Forest Society says no plans to restore ruins of Madame Sherri's Castle

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CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Despite the wonders science and invention have brought to humanity, one thing has remained insoluble — gravity.

For the fans of the ruins in Madame Sherri Forest in Chesterfield, this is a sad fact that it appears must be accepted.

"The options seem to be let nature take its course," said Steve Lindsey, a former state representative from Keene. "Or repair the existing arches. Or fence off and demolish. I tend to lean towards the repairs, but I can see the let nature take its course option, too."

The ruins in the forest are all that remain of Madame Sherri's Castle, a country home built in the early 1930s by Antoinette Sherri, who had worked as a costume designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. Madame Sherri, who was born Antoinette Bramare in 1878 in Paris, decided to build in Chesterfield after attending a party at silent screen actor Jack Henderson's house on Gulf Road.

Madame Sherri threw lavish parties at her home but when she ran out of money, she abandoned the home. On Oct. 18, 1962, it burned down, leaving only the stonework from the foundation, columns, a fireplace and, most notably, the arches of the castle's grand staircase. Madame Sherri died in Brattleboro in 1965 at age 84.

Shortly after Madame Sherri died, West Chesterfield resident Anne Stokes purchased the land. Over the next several years, Stokes hosted several concerts and parties, using the foundation and stairway as a stage for elaborate sound and lighting displays. In 1976, she donated a conservation easement of 488 acres to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, also known as the Forest Society, and in 1991 she donated ownership of Madame Sherri Forest to the SPNHF. The easement itself was transferred to the Nature Conservancy and in 2005 Stokes donated to the Forest Society the remaining 25.5 acres containing the remnants of the castle, the parking lot, and the primary trailhead.

Over the years, as the legend of Madame Sherri grew larger, visitors from around the world made the pilgrimage to the site off of Gulf Road. Jack Savage, spokesman for the Forest Society, said that of their 185 properties, the castle is one of the most often found on social media, in stories and even on television and in movies.

"The mystique, this remnant, Madame Sherri herself and her story ... people are enchanted by that," said Savage.

Over the years, the weather, the increased visitation and, yes, gravity, have taken their toll.

"Two of the largest stone arches are failing," said Lindsey. "I called the SPNHF and asked them what if anything would be done to repair the stone arches. They told me they would let nature take its course, but post signage warning the public to stay off the arches."

Savage confirmed Lindsey's comment.

"At this point, we don't have a specific plan to restore those ruins in any way," he said.

Lynne Borofsky, the chairwoman of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission, which helps maintain a network of trails in the forest, said the town also doesn't have any plans to stabilize the ruins.

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"I do know the Chesterfield Conservation Commission is not interested in any repairs or intervention," wrote Borofsky in an email to the Reformer.

People have been known to scramble on to the ruins, especially the staircase, to snap pictures to be posted on social media. Savage said the Forest Society has posted signs warning people not to climb on the arches, but those signs often get torn down.

"We don't think they are safe to be climbed," he said.

Savage also noted that people who climb the ruins are responsible for any injuries they might incur if they get hurt.

"Here in New Hampshire we have a pretty good law that is meant to provide legal liability protection to those private landowners who allow the public to use their lands," he said. This is because in New Hampshire, public or private lands are open to the public unless posted otherwise. "That's a long and important tradition here in New Hampshire. If you're not posting your land and leaving it open to public use, liability ought not be a concern."

Savage said the Forest Society "provides guidance" on the proper use of trails, which includes being careful on promontories, cliffs and ruins.

"Irresponsible behavior can get you in trouble in lots of different places, not just wherever there happens to be an old staircase," he said.

Because of the popularity of the ruins, the Forest Society has limited access to the site by limiting parking there, said Savage.

"Parking is one way that you can meter out use of a particular reservation," he said.

The Forest Society also owns most of what is known as Monadnock State Park, more than 4,500 acres, which it leases back to the state for use as a park. There is plenty of parking there, he said, because the state park has more than 40 miles of trails.

"You can find a place there to enjoy the experience," said Savage. "At smaller places, like Madame Sherri Forest, you can inundate and undermine the quality of the experience with overuse. Land managers create a parking area that is appropriate for the number of people who ought to be on a particular piece of land. Yes, parking can be a problem, but parking can also be used to address a problem."

Savage also said that the Forest Society hasn't conducted an official count of the number of visitors the Madame Sherri Forest gets each year.

The 513-acre Madame Sherri Forest is situated on the eastern slope of Wantastiquet Mountain and abuts the 847-acre Wantastiquet State Forest. Trails in the Madame Sherri Forest are linked to the larger Wantastiquet-to-Monadnock Trail, which stretches from the Connecticut River east to Mount Monadnock.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 1515, or raudette@reformer.com.


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