The castle king

Southwest's Peter Hill has an unusual second job: owning and renovating European castles

At a time when real estate is still a hot commodity in the American marketplace, developers are snatching up apartment buildings, condos and anything else they can acquire to renovate and turn a profit.

But few can claim what Peter Hill can -that they're in the "castle business." Seemingly entertained by the unusual nature of his business venture, the Linden Hills resident adds with a grin, "It's an odd thing to say."

It's odd, because Hill owns Peter Hill Design, 5007 France Ave. S., a Fulton ad agency. He went into the venture as a "hobby," an entrepreneurial roll of the dice.

In a land far, far away - Soudon, France - Hill and four American partners renovated an 11th-century medieval castle, turning it into a luxurious, hotel retreat.

Jeffrey Hill, Peter Hill's brother, said he was surprised when he heard about the venture two years ago. "We kind of thought he was crazy. It just seemed like a wild idea," he said.

Getting into the castle business

Peter Hill became involved in the castle business in 2000. While at a wedding in Colorado, Hill met an entrepreneur who was forming a group of investors to buy and renovate European castles, turning them into luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts, and/or corporate retreats.

Hill said the group, known as Drawbridge Castles, needed a marketing specialist. He knew he could fill the niche, so he joined the team.

Hill's title is partner, vice president of global sales and marketing. He won't say how much he had to invest to get into Drawbridge.

Jeffrey Hill said his brother "takes big risks, but they're mitigated," and in Drawbridge's case, the partners had done their homework and knew what they were doing.

Jeffrey Hill followed his brother's lead and persuasive pitch to become a 1 percent investor in the company.

Of the 40,000 castles in France - the most in the world, Peter Hill notes - the group settled on Soudon, for which they paid over $1 million.

Hill said France was a logical first choice. "France is the most heavily traveled country in the world," he said.

Hill said learning about the castle's history and architecture has been one of his favorite parts of the project, helped by an investor who is a history buff.

Historical ambiance

Hill said the group learned much of the castle's background over dinner, from the Duchess who sold them the massive building. The 10,000-square-foot castle, featuring a 10-story-tall tower, sits next to a river on approximately 30 acres of land. The surrounding buildings cumulatively total about 40,000 square feet.

Hill said that half of the Soudon castle had been destroyed in France's 100 Years War with England that began in 1337. He said someone had tried to rebuild it in the late 1800s but never finished and the structure had remained dormant since.

Hill said the castle's vast history has given him a different perspective about a structure's integrity and in a way, life. "The castle's not passing though our lives - we're passing through its life," he said. "Two hundred years of history here is just a drop in the bucket.

He added, "I have an 80-year-old home in Linden Hills and it feels brand new to me."

Working in the castle

The supersized renovation project was no walk in the park. After becoming a partner, Peter Hill made 10 trips each year to Europe (Soudon is three hours southwest of Paris) to prepare, renovate and help with the castle's interior decorating.

Hill said the investors added lots of sweat equity to transform their castle, which lacked plumbing, heating and interior dcor. They spent approximately $850,000 helped by 35 smaller investors.

Hill brought in the Southwest interior design expertise of Kim Salmela, owner of Belle …poque - a French interior design business that recently closed at 5001 France Ave. S.

Salmela said Hill, a business neighbor, just came into her store one day and offered her a chance to work on the castle. "I was kind of like, 'Yeah right - whatever,'" she said about the castle proposition.

However, after sitting down with Hill and seeing proof he was legit, she signed on.

Salmela, who also owns a Los Angeles upholstery company, said the castle job was a good fit since she's used to buying items from France for her interior design businesses.

Still, Samela said working on the castle was a bizarre adventure; for example, some investors wanted to sleep in the castle in a sleeping bag to see if the place was haunted and asked her to join.

Salmela said the project is fun to talk about, but not necessarily as glamorous as people might think. "It's hard work," she said. "The castle is cold."

Still, the castle project proved a fortunate twist of fate for Salmela, opening doors for a new business adventure of her own.

Alfred's

After a September 2003 buying trip to France for the castle, Salmela spotted a painting of a poodle, Alfred. She said she was compelled to buy the painting, which inspired the idea for a new store.

She said she wanted to grow her product line of interior design merchandise to include jewelry and gift items showcased at Belle …poque, in addition to adding men's, women's and baby clothes and accessories. Together, Hill and Salmela made the idea a reality.

Salmela said she closed Belle …poque and in November opened Alfred's Grand Petit Magasin, 4388 France Ave. S., just across the Edina border. Hill is the vice president and co-owner.

He said the ambience in the store's second-floor French-style room is similar to that of Soudon's. Alfred's, with a staff of four interior designers, will also work on Hill's subsequent castle projects.

Hill said Soudon has proven so profitable that the group quickly had enough funds to buy a second castle, Chateau de La Colaissire, also in France, in December.

He said Drawbridge wants to do 15 more castle renovations in the next decade. The group is now exploring properties in Italy and Scotland.

Hill said he goes to Soudon about once a month; if it isn't booked, he stays there. He said friends who travel with him stay there free.

His friends do pester him to go, he said, but "most chicken out. People don't like to just plan on the go."

Want to know more?

To see Drawbridge Castles projects, visit www.drawbridgecastles.com.