ALCOA, Tenn. — Have you ever seen a house built to survive a biblical apocalypse? Did you know one exists in Alcoa, Tennessee?
William and Emma Nicholson believed in an interpretation of the Bible that said Armageddon was coming in 1959 and they were among the 144,000 righteous people who would survive and then live for 1,000 years.
Based on this belief, the Nicholsons started building the then-unnamed Millennium Manor in 1937.
“It had to do two things: survive Armageddon and last for 1,000 years. So that's why it was built so incredibly tough,” current owner Dean Fontaine said.
Starting when he was 61 years old, William did most of the work by hand, using levers, pulleys and ramps to lift the Tennessee pink marble from Friendsville and other materials in place to construct a Roman arch and keystone design, similar to the Alamo in Texas.
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“He never used any contractors that helped him build it. He never hired any big moving equipment. He did this all on his own sheer willpower,” current owner Karen Fontaine said.
In a testament to William’s craftsmanship, the Fontaines said the Army tried to buy the castle-like building in 1943, fearing saboteurs might bomb Alcoa and Oak Ridge during World War II.
“Why? Fallout shelter. They recognized that this was a safe place, and the Army wanted a safe place to be able to, you know, do what they do,” Karen said.
Emma died in 1950, and William’s original date for Armageddon came and went. He told reporters at the time that he had done his math incorrectly and the world would actually end in 1969.
Abandoned Places: Millennium Manor
William died in 1965, and his apocalypse-proof home’s future was uncertain.
“You don't need a will if you're not gonna die so [William] didn't have one,” Dean said.
The Nicholsons’ eight children fought over who would take ownership of the house but forgot about the $3,968 in property taxes and lost it to a woman named Juanita Shaw.
Shaw owned the house in the late 70s and early 80s, using it for the Jaycee’s Haunted House.
“It's still talked about by locals that said this was the best ever haunted house. It, unfortunately, was shut down by the city of Alcoa for safety reasons,” Karen said.
Millennium Manor was abandoned for several years, becoming an overgrown hub for vandals, squatters and rowdy teenagers who enjoyed throwing beer bottles at passing cars. The neighbors petitioned the city to get the house cleaned up, and Shaw was given 90 days to fix it, sell it or tear it down.
She originally tried selling it for $75,000 but couldn’t find a buyer. When nothing happened to the house, the city put out a bid and slated it for demolition.
“I can't find what that bid was, but it was a shocking enough number that [the city] gave her another 90 days and they said, ‘We will do it and bill you for it,’” Dean said. “If it was possible to demolish it easily, it would have already been demolished.”
Shaw cut the selling price in half, and that is where the Fontaines joined the manor’s story.
Dean bought the Millennium Manor for $40,000 in 1995 and has been slowly fixing it up for nearly three decades.
“I worked for the [Knoxville Fire Department] so I see houses destroyed every month, and you spend your whole life and your savings, your time and your effort building a house, and then somebody drops a cigarette, and poof, it's all gone. So I really liked the permanence of it,” Dean said. “And I'm a history buff, and I really liked being a part of history so it really appealed to me.”
His wife, Karen, would join in the effort a few years later after the couple met online where Dean just happened to mention the manor on his profile.
While the years of abandonment and vandalism stripped away anything left behind by the Nicholsons, the castle’s two-foot thick marble walls held firm. The Fontaines said one researcher claimed another Millennium Manor could be built on top of the current structure and support the weight.
Dean can personally attest to the castle’s sturdiness. He nearly slept through a tornado that blew through Alcoa in “the dungeon,” the Fontaines’ name for the manor’s basement.
Most of the work has been to preserve William’s handiwork and help the apocalypse-proof manor truly survive 1,000 years, but Dean has added his own touches as well. Embracing the house’s castle-like appearance, he has installed a cannon out front, placed gargoyles above the doors and windows, put up suits of armor inside and hung medieval flags along the walls of “the dungeon.”
Of course, he still acknowledges the house’s survivalist roots by hanging a Zombie Outbreak Shelter sign outside and a Fallout Shelter sign in the basement.
Though the Nicholsons never named the house, it has been known as Darby’s Castle, Stone House and Millennium Manor over the years. When the Fontaines took over, they decided to call it the Millennium Manor, which was originally coined in a 1957 article by Hal Boyle, a columnist and friend of the Nicholsons.
The Nicholsons are still a part of the castle with their extended family coming to visit and share stories.
“[William’s] family has grown and grown without him being here, and they are so proud to know that he built it. And then we are taking care of it to carry his namesake on,” Karen said.
The Fontaines originally intended to move into the manor once they were finished but have started leaning toward using it for weddings and other events instead. In fact, the couple has already hosted half a dozen weddings and a few “doomsday parties” on site.
“Whenever somebody says the apocalypse is upon us, we always have a party. What else you gonna do with an apocalypse house?” Dean said.
In 2020, the Fontaines made further strides in preserving the castle’s story when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The couple also got the Millennium Manor its 501(c)(3) non-profit status for its first year of regular tours.
“Of course, I like the place, but I'm always amazed just how much everyone else does too. I don't really feel like an owner. I feel more like a caretaker because this is their place, people in Alcoa,” Dean said.
While no one knows when the world is going to end, the Millennium Manor stands sturdy as a labor of love for the Fontaines and a roadside oddity for anyone passing by.
When the manor is not closed for renovation, you can schedule a tour of the Millennium Manor Castle with the Fontaines through email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by calling (865) 406-3887.
Reporter’s note: Though many of the buildings featured in this series are unused and empty, they sit on private property that is still actively used in some cases. DO NOT attempt to unlawfully enter any of these places without permission. Many of them are structurally unsound and pose potential health hazards, like asbestos and lead paint. WBIR contacted all owners prior to visiting.
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