By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
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None of them would touch the project.
"I understood where the engineers were at," Steger says. "This was not a normal building. It did not fit their insurances, their learning, their rules, and the way that they do things."
So Steger decided to take on the planning himself. He enlisted the help of friends in the trades — stone masons and carpenters — and hosted weekends at the Homestead where they shared their skills and figured out how to do what.
The Minneapolis College of Art and Design will present Steger's designs, including the Will Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, in the free exhibit "Inside an Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design." Sept. 14 to Oct. 6, with a talk by Steger on Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. and a reception with Steger on Oct. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. 2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis; 612-874-3667.
Between 1990 and 1995, cranes appeared on and off in the Homestead's wilderness skyline, pulling up the giant beams that would let the castle reach six stories. As the machines erected the building's bones, Steger busied himself sourcing supplies.
Up a trail about 15 miles from the Homestead, Dow Chemical had scraped off the top of a hillside and left it in a rock pile. Steger recognized the rock as pink granite, and convinced the new owners of the property to let him come in with two logging trucks and haul it out. For 17 days, 12 people carried out enough stone to craft the castle's exterior walls, as well as roads and steps throughout the property.
For wood material, Steger turned to warehouses getting scrapped in Chicago, and for stone, he looked to his land itself: Much of the green stone built into the castle's steps was quarried right out of the Homestead's ridges.
After 10 years of work, the castle had its shell. But inside, it remained a blank canvas.
"It was just stone and concrete and timbers and glass," remembers Jim Sullivan, a stone mason who first saw the project in 1999. "Will started telling me his vision, and he drew the scenario of how he sees water flowing and trees growing and lush greenery — he laid it all out. And I said, 'Whoa.' I could see it, but I could also see a tremendous amount of work."
A tremendous amount of work — and a tremendous investment. Year after year, beginning when he poured the foundation in '88, Steger sunk his finances into the project. Each summer — construction season — he accrued "huge debts," he says; each winter, he worked himself out of them, "again and again and again."
He didn't have any other choice. "If I stopped, this thing would fall on its face," Steger explains. "There wasn't any latitude for stopping, so I just kept doing it."
Still, the work happened in fits and starts, starting and stalling as Steger's budget and attention allowed.
"As he had money, some work would get done, and then it would sit still for six months until he had more money to spend again," recalls Jennifer Gasperini, who worked with Steger from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. "We worried, but like anything that Will tackles, he has a vision and nobody can stop it. Just because Will was there, I knew it was possible, and I still have no doubt that it will happen."
Increasingly, though, what it will take for the castle to happen is more money.
Over the 25 years that he's spent constructing, Steger guesses that he's poured about $5 million into the building.
"That's everything I've ever made," he says. "It's nice to say, well, it's all right there, but then again, for a person who doesn't want to own anything, it's a huge ball and chain."
Now, when he has to field the many queries about when the castle will be completed, Steger answers with two figures: three years and $2 million. For the first time, he's decided to begin fundraising in order to finish it.
"It's a great burden right now, because I'm up against the wall almost," Steger admits. "I can't — with my own resources — I can't finish it in enough time."
Steger is used to being in this corner: Most of his expeditions have come through tight spots. Three times in his life, he's come close to losing everything, and many more times he's taken on that possibility. If he and his teammates hadn't succeeded in Antarctica, for instance, Steger would have been millions in debt. "I would have lost this place for sure," he says.
"It's a trade-off right now, a big trade-off," he continues. "But I've lived most of my life where I get myself at that tipping point."
After bounding up six flights of stairs, Steger pushes open the door to the castle's top terrace, a small balcony that overlooks the grander, outdoor catwalk below. Beyond the small clearing that houses the Homestead, the view is nothing but forest and lake clear to Canada.
"There's not enough beauty in our lives," Steger says. He pauses to turn around and look at the castle roof, sculpted to blend in with the white pines that will someday grow tall around it. "That's the problem."
Around noon,Steger and his crew break for lunch.
Slicked with sweat and covered in gray cement dust, they head down the hill from the castle, pick up last night's leftover burgers from the root cellar, and crowd into the Lodge to warm them up.
They're a group of young adults, mostly in their 20s, who are staying at the Homestead over the summer to learn to build. Several of them trickle in late, glistening from a quick swim in the lake.