A real-life mystery: The haunting of Château de Pourtalès

Photo: Julien Pontarolo / Château de Pourtalès This castle, built in the 18th century, is the site of many unexplained occurrences. Perhaps it is the home of spirits?

Photo: Julien Pontarolo / Château de Pourtalès
This castle, built in the 18th century, is the site of many unexplained occurrences. Perhaps it is the home of spirits?

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Legends of haunted castles persist, and I’d be the first to dismiss the thought if I hadn’t personally experienced some strange encounters while living and working in a famous castle in Europe in the late 1980s.

The scene was the beautiful Château de Pourtalès near Strasbourg, France, where a legendary castle became a place where famous people gathered to be entertained by the royal Countess Melanie.

During my time there, the castle was the home of Schiller International University (SIU) where some 60 American and International students spent a semester or a year abroad. Some unexplainable encounters occurred for the students and me that were “stranger than fiction.”

I was hired by Dr. Walter Leibrecht, founder of the university, to help launch a new academic curriculum in the hospitality field as appointed Dean of the School of Hotel Management and Tourism. SIU at that time had campuses in Heidelberg, Paris, Madrid, London, and Switzerland, with an evolving campus in Florida in the greater Tampa region, which later became the headquarters of SIU.

His plan was to develop a certificate program initially that could be started at any of SUI’s campuses and eventually lead to an associate degree in hospitality and tourism.

Dr. Leibrecht, a German theologian, philosopher, and educator, who received his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1953 and served on faculties as a philosophy professor or in student ministry at Heidelberg, Columbia, Northwestern, and Harvard University before founding Schiller College in 1963 in a medieval castle at Ingersheim near Stuttgart.

He was a legend in himself as an advocate for study abroad programs and promoting cultural understanding. In 1972, he purchased the Château de Pourtalès to save it from demolition and proudly developed its renewal as home of SIU and a center for multi-national education, based on the American system. I fondly recall our conversations as we walked the grounds and corridors of the castle, while he described its history and his vision for world-class education.

As dean, I was assigned a large room as living quarters that was said to be Countess Melanie’s bedroom. The room was at the far end of the castle, across the hall from the library. At the interior wall were four steps leading to a permanently sealed door. Nobody seemed to know where this door lead nor its history, but during storms, the door would rattle as if wind was trying to escape.

I can’t deny that strange things happened. However, I never felt frightened by these encounters. Rather, I experienced a sense of protectiveness and perhaps playfulness, as if asking to be acknowledged.

Sometimes, I would awake at night with a feeling of a “presence” in the room. I’d turn on the light and everything was still and quiet. More than once at night the papers on my untidy desk next to the sealed door would fly onto the floor, even though the windows were closed.

Once after reading in the library across the hall, I was locking the door for the night, when a bang from the other side of the door caused me to open it again. A book normally on a shelf across the room lay on the floor by the door. I can’t explain it rationally. I only know that the experience happened.

A cloud of chilly air sometimes seemed to move across the room, even in daylight, but I never saw anything that I could define. The students too reported strange air currents in certain parts of the castle.

They were often uneasy about the legends, but were also drawn to the stories of Melanie, often holding Ouija Board sessions to try to communicate with whatever spirits there may have been in the castle.

On one occasion, a window shattered inward in a student’s room on a quiet evening, and several students huddled together. Then the shutters reportedly began banging as if in a windstorm, although there was no wind outside. The entire corridor of students evacuated the building. For me, trying to settle their anxieties, I had a hard time convincing them that it was safe to return to their rooms.

It continues today: a Schiller student who attended the European Study Center at the Château de Pourtalès last term posted on her journaling blog how she experienced some unexplained flickering of room lights at unusual times.

Some legends bridge generations.

Today, the château is a multi-use hotel and conference center, owned by the city of Strasbourg, a prominent destination for tourists, students, and corporate conferences. (For more information, Google Château de Pourtalès and click on history or gallery).

My assessment, back then and now, was that it was a positive experience. Perhaps Melanie was looking after her home that was once such elegance, such beauty, and an epicenter for the famous people of Europe. Notable visitors in history have been Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Alsatian Nobel Peace Prize winner and famous humanitarian. Other visitors during those days included Russian Grand Dukes, Belgian Princesses, the King of Sweden, a German Imperial Governor, and a Prussian Prince, to name a few. Briefly, after WWII, the château was occupied as a temporary headquarters of the Allied Forces.

A paragraph from the château’s website best summarizes a place dedicated over generations to free spirits among us whose imaginations shaped their leadership in history and in legends. It reads, “Nearly three centuries of history has brought all that life can bring to the Château de Pourtalès: peace and prosperity, beauty and aristocracy, prodigy and higher learning, even war, tragedy, devastating fire, and ruin. Through it all the château has nobly stood, inspiring all who come to dream big dreams and to persevere.”

In retrospect, it seems to me that my encounters from the past touched some spirit within me to connect with an unresolved spirit that was seeking to protect the castle and to imagine remembrances of times past.

Perhaps Melanie’s spirit, her daughter Agnes continuing her vision in a place that was once their home, and Dr. Leibrecht’s rescuing the building from demise and renewing its mission as a cultural learning center linger in the château and in those who consider it a temporary home.

Perhaps their spirits dwell within the walls—and within anyone who has an open mind that truth can be stranger than fiction.

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.