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You Just Ain't Normal, Bob

John Hitch and His Backyard Museum

Julia's Castle

  Homeward Bound

Julia's Castle

Two years ago, some Democrats, looking to field a County Commission candidate in the Ninth District, came knocking on the door of Williamswood, the faux castle on the banks of the Tennessee River in South Knoxville.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The owner is well-known, well-connected and well-seasoned, politically speaking, having been the first—and only—woman to chair the old city school board. At 68, there was plenty of life left in Julia Tucker.

Here's how she tells the story of her last flirtation with local politics:

"They wanted me to run, but word came back to me that (a county commissioner) had told them, 'You can't have her run—she's got pictures of nekkid men on her ceiling.'"

Julia, who knew they'd heard the God's honest truth, declined the opportunity to seek public office.

One good story leads to another when you're talking about Julia's house. She'd hired a young woman to help her while the ceiling was being painted, and one day she overheard her helper talking on the telephone about the mural.

"She said, 'Yeah, this guy was painting pictures on the ceiling—I don't know what it is, but it's got nekkid men in it and I think they're calling it the Sextine Chapel...'"

Naked men aren't all that's on Julia's ceiling, which is a partial replica (with variations) of the "Creation" section of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Painted by local artist Ian Rush to Julia's specifications, the variations include cherubim with the faces of Julia's own children and grandchildren, and even one of Julia herself, as a child. On the other side of her two-story bedroom (which also features a canopy bed, a library, a balcony, and a grand piano), is another ceiling mural approximating The Last Supper, only the faces of the "apostles" are friends and relatives who had helped her through her son Bill Powell's long battle with AIDS and eventual death in 1991.

There is one wild incongruity, however. In the spot where Judas the Betrayer is supposed to be stands someone Julia calls "Barbie Judas," a Barbie Doll.

"I always felt that Barbie was every woman's Judas. So when the time came to fill in that spot—people had been asking me who was going to be Judas and I'd been telling them, 'You better not make me mad, or it might be you'—I decided we'd put in a picture of Barbie in her short purple dress. It's a source of amusement for some; for other people, it's a real affront."

And what does she say to those who are offended?

"They're not invited back, and I wonder how they got in in the first place."

Getting in isn't easy, unless Julia wants to see you. There's what one detractor calls "a big-ass fence" with a massive gate across the driveway. This is a source of some tension with the city, which has nailed Julia for fencing in a strip of city right-of-way. Negotiations are ongoing, so she won't discuss the land in question, which is a confusing mish-mash of property boundaries and overlapping easements.

She does admit warning city representatives that she learned her politics from Cas Walker and Wanda Moody, however.

If you get past the gate and over the faux moat and start up the herringbone brick driveway, what you see is Williamswood, an impossibly fanciful structure named for Bill. It seems to grow up out of the heavily-wooded grounds, complete with lions and turrets and gargoyles, oh my. It looks like it's been there for decades, but Julia hasn't always lived in the castle.

She had a very nice, normal house in Holston Hills when Bill, who was carving out a career for himself as a historic preservationist, started working on her to buy the riverside property from the Tanasi Girl Scout Council in 1985.

Julia, who owned a bunch of rental property (her holdings would soon include The Graham, a Magnolia Avenue residence for people with AIDS), felt she had too much on her real estate management plate as it was.

"But Bill just kept working on me. He told me, 'You really need to buy that, Mom. You'll be glad someday that you did.' And he was right. One day I was very glad," she says.

She started transforming the little concrete block lodge in the woods the year Bill died.

"I figured I could either spend the money on the house, or check myself into Lakeshore. I had no plan, but I knew it needed to be fixed up, because it was in great disrepair. I came out the day before we were supposed to start construction with a friend of mine, Michael Tomlinson, and we took a stick in the dry dirt and started drawing elevations where the footings ought to go. We said 'Let's just make this into something different—a little medieval house'—and it just came up out of the ground. You've heard of automatic writing? Well, this was automatic designing."

What she ended up with was a house with seven rooms—Meade Hall for a living room (it is named for a quarry), a solarium, and a Scottish room done in tartans, where Bill's kilt and bagpipes reside. There's a room designed as an English pub with a trick bookcase disguising a hidden staircase leading to a flouncy little Victorian garret that could be overlooking the rooftops of 19th century Paris. This is her granddaughter Katie's domain. Her grandson Tyler parks in the Scottish room when he spends the night.

Toward the front of the house is a trap door to a secret passageway just large enough for the children to use as an escape route to the outdoors. Out back, there is a deck overlooking the river that is tricked out with faux suspension bridges. Children, Julia says, get it.

"What you must understand is that I don't take this seriously. Faux is the operative word. Kids understand that this is a fun place. A 'let's pretend' place. Adults look at it and cringe and ask me about the resale value... I've spent a lot of time, effort, and money on it, but it was just what I was doing at the time. I've been asked several times to have benefits out here, and have done it if it's a cause I believe in. We've had a lot of gay unions and heterosexual weddings out here for friends who couldn't afford to go somewhere else. We have a BIG New Year's Eve party with all the candles lit, and it's really a magical place when that happens.

"What I care about is it's accessible to my dogs—they have free run of it, sleeping on whatever couch or bed they please.

"I have often thought, if anything happened to this place, would I redo this? The answer is no. Hell no.

"People also ask me what Bill would say if he could see it. Well, I'll tell you a secret. I slipped some of his ashes into the foundation at the very beginning. Bill has seen it all."

July 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 29
© 2000 Metro Pulse