The Gingerbread Castle was a children’s theme park built in 1930. It is based on the set design for a theatrical production of Hansel and Gretel featured at the Metropolitan Opera. The structure was designed by the Hansel and Gretel set designer Joseph Urban. Urban was an Austrian born architect, illustrator and scenic designer known for designing the Ziegfield Theatre in New York and Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach Florida. Since the Gingerbread Castle’s features resemble those of Gothic castles of the late medieval period, I would describe its design style as Fantasy Gothic.
The theme park was the brain child of Fred Henry Bennet, owner of the adjacent Wheatsworth Mills. Bennet had purchased the mill (built 1808) in 1921 to expand his biscuit company. The impetus for building the theme park was to increase the mill’s slumping sales. Bennet eventually sold the property along with his business to Nabisco.
The attraction was open until 1978 at which time the castle was closed except for tours and events. According to an article on Roadside America it was used as a haunted attraction for Halloween until 1997. However, the castle was open at other times as well. A friend of mine was taken there by her parents around Christmas every year to see Santa Clause. In 1997 the place was closed completely until the property was purchased by Frank and Lou Hinger. The Hingers received a grant from the Hampton Hotel’s Save-a-Landmark program and used the money to have the castle exterior and other features repainted. Their ultimate goal was to restore the theme park but after having difficulty raising the additional funds required, the Hingers were forced to put the property up for sale. The property eventually sold at a sheriff’s auction in 2007 for $680,000. The castle is currently owned by local real estate developers.
Exploring the Gingerbread Castle
The castle was pitch black until we made our way up the spiral staircase and out of the dungeon, at which point everything lit up like a bad acid trip. There were statues of colorful gnomes toiling away, candy cane columns, rainbow stairs and a pit of despair in the middle of a circular bench. While many have fond memories of the castle, my friend that visited the place while it was still open described it as “creepy before it was abandoned”. I found it to be a little creepy myself but no more so than any other abandoned place that was once for children. It’s not like there was guy in a clown suit hiding in the tower or anything. On that note, I’ll leave you with a final question. What might the theme park have looked like if it had been designed by the Little Mermaid castle designer?