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Aimee's castle

Excitement builds for rare tour of Aimee Semple McPherson's Lake Elsinore home

LAKE ELSINORE - Barbara Middlebrook said she can hardly contain herself when she sees Oct. 20 circled on her calendar. On that day, she and people across the Inland area will walk for the first time in the halls of one of the region's most famous and mysterious homes: Aimee Semple McPherson's Castle.

Hosted by the Lake Elsinore Historical Society and Foursquare Church, founded by the celebrity evangelist who built the home as a retreat, the castle tour is believed to be the first-ever organized public showing of the 14-room hilltop mansion built in 1929.

M.L. Austin, 78, a caretaker of the 5,000-square-foot, Arabian-style house, lives there. Celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson built the hilltop mansion as a retreat, and the huge house now serves as a retreat and conference site. "It's the mystery and the intrigue that surrounds the home that has me so excited," Middlebrook said. "And it will finally be unveiled." .

The 5,000-square-foot, Arabian-style house built near Lakeshore Drive and Riverside Drive currently serves as a retreat and conference site for Foursquare officials. Caretakers M.L. and Betty Austin, 78 and 76 respectively, live there. Historical Society President Ruth Atkins said the overwhelming response prompted the club to rent two more buses to take tour guests up winding Sunnyslope Avenue to the home.

"We knew there would be interest, but I don't think anyone expected this," Atkins said. "The response has been terrific." Some of the public interest comes from urban legends about the home that have been told for years. One of the most popular myths is that a narrow tunnel that links the caretaker's quarters to the former gymnasium is part of a series of catacombs.

"There are no ghosts, no bodies," M.L. Austin said as he traversed the violet-colored passage. "Some of the things, we don't know what they were for though. Only Aimee would know." Others, however, have seen the house from its hillside perch and are curious about its origins, said J.J. Swanson-O'Neal, former Historical Society president and resident historian of Aimee's Castle. Built by a woman who founded a Christian denomination, the house, which has a large cerulean-tiled dome and another silver-painted dome, resembles a mosque, Swanson-O'Neal said.

"There is mystery that surrounds this home on so many different levels, there has always been this sense of 'what is that?' " Swanson-O'Neal said. "The unique architecture catches your eye. People want to know what is behind the doors." Much of the interest is also fueled by the intrigue generated by McPherson herself. Betty Austin, a caretaker of the mansion, shows the living room. Costing $286,000 to build in 1929, the mansion features a large cerulean-tiled dome and a silver-painted dome. "People want to know who she was. They've heard the stories and the tales," Atkins said.

Castle Dining Hall

McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist during the 1920s and 1930s, was known for her large following and charitable deeds during the Great Depression. She raised $1.2 million for the construction of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, which eventually evolved into its own denomination. At its peak, more than 5,000 people would attend church services at Angelus Temple, where her lavishly produced, Bible-based stage plays were a regular staple. She also is credited with being one of the first evangelists to use modern technology to spread her message. She reportedly drove across the country in a 1912 Packard with the words "Jesus is coming -- get ready" displayed on its side. Her sermons were later broadcast on radio.

McPherson owned the home, which cost $286,000 to build, until 1939. She died five years later. It is well-documented that her death was believed to have been from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. The Austins said it was intrigue that prompted church officials to approach the Lake Elsinore Historical Society about setting up a tour.

"We would leave the home and come back, and there would be people trying to take a tour. Other times, we had Muslims come to ask if they could pray here," Betty Austin said. "We wanted to accommodate the public interest." Officials from the church, which purchased the home from Jeffrey and Laura Bairnsfather for $1 million in 2005, spent the past few years restoring the Byzantine-Arabian-style structure to its former glory.

Original accents, including multicolored tile and wooden flooring, have been buffed to a 1929 shine. A local muralist has restored many of the home's colorful wall paintings, including those in the bathroom, kitchen and dining room areas. Other items, including McPherson's personal desk and piano, were delivered from the church's Angelus Temple to the Lake Elsinore home, where they also underwent restoration and are now on display.

There were also some changes.

The front slope, which used to be covered in grass, is now a roundabout driveway. A wheelchair ramp was added. The signature blue dome has been braced with steel beams because workers found the older supports to be inadequate. With all the improvements, Swanson-O'Neal said she believes the home's value is "well over $1 million."

For the church, the acquisition of the home was a way to link the current denomination to its roots, M.L. Austin said. "Everything still tells a story about who Sister Aimee was," M.L. Austin said. "And the story focuses on her ministry and the gospel, which was her life." The castle has had only a handful of owners since 1939, Swanson-O'Neal said. It was the home of noted author and world traveler Violet Sweet Haven McFarland from 1961 until her death in 2001.

The Bairnsfathers were working on restoring the home when they sold it to the church in 2005. Foursquare officials completed the renovation a year later. People who have had a sneak peek at the home said the renovation is "nothing short of spectacular."

"It is simply breathtaking," Atkins said of the property, which offers an unimpeded 360-degree view of the Lake Elsinore Valley area. "Those who go on the tour are in for a real treat."

The Press-Enterprise7