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Castle on the Hill

Former armory makes TV debut

April 6, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald
AMSTERDAM — The first thought that may occur to visitors to the Amsterdam Castle is that utility companies must love the Phemisters.

Featured on the Home and Garden cable TV network in the “reZONED” series Jan. 30, the former U.S. Army National Guard Armory has 50 rooms with 36,000 square feet of space, but Sue and Manfred Phemister and their children only use 2,500 for living space.

“We’ve renovated 11 of the 50 rooms so far,” Sue Phemister said.

The cable TV show came in the wake of Talon Films’ production to appear later this year and using the castle as a set for the independent film “In God’s Good Pleasure.” She said using the castle for production crews helped bring business to the area with spin-off spending to local restaurants and other businesses.

Although Montgomery County is not a member of the Saratoga Capital Region Film Commission, Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce President Deborah Auspelmyer said they are interested and looking into joining. Reports of over $1 million spent in the Saratoga area during the filming of the 2003 “Seabiscuit” help spur that interest.

“We often get calls for possible filming sites in the area,” Auspelmyer said. “By following up and getting back to these companies — you never know what opportunities may arise, like the one at the Amsterdam Castle.”

Auspelmyer said the original contact by HGTV was for a slightly different venue, but when she mentioned the Amsterdam Castle it fit into the network’s “reZONED” series about unusual buildings that have been made into residences.

“We also had a business after hours last year at the castle,” Auspelmyer said. “It’s a great space.”

Phemister said of 100 National Guard armories built in New York at the turn of the century, theirs is the only one used as a residence. She said most of the interior space isn’t heated in the winter other than by ambient heat from the residential space, and that the pair of steam boilers in the basement are very efficient.

Purchased three years ago in 2005, the former armory was first purchased in 1994 at auction for $65,000 and some conversion to residential space was done at that time. Then the owner fell ill and put the property back up for sale. Sue Phemister said they purchased the property for “more than $65,000,” although she wouldn’t specify how much more.

“This is our third renovation,” Sue Phemister said. “We’ve also re-done a warehouse/office building in London and a brownstone in Park Slope.”

Besides living space and guest rooms, the former armory contains Manfred Phemister’s music and video business, Park Slope Music. Housed in the basement, Manfred Phemister’s staff can be busily picking, packing and sending out DVDs and music CDs to customers without encountering possible guests to the castle because of the huge space involved.

The biggest space of all is a complete, full-sized gymnasium with second-story bleacher space for on-lookers.

“It provided indoor drill-space for the National Guard as well as exercise area,” Sue Phemister said.

In keeping with the “castle” motif for the former armory, Phemister prefers to call it a 10,000 square foot ballroom.

She also said the location of the armory on a hill overlooking the Mohawk River was an intentional placement for an easily defendable site and the building was meant to look foreboding when it was built in 1894.

Of the original 100 armories, 50 are still in use, but “We’re the only residence,” she said.

Phemister said film crews from the PBS TV documentary on Benedict Arnold, “American General,” had used the facility, a short independent film had been shot there and the WCSS radio dodgeball tournament took place there, but she had no special plans to turn the space into rentable space for visitors or other events.

WCSS Production Coordinator Rebecca Persico said the castle was ideal for their dodgeball tournament. She was appreciative of the Phemisters’ willingness to open the castle up to community events.

“We had 16 teams for a total of 160 people playing and a couple of hundred spectators at the event,” Persico said. “It was a wonderful place to have the event and the Phemisters were very gracious.”

Persico said the Phemisters helped set up for the tourney as well as cleaning up after. She said proceeds from the dodgeball tournament went to Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties “Every Kid Deserves a Bike” program and the concession stand proceeds went to the Amsterdam High School baseball team.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful building,” Persico said. “I can see why it was chosen for the HGTV special. It’s great for galas and events.”

Phemister said she has no plan for special events or use of the castle in the future.

“I’m just letting things flow,” Phemister said. “Mostly we live here.”

Phemister takes the Amtrak commuter train to New York City the early part of the week to her job as a sales representative for Reuters News Service for North America.

“I could probably find a job up here,” Sue Phemister said. “But it probably wouldn’t pay as well.”

Finances are definitely needed for the continued renovation that the Phemisters expect will go on for some time.

“We aren’t rich,” Sue Phemister said. “We do renovations and bring in antique furniture as we can afford it. We don’t make any attempt to have all the antiques from the same period.”

While there is little off-street parking available for the building (automobile parking wasn’t a problem in 1894, Phemister quipped), she said she is happy to rent space out to those who appreciate the building.

“Parking isn’t really an issue for most people who come here,” she said.

The Armory housed the 46th Separate Company of the National Guard which became the “G” Company of the 105th Infantry Regiment in 1898, according to Nancy L. Todd’s book “New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History published in 2006. A project analyst with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Todd wrote that the armories were used by local men needing training space. During the era of labor and capital conflict, the armories were monuments to law and order, Todd wrote, and were meant to look imposing.

Todd wrote that armories became “luxurious clubhouses for National Guard members, which helped with recruiting.”

Prices for using the building include:

Overnights: $150 per wing per night, including continental breakfast

Ballroom rental: $990 for four hours

Kennedy Room rental: $300 for four hours

For more information, call 843-5201 or e-mail

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be contacted at

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
The Amsterdam Castle, now the home of Susan and Manfred Phemister, is shown March 20 as seen from Florida Avenue. It was built as a National Guard Armory in 1890 and has been renovated by the couple.

Fact Box

Renting a castle
According to the Amsterdam Castle Web site: “Built in 1894 by the state of New York for the National Guard, Amsterdam Castle is a 36,000 square foot private residence listed on the National Register of Historic Places
“This magnificent facility has 50 rooms, including a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, a rifle range, a fallout shelter and billiard room. It is currently used as a living and commercial space, featuring four turrets, three living wings, elegant reception rooms, and a terrace. Following a year-long, 11-room renovation and redecoration, the building is newly wireless and cabled to provide the latest in comfort. The 36,000-square-foot building has a 10-car garage, on-site parking for 40 and ample street parking. It is licensed to accommodate up to 1,213 people in restricted (concert-type) seating and up to 566 persons in unrestricted (dinner-type) seating – the largest facility in the county. We have two guest wings available for overnight accommodation.
“This Victorian-Romanesque beauty is filled with unique rooms with limitless potential — the 1,300-square-foot Kennedy reception room, the 1,000-square-foot guest suite, and the 10,000 —square-foot Gala Ballroom, for starters. Completing the building’s historically accurate renovations are the latest in high-speed cable and internet access.
“Amsterdam Castle has an extensive collection of elegant gold-rimmed dinnerware, flatware, glassware, coffee service, tablecloths, chairs, tables and dinner equipment that you are welcome to use as part of our event prices.”



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