Behind Castle Walls

by Hannah Ramlo
Photography by Natalie Jackson O’Neal

The historic castle is a unique setting for philanthropy… and a world of enchantment of its own.

The renowned castle on Grandview Drive is not easily separated from the legends and memories that surround it. Generations of Peorians have marked their happiest moments in its foreground, smiling for photographs at proms and weddings. Thousands more have stood in lines down the block on Halloween, awaiting a custom candy bar and a scare from the dozens of hired actors encircling its drive. Some have discovered the book, Melinda’s Doll House, written in 1963 by Bess Edmundson, whose time spent in the castle as a personal secretary to its proprietors inspired her mystical fairy world.

These days, the castle’s mythos is upheld by the intentional caretaking of its owner, Dr. Carl Soderstrom of Soderstrom Skin Institute. It seems fitting that a local dermatologist who developed a line of skincare products called Simply Beautiful would nurture and amplify the distinctive beauty of this historic landmark. Since buying the property five years ago, Dr. Soderstrom has been dedicated to enhancing its charm through renovations and landscaping, while donating the home as a singular setting for philanthropic events year-round.

Fortress of Vignettes
The Soderstrom Castle has seen a number of owners since its 1928 construction, and its once-flowing moat no longer runs beneath the bridge, but the eye meets no shortage of beauty when gazing upon the fortress-like structure and its sprawling grounds. Several years ago, Dr. Soderstrom collaborated with Peorian Doug Hoerr of Chicago’s Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects to design new walls, gardens and a European-inspired, fan-patterned, cobblestone driveway, all to be seen and enjoyed by passerby.

Though the home was modeled after a chateau in France’s Loire Valley, Soderstrom is more interested in curating an opulent, medieval quality than a bucolic, provincial one. This is apparent upon noticing the colorful flags waving from its turrets—some of them gifts from friends in Sweden—or walking through the castle’s ornamented hallways. Upon entry, you’ll be greeted by two armored knights standing nine feet tall and holding intimidating halbards, their blades sharp and ready to defend against any adversary.

Dark, ornate European furniture and lavish Persian rugs lead the eye through the castle’s interior, full of such vignettes. “Each room is its own photo shoot,” Soderstrom explains, and the scenes aren’t lacking in eccentricities. There’s an Indian gong near the dining room, used for calling people to dinner. An antique coin display table sits in the middle of a seating area, filled with currencies from around the world. Inside the garage, a 1948 Rolls Royce—as featured in Spectre, the 2015 James Bond film—sits adjacent to Amish buggies.


Beauty queen photo shoots are held at the castle every year.

From a double-sided Chesterfield sofa, Soderstrom points out an elegant, gold candelabrum from an Orthodox Greek church, resting atop an 1874 original Steinway. Check out the website of opera soprano and Miss Illinois 2014, Marisa Buchheit, and you’ll find music videos filmed next to the grand piano. Transforming the castle into an impromptu studio is just one of the many projects Soderstrom has taken on to help others reach their dreams—something he says he likes doing more than anything else.

Flowers, Antiques and People
The Soderstrom Castle hosts dozens of events throughout the year, virtually all of them charitable in nature. Dr. Soderstrom says he bought the castle because it brings together the things he enjoys most—flowers, antiques and people—and he has always aimed for it to serve as a center for philanthropy. He believes the space is most alive when it’s filled with people, and when he can help make that happen for a good cause, he is thrilled.

Earlier this summer, with the grounds’ blooms at the height of their glory, 75 supporters, alumni and patients of Mayo Clinic came together at the castle for an evening of insight and collaboration. They heard from Dr. Atta Behfar, director of the Van Cleve Cardiac Regeneration Program, who spoke about progress in stem cell research. The annual event, held at a different location each year, is intended to thank alumni and local patients and demonstrate how philanthropy has supported the clinic’s mission. Besides lending his castle, Dr. Soderstrom has served on several committees and campaigns for the prestigious institution, assisting in efforts to raise billions of dollars for research education.

Over the next ten days, the castle was the setting for a family friend’s wedding, a renewal of vows, and a high tea event in support of St. Jude Runs. Garden parties in support of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra are regular happenings, while visiting musicians have been invited for social hours and receptions. This past spring, Dr. Soderstrom helped Make-A-Wish Illinois grant five-year-old Aajayla’s wish to have a princess party, opening the castle for her to throw a birthday celebration in the grand dining room. She wore a gown fit for royalty and loved ruling as princess for the day.


Aajaya’s princess party, granted by Make-A-Wish Illinois, held in the castle’s grand dining room

The Soderstrom Castle is truly a community gem, unique among homes spread across the Illinois River valleys and bluffs. Dr. Soderstrom has enjoyed renovating the building and maintaining its beauty for those who drive slowly by, take long walks along the “world’s most beautiful drive,” or attend a special event inside its walls. Soon, he plans to surprise the community with a new installation of statues by acclaimed sculptor Lonnie Stewart.

For Dr. Soderstrom, caring for the castle is the culmination of many interests, from courses he took in English architecture and landscape gardening, his time spent studying at Oxford, and his lifelong fascination with castles. “Bringing all of that together with philanthropy has been one of the greatest joys of my life,” he declares. a&s

Go "Behind the Scenes at the Soderstrom Castle" for additional images of the historic castle and its grounds. 

Haley Armitage, Miss Morton 2014;  Peyton Hillan, Miss Illinois High School 2013; Stephanie Pillar, Mrs. Illinois 2013; Marisa Buchheit, Miss Illinois 2104; Megan Ervin, Miss Illinois 2012; Audra Ferguson, Miss Heart of Illinois Teen 2014; Rebecca Palmer, Miss Peoria-Metro 2014
Carnegie Hall performer, Harmony Zhu, with Dr. Soderstrom and Maestro George Stelluto, plays on the castle Steinway before VIP patrons of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.
Preparing to host 4,000 children on Halloween
Shalom Sherman, Hollywood comedian and entertainer, performing for a special group.
In the Spring of 2017, over 75 Mayo Clinic alumni, guests and friends of Mayo heard a lecture by Dr. Atta Behfar on cardiovascular regeneration and enjoyed camaraderie.  Dr. Soderstrom has supported Mayo, where he trained philanthropically, for decades. Left to right: Jim Isaak, Dr. Atta Behfar and Dr. Soderstrom.
 

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