Where We've Been: Quincy's Villa Kathrine
Moroccan ‘castle,’ complete with harem tower, serves as Quincy Tourist Center
By Ted Cox
Of all the places we visited and things we saw in Illinois last year, the most unusual and surprising just might be the Villa Kathrine.
Overlooking the Mississippi River from a bluff in Quincy, it’s an accurate reproduction of a Moorish Islamic “castle” — the Villa ben Ahben in Morocco — plopped down on the edge of Illinois.
How it was built and how it’s managed to survive are stories in themselves.
The Villa Kathrine was built in 1900 by W. George Metz, who at this point should probably be described as a local eccentric. His father had been a city father as the local pharmacist. His mother, Catherine, outlived her husband by 24 years, but died in 1897, and shortly after that Metz embarked on a world tour.
He brought back with him memories and designs of a Moroccan castle, and got local architect George Behrensmeyer to execute them from Illinois materials. The interior included a courtyard with a marble mosaic reflecting pool, with a balcony above. The adjoining tower made visual reference to the Mosque of Thais in Tunisia, and even included a harem room. Word is Metz built the castle for the woman of his dreams — who was never any more real than that.
Some say the villa was named for his mother. Another story was that he built it for a German woman he met in Africa and became engaged to — thus, perhaps, the “K” and the dropped “E” — but she might have died while he was having it constructed. In any case, she never showed up in Quincy to seal the deal.
Metz lived alone in the building along with his 200-pound mastiff, Bingo. When Bingo died in 1906, Metz supposedly buried him in the Villa Kathrine rose garden complete with a diamond-studded dog collar — a local yarn that has prompted its share of midnight grave-digging in the garden over the years.
Another local story suggests that the place is haunted, and that the clitter-clatter of Bingo’s toenails can sometimes be heard on the tile floors.
Metz, however, supposedly never let a woman into the castle but for housekeepers and relatives, although he was also known to throw lavish dinner parties, so weigh one story against the other.
He was prevailed upon to sell it in 1912, apparently in something of a ruse involving a railroad that wanted to use the property for a rail yard, and the building almost immediately fell into disuse and disrepair. Metz lived out his days in various local hotels until dying from pneumonia in 1937.
Somehow, the building survived, and it was bought by the Quincy Park District, which still formally owns it, in 1955. In 1978, local preservationists calling themselves Friends of the Castle and led by the Quincy Jaycee-Ettes (now known as the Illinois Women of Today) formed a group to restore the building to its original state. (That group marked its 40th anniversary last year.) Restoration was pretty much completed in 1998, although work is of course ongoing.
In 1987, it became the official Quincy Tourist Information Center, located at 532 Gardner Expressway, and it continues to serve in that capacity today. It is open almost every day, including holidays, and its winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
It remains something of a marvel: a Moroccan castle dropped down on the edge of Illinois overlooking the Mississippi River.