New Eagle family living the dream ... in a castle
It's not every day a hard-working couple gets to purchase a castle built for a Russian princess by a cosmetics tycoon. But that is just what Tanya and Michael Chaney of New Eagle did earlier this summer.
"I'd been watching the property for the past 10 years, ever since I first saw it," says Tanya Chaney, a massage therapist by trade who has owned Salon and Spa by Chaney's Natural in Monongahela for the past 13 years. "I thought it was really cool."
What she's referring to is a stone castle on a hill in New Eagle, Washington County, modeled after one in Tbilisi, Georgia, that was once the home of Olga Choubaroff, a Russian princess who fled Georgia when revolutionary fervor swept her country. Choubaroff married four times, and it was her last husband, cosmetic executive Kenneth von Neff, a New Eagle native, who decided to build her the castle as a summer home and country retreat as an alternative to their permanent residence — a New York City apartment.
Unfortunately, the structure with two-story wings and towers at each end was never completed because Choubaroff died of congestive heart failure in 1994. The interior remains incomplete.
Unwilling to live in the manse without Choubaroff, von Neff put the property up for sale. In addition to the castle, the two-acre tract included a Cape Cod house, renovated modular home and small caretaker's house.
The initial asking price was $1.49 million, but Chaney says when she looked over all four buildings with a realtor six years ago, the price had dropped considerably to $350,000.
"I think the reason why the property didn't sell is because banks won't finance an unfinished building," she says.
The Chaneys discovered the property was being auctioned off at a tax sale the morning prior to the sale. The Facebook notice got Tanya's "wheels turning" and 20 hours later she was ready to bid.
"My husband (a skilled trade maintenance technician for the Mt. Lebanon School District) was a little reluctant and skeptical," she says. "I'm the dreamer, the jumper and the doer; he's more thoughtful and analytical."
The evening before the sale, the Chaneys checked out the property and saw the castle needed a lot of work, probably to the tune of $150,000 to $200,000. However, they were thinking of selling their current house a quarter-mile away and moving into a larger one, which would have required an additional $150,000 investment.
Buying the castle and renovating it would be almost the same cost as buying a larger house, so they went to the tax sale determined to buy.
Their bid of $16,599 proved successful in getting them one acre, the castle and the Cape Cod house. The adjacent acre, caretaker's house and modular home also were sold by competitive bid to two other buyers.
"The day we bought the castle, my husband said he thought he caught the fever and just needed a moment to digest what happened," Chaney says.
Even though the building is only about 20 years old, the roof leaks, making its repair a top priority, along with the removal of mold that's built up in some of the rooms. The Chaneys plan to do as much of the renovation as they can themselves, but intend to hire a contractor to repair the roof. After purchasing the property, they also discovered they'll have to install a water and sewage line to the castle.
If all goes as planned, the Chaneys intend to move into the Cape Cod house this fall and put their current home on the market. They're contemplating moving into the castle themselves in five to seven years later or turning it into a bed and breakfast, reception or event center or satellite brewery or winery.
"We've only had the castle a little over a month so our thoughts are still a little fluffy," Chaney says.
The couple's 8-year-old son, Maksim, is delighted by the thought of living in a castle. "Every day he checks the numerous frogs and tadpoles living in the raised pond on the property," Tanya Chaney says.
Because so many people have expressed an interest in the castle, the Chaneys are planning to share information about the site on Facebook and Instagram.
Dave Zuchowski is a reporter for the Washington Observer-Reporter.