Lavender told Insider that five years before he bought the estate, he promised his son Jason he’d build him a castle.
Lavender, who was born in Troy, New York, said he was newly divorced at the time and living in a share-house with five other guys in Clifton Park, New York. “It wasn’t an environment to raise a three-year-old,” Lavender told Insider. “I took him aside and shared with him, this is not our home, this is temporary.”
“I made the promise and I said I’m going to show my son that if I speak words to him, I’ll follow through no matter what it takes,” he added.
Lavender fulfilled his promise, going even further by designing and building three mini castles largely by himself.
“I had no interest in castles,” Lavender told Insider. But when he began planning a home on the land he’d bought for him and his son, he couldn’t stop drawing castle designs. According to Lavender, the promise he’d made five years prior stuck with him.
Lavender said he also had no experience with architectural design or construction. All he knew was that he wanted to live somewhere his son could bring his friends over, and where he could enjoy time with him the same way his own father, a Methodist minister, spent with him.
So in order to gather the money to fulfill his dream lifestyle, Lavender said he started a fundraising corporation for schools nationwide in 1978.
Lavender spent years designing each castle bit by bit, and building “two or three walls at a time.”
During the design and construction process, which Lavender joked is never-ending, he drew out blueprints for each mini castle himself.
“We didn’t even need stamped architectural blueprints back then, things were a little different and not what they are today,” he said. “I would have an oversize piece of white poster paper and everything sketched out and all the dimensions written out.”
Assisted by friends and a few hired hands, he said he would build essentially two or three walls at a time. “Then I would go back and draw something else for the next day’s work,” he added.
The estate remained a private home for almost three decades, until a near-fatal accident motivated Lavender to open up his doors to guests.
On August 23, 2008, Lavender said he fell backward off of a ladder while trying to pull a tarp over a section of roof being redone on Highlands Castle. He landed off-balance on the concrete terrace, coming down like a “sledgehammer” on his right leg, which shattered in 20 places.
His wife, Yvonne, who he met in 1986 and married at the property in 1992, found him minutes later. Lavender spent eight months confined to a wheelchair and began thinking about what it would be like to open their home to others. “Being able to catch up on lost income, and just reinventing myself,” was an intriguing prospect, he said.
In 2010, after careful consideration and deliberation with his wife Yvonne, Lavender opened his family home to the public.
Yvonne had a background in hospitality, Lavender said, having worked at The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and as an assistant manager at the Sagamore, a resort in Bolton Landing where they met in 1986.
While they had some hesitation initially, both Lavender and Yvonne said they have been stunned by the “grateful” and “kind” people who visit them.
“Every guest that stays here will say to me, thank you for opening up your home to us,” he said. “My response now is just, ‘Thank you a hundred times more for finding us and staying here.'”
Today they run it pretty much alone, they said, only hiring a cleaning crew in between guest stays.
Though he “had no intention” to open their home up to guests, Lavender now feels that sharing the estate with others has given him a new purpose in life.
“It’s my purpose now,” Lavender said, of welcoming guests into his mini castles. “I’m the steward of the property.”
While his son Jason has since moved into his own home with his own family, Lavender said he and Yvonne have stayed on. They still live on the property, but in a curtained-off area of Highlands Castle, or as they call it, “the main house,” which Lavender says is his favorite of the three.
Highlands Castle is the biggest property available to book out on the estate. It’s also the first one Lavender started building in 1982.
According to the estate website, Highlands Castle sleeps up to eight guests and is the largest mini-castle on the land, where guests can enjoy a stay in The Royal Bedroom and The King’s Suite. Surrounding the building is a terrace with picturesque views of Lake George.
The rental prices outlined on the website are $6,995 a night for four guests and $395 per additional guest.
The interiors of Highlands Castle are as castle-like as the exterior.
One of the benefits of renting out the largest castle on the estate is access to The Great Hall, filled with an array of antiques sourced by Lavender before he even began construction in the 1980s.
“I did everything kind of backwards, I bought all these antique suits of armor, antique gothic furniture, and light fixtures,” he told Insider, adding that he started designing and built the castles with inspiration from the pieces.
Today, The Great Hall is “the heart of the castle” where guests can dine formally and enjoy views of Lake George.
One of Lavender’s most prized antiques is a Romeo and Juliet stained-glass door, which he says is around 250 years old.
Lavender said he bought the stained-glass doors 45 years ago from an antique dealer in Cape Cod. The dealer had them for 59 years and told Lavender they were originally designed by Tiffany for a Vanderbilt family home. Today, the doors are part of Highlands Castle.
Initially, they weren’t for sale, but Lavender said he asked the dealer to call him if anything changed. “A few months later, I got a call,” Lavender said, “and he said ‘John, I kept your name and my health is failing, I remember your story and I’m calling to say these doors are for sale for the very first time.'”
Lavender said he had no idea when he bought the land in 1982 that he’d acquired one of the best mountaintop views of Lake George.
Back in 1982, he said he carved out a footpath to the view and invited his father, a Methodist minister, and his mother to visit. Both were skeptical as to why he’d decide to buy an empty plot in the mountains an hour away from Clifton Park where he’d been living previously, he added.
“With picnic baskets in hand, they walked my path, put the picnic baskets down, turned around, and said, ‘Now I see why you bought this property,'” Lavender told Insider. “My father was proud of what was put here, he would call me ‘my son the castle builder.'”
Steps away from Highlands Castle is The Castle Cottage, finished back in 1995.
The Castle Cottage, which is only a few steps away from the larger Highlands Castle, sleeps four to six guests. A stay for four is priced at $1,145 a night and is $125 per additional guest.
Just like Highlands Castle, the cottage comes with its own outdoor terrace with views of both Lake George and the Adirondack Mountains.
According to the website, The Castle Cottage includes two cozy bedrooms and its own kitchen.
The Castle Cottage, along with the two other castles on the estate, are all just a short walk or three-minute drive from Bolton Landing.
While Highlands Castle doesn’t offer goods or services, Lavender said that the hamlet of Bolton Landing is just a short three-minute drive away and is home to a range of boutiques and restaurants.
According to the Warren County Tourism Department website about Lake George, the area surrounding Highlands Castle is home to an array of hiking trails, waterfront restaurants, and numerous marinas where visitors can plan day trips and water sport activities, including parasailing.
The Castle Gatehouse, the third property on the Highlands Castle estate, has a Grand Room and a dining area filled with antiquities.
The Castle Gatehouse can sleep up to seven guests. A stay is priced at $1,145 a night for four guests, and $125 per additional guest.
According to the website, the gatehouse has high-vaulted ceilings throughout and is filled with antiquities that Lavender bought back in the early 1980s.
The Castle Gatehouse was finished back in 1988.
Guests staying in The Castle Gatehouse, which finished construction in 1988, can enjoy a stay in one of the three bedrooms, two of which feature king beds.
The Grand Room in this mini castle also comes with reclining sofas, and the kitchen area is home to antique chairs, according to the website.
The ultimate dream for Lavender is to keep the castles in the family.
“My fantasy would be to have my son inherit the property and my grandson and granddaughter to be here after that,” Lavender told Insider.
But, he said, “this might not be their world.” For now, he’s happy with them just “chasing and realizing” their own dreams, even if those may not be taking up the mantle at Highlands Castle.