money out of it.”

There’s a smaller “mini castle” attached to the property which they say looks like it was designed to be an Airbnb. The couple plan to renovate it first to earn money for the rest.

Dennis also said he plans to change his name on the act to “King Ian” once they get a new home.

The couple created a Facebook group, Santa Fe Castle Restoration, to document the renovation of the castle. As of Wednesday afternoon, it has nearly 20,000 members.

“I woke up one day and thousands of people were sharing the page,” Dennis said, “it’s kind of reassuring that I’m not as crazy as a lot of people think.”

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