Those traveling along Illinois’ Great River Road may be shocked when they reach the old town of Quincy and see what appears to be a small Moorish castle overlooking the Mississippi. The house is not a figment of their imagination but a real-life castle that was created by an eccentric millionaire named George Metz, who abandoned the place after the death of his only companion – his dog, Bingo. Although Metz loved the house, he has not returned here in death. The same cannot be said for Bingo, who continues to linger here, many decades after his passing.
Villa Kathrine was built in 1900 as a virtual museum for the exotic furnishings collected by Metz during his world travels. The son of a wealthy Quincy businessman, William Metz, George was so rich that he never worked a day in life. When he came into his fortune, he decided to travel the world instead. His love for the world’s wonders made Metz himself something of a wonder to the small town folks in his home town. Reporters wrote speculative tales about Villa Kathrine, which was named for his mother, and townspeople gossiped about the castle’s mysterious owner.
According to legend, Metz’s wanderings were motivated by his
lifelong dream to find the perfect home. He found it in the
centuries old Villa Ben Ahben in Algiers. He later stated that he
was struck by the golden color of the exterior and the large domes
and became obsessed with creating his own version of the place in
Quincy. He also wanted to purchase suitable furnishings for the
house and he claimed to spend the next two years wandering North
Africa with the “secretive Moors”, haggling with caravan trains. He
bought thousands of items and pieces of furniture for the villa
including crescents for his domes, antique door knockers, divans,
Egyptian lamps and much more. During this time, he drew and sketched
and discarded ideas for the house and then he returned to Quincy to
make his dreams come true.
Needless to say, he had a tough time finding a sympathetic architect to build the "perfect house" in his hometown. Finally, he found a young man named George Behrensmeyer, who took Villa Kathrine on as his first commission. Together they found a site for the house on a bluff that looked down on the Mississippi River and toward the homes and buildings of the city. Working from Metz’s drawings, Behrensmeyer began designs for the dream castle. He scaled the place down so that it would rest securely on the bluff and then in 1900, the brick and stucco walls of Villa Kathrine began to rise.
The building was also characterized by an unusual variety of windows
that included rounded and pointed arches, keyhole shapes and
diamonds that added to the villa’s exotic appearance. The larger
windows were also fitted with grilles in Moorish patterns. A terrace
surrounded the front entrance and one could reach the door through a
Moorish arch. Over the front door was a tile that held a relief cast
of a woman’s hand that was adorned with a wedding ring and holding a
dove. Some believe that it was a cast of the hand of Metz’s lost
love but we will never know for sure. The wooden door was ornamented
with antique brass door trimmings brought from an old house in
The inside of the building continued the Moorish theme. Heavy wooden beams crossed the ceiling and keyhole niches were fitted into the walls. Shelves of exotic pottery, carved chairs and tables, wall hangings and rugs added greatly to the feel of the rooms. Inside of the front door was the drawing room and up a short flight of steps and through glass doors was the interior court. The court was surrounded by a gallery that was supported by eight pointed arches embraced by spiral pillars. The pillars are copies of those in the Court of Dolls in Seville, Spain. Around the center court, on both floors, were small square rooms that bordered a central pool. Above the pool, the villa’s atrium was open to the roof, where a winter glass cover would be replaced by a summer awning. The walls of the court appear to be covered in black and white tiles but this is only an illusion. For some reason, Metz had the walls painted to look like tile, an odd, money-saving gesture that stands out amidst the wealth of the house. Metz furnished the court with chairs, rugs, settees and stools and the area was dimly lit by oil lamps. In the dining room though, he hung a huge chandelier that once graced the salon of a luxurious Mississippi River showboat. The dining room and smoking room were decorated with rugs, art objects, tapestries and trophies that he had collected in the East.
Metz lived at Villa Kathrine as a bachelor for 12 years. He was not a total recluse though. On September 30, 1904, Albert Hastings and Pansy Darnell, an old family friend of the Metzs, were married at Villa Kathrine with Metz playing the wedding march on his pipe organ.
One day, a visiting couple, who professed a great interest in the
house, prevailed on him to sell to them. Their enthusiasm convinced
Metz that they would be ideal occupants for the villa and he sold
the house and all of its furnishings to them. Little did he know
that the buyers were actually agents for the railroad, who planned
to tear down the house and build a railroad yard on the site. Word
got out and vandals descended on the mysterious house and carried
off the decorations and the furniture, turning the place into a
Metz returned to the house one time, in 1913, with a reporter from
St. Louis. The house was overrun with vermin and birds, the tinted
walls were stained and destroyed and what little furniture remained
was shredded. He left it, vowing “never to return to this ruin
again.” Nineteen years later, Metz did come back for one final
visit, returning this time with a reporter from Decatur to find the
villa crumbling with decay. “I wish this place were mine again,” he
said, “I’d tear it down.”
George Metz never lost his love for views of the Mississippi River.
After leaving Villa Kathrine, he lived in a succession of apartments
with a wide view of the river, first at the Hotel Newcomb, then on
the second floor of a house and finally at the Lincoln Douglas
Hotel. He spent most of his spare time feeding the birds and
squirrels in Quincy’s parks. Poor health finally brought him to St.
Vincent Hospital, where he died from pneumonia in 1937.
Villa Kathrine survived the treachery of the Alton-Quincy Interurban
Railroad and it passed into the lives of decades of owners, renters,
caretakers and finally, the Quincy Park District. After years of
decay and vandalism, the castle has at last been saved and restored
for generations of people to marvel over --- and to wonder about.
It seems impossible for such a wonderful house to exist without at least one ghost story connected to its history and it's no surprise that Villa Kathrine does have one resident ghost. As mentioned, it's the spirit of Bingo that seems to have lingered here. Perhaps it was George Metz's enduring affection for the dog that kept him from passing on to the other side, but whatever the reason, staff members at the house have often reported hearing the clicking of Bingo's toenails on the tile floors of the house. This canine phantom creates one more mystery of Villa Kathrine --- one that merely adds to the lore of the house.
What drove George Metz to create such an unusual and eccentric place? We’ll likely never know but we can certainly be happy that something did and gave us this little piece of weird Illinois to appreciate.
© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.