CHESTERFIELD — The remains of Madame Sherri’s Castle have attracted visitors for decades, with the stone ruins being almost as captivating as the stories — and rumors — about the woman the home once belonged to. In the wake of the staircase’s partial collapse this weekend, locals are reflecting on the landmark and what to make of the loss.
The upper arch of the staircase toppled sometime between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, according to numerous reports from visitors who posted about it on Facebook.
Lynne Borofsky, chairwoman of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission, said she hopes the collapse will caution future visitors.
“I think this will draw attention to the fact the staircase should not be climbed on,” she said, describing how she’s seen people scaling the structure despite signs prohibiting it. “That’s a good thing to come from this.”
The steps are all that remain of Madame Sherri’s Castle, which was built in 1931. Audrey Ericson, the historian of the Chesterfield Historical Society, described Madame Sherri as akin to a “folk hero,” as it’s difficult to distinguish which stories about the woman are true.
“We have few people in town we could call more famous,” Ericson said.
The property, in the woods off Gulf Road, is owned by the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests, and the conservation commission has long helped maintain the site.
Carrie Deegan, reservation stewardship and engagement director for the Forest Society, drove out to Chesterfield on Monday to assess the stability of what’s left. While the partial loss of the stairs is unfortunate, she said, there is still plenty of reason to visit Madame Sherri Forest, and she hopes people will start to notice the beauty beyond the ruins.
“The property itself has some spectacular hiking,” she said.
But for Cody Barcomb of Winchester, who has been trying to photograph the staircase in every season — and just had winter to go — the loss hurts.
“Something like this collapsing, it just reminds me of when the Old Man [of] the Mountain collapsed,” he said, referring to the iconic collection of cliffs on Cannon Mountain that fell in 2003. ”It’s just one less beautiful thing in the state.”
Though it’s still not clear what exactly caused the arch to collapse, Deegan said it appeared the mortar between the stones had disintegrated.
There hadn’t been any indication that the arch would collapse imminently, she noted.
“It surprised us as much as anyone,” she said. “It’s a cool and much beloved site in New Hampshire, but it is a 90-year-old stone ruin — this was always a possibility that we knew might happen.”
Borofsky, of the conservation commission, had also long anticipated the structure’s toppling.
“I had been watching it crack for really the last 25 years,” she said. “I’ve watched the staircase and other pieces of the structure slowly go back into nature.”
The Chesterfield Conservation Commission cordoned off a section of the area on Sunday, and the Forest Society expanded the restricted area on Monday. Ensuring safety is the Concord-based organization’s primary concern right now, Deegan said, as it’s still unclear how unstable the ruins are.
Forest Society President Jack Savage said there aren’t currently any plans to reinforce the rest of the staircase.
According to the Chesterfield Historical Society, Madame Sherri was born Antoinette Bramare in Paris in 1878. In 1909, she met her husband — who was an expatriate and fugitive from the law named Anthony Macaluso — and the couple moved to New York City in 1911. Once in the Big Apple, they opened a costume design shop, and Bramare changed her name to the flashier-sounding Madame Sherri to promote business. They fostered the talents of a young Charles LeMaire, who would later receive three Oscars for costume design. The couple enjoyed their successes until Macaluso’s untimely death in 1924.
As Madame Sherri struggled with the loss of her husband, her friend and Hollywood actor Jack Henderson invited her to visit his home in Chesterfield, where he held extravagant parties. Madame Sherri enjoyed the area so much, she became a New Hampshire resident in 1929 and purchased 600 acres of land, according to the historical society.
When it came time to build her mansion, she did not have blueprints. Instead, she stuck sticks in the ground to outline the foundation, and the structure’s design existed only in her head — much to the contractors’ frustration.
The complete structure had 15 rooms, a table to seat 40 people and a swimming pool, according to an article by Lisa Bergeron that ran in The Sentinel in 2004.
But just after World War II, LeMaire, who had been supporting Madame Sherri, stopped sending money to fund her luxurious habits. The house fell into disrepair, and on the same day that Madame Sherri died, philanthropist and artist Ann Stokes purchased the land.
Stokes oversaw the land for more than 30 years before transferring it to the Forest Society.
Ericson, 89, has lived in Chesterfield most of her life. She said she met Madame Sherri once while assisting her mother, Imogene Chickering — who was town clerk at the time — at the town office.
“She certainly was a very strange woman for people who lived on the farms,” Ericson said.
The Chesterfield Historical Society’s website recounts many tales about Madame Sherri: that she rarely wore any clothing beneath her fur coat; that she had a pet monkey she kept on a leash; that she would use one match to light her first cigarette in the morning and from there would chainsmoke, lighting each new cigarette with the end of the last. But Ericson said the stories seemed to have been embellished over the years.
“I’m not sure she was quite as bad as she was said to be.”