Henrietta Weiss perked up as soon as she saw her latest group of tourists, immediately handing out pamphlets to them before diving into her prepared remarks for the newcomers.
For 15 years, the Paterson, New Jersey resident has guided tours—hundreds by her count—at Lambert Castle in Paterson, a city with a diverse population of slightly over 147,000 people in Passaic County, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Families from Norway to Bali have toured the castle during Weiss’ time as a senior docent. She welcomed two families from Australia last week.
“Meeting people is the most enjoyable part of the job,” she said.
British silk industry veteran Catholina Lambert built Lambert Castle, originally called Belle Vista, or “beautiful sight,” in 1892. It’s an ideal destination for the New York City tourist looking to explore a hidden gem of both historical and artistic value just 20 miles west from the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan.
The Castle, run by the Passaic County Historical Society and perched halfway up the First Watchung Mountain on the Garret Mountain Reservation, welcomes approximately 16,000 visitors annually, with the majority coming between May and August, according to site curator Heather Garside.
“We’re swamped with kids in the summer,” Weiss said.
Admission ranges from $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $3 for children under the age of 17. Tours are self-guided, unless otherwise requested in a prior booking.
On a partly cloudy Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m., state Route 19 is uncongested, a rarity for any New Jersey road around rush hour. Directly after merging onto the 3.4-mile county road stretching from Paterson to Clifton, visitors make a sharp right turn and begin their ascent up Valley Road, past the Passaic County Police Headquarters, to a narrow, empty parking lot.
A middle-aged man occupies a bench in the modest courtyard behind the Castle and adjacent to the lot, eating a sandwich while admiring the view of downtown Paterson that’s partially visible through the trees in early autumn before rushing back to the office.
The exterior of the Castle, made up entirely of thick earthy red and white rectangular stone, shows hints of the medieval revival style that Lambert himself admired as a boy growing up in Goose Eye, England.
Square windows are uniformly placed on all sides and guarded by rusty iron bars, while above each second-floor window lie stained glass windows about a third of the size. Alabaster and layered gemstone pillars mark the entrance.
“The atmosphere of our beautiful, historic building is a definite pull,” Garside said.
Weiss said that the dining room, located on the first floor, is a favorite among most guests.
A brochure provided by the historical society highlights the stained glass windows and the carved face of Dionydus, the Greek god of wine, on a mantelpiece. The original Lambert family dining set rests on a hand-carved wooden banquet table.
The Grand Atrium is the focal point and at the center of the estate, showcasing Lambert’s comprehensive art collection that includes Salvatore Rosa’s “Christ at the Well” from the 1670s and the “Allegory of Salvation,” a painting dating back to the 1600s.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” said Sean Gabriel.
The 29-year-old made a quick stop to check out the Castle with his father and mother, a Little Falls native, before flying back home to Morro Bay, California, a coastal city located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Many of our local visitors or visitors returning to this area remember the Castle from their childhoods,” Garside explained.
Natural light pours through glass skylights on the centerpiece of the Atrium, a 3,000-pound French Cornu Clock, resting in the middle of the marble floor. At almost 11 feet tall, the 150-year-old clock commands the attention of all tourists in its vicinity.
The Castle is also home to the world’s largest spoon collection, with 300 of the 5,000 pieces of silverware on display at a time. The current exhibit, tucked away in a small hallway next to the dining room, features spoons from Giza, Paris and Rome.
Nearby is the Breakfast Room, where large windows once looked upon an Italian Garden yet still provide breathtaking views of downtown Paterson, and the Music Room, which features a tribute marble-based relief of seven cherubs representing the seven children who predeceased Lambert and his wife, Isabella.
One of those children, Florence Lambert Suydam, is memorialized in a stained glass window halfway up the main staircase. According to Weiss, she was her father’s favorite child.
A “Smokey” the black bear cub that was once the mascot for the Lafayette Engine No. 8 of Paterson’s volunteer fire company, a personal favorite of Weiss’, sits at the top of the staircase in a glass display case.
The second-floor space that once served as separate bedrooms for both Lambert and his wife is now home to the Society’s extensive collection of Paterson historical artifacts.
“The most obvious reason [to visit] would be to learn about the history of Passaic County,” Garside said.
Catholina’s room holds relics ranging from water collected in the Jordan River by a resident in 1888 to a 1890s peanut dispenser and the remains of a door from a former slave quarters in the city.
Isabella’s room pays homage to Paterson’s heyday as a silk industry leader, displaying items such as a spinning wheel from the 1820s, dyed silk stems and a display of Paterson Centennial ribbons.
The third floor acts as a seasonal art gallery. Artwork from Paterson-based sculptor Gaetano Federici, including a bust of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, currently lines the walls.
As Gabriel and his parents walked back through the first floor, pamphlets now tucked into their back pockets, they paused at the front desk for a moment.
Not knowing when they’ll be back, they wanted to admire the Castle they’d been exploring for the past few hours one last time.
“It’s definitely something you can’t see anywhere else.”