BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — The little town was sparkling.
And looming above it all: the Berkeley Castle, a 19th-century structure that has become as much a symbol of this tourist town two hours northwest of Washington as the flowing hot springs that gave this Appalachian community its name.
For a few nights in December, the castle was offering visitors a chance to peek inside — a Christmas gift to the curious, organized by a local nonprofit that decorates the town for the holidays.
But not everyone in Berkeley Springs was happy to see people dressed in their Christmas best, being shuttled up to the castle to admire the roaring fire in its great hall or take their children to see Santa.
Nearly three years ago, the historic 9,300-square-foot castle was purchased by the VDare Foundation, a group that gives a platform to white nationalists, and it now serves as its headquarters. Its founder, Peter Brimelow, 75, who runs VDare with his 38-year-old wife, Lydia, denies being a white nationalist or white supremacist.
He described them as “‘devil terms,’ aimed at suppressing debate,” in response to questions from The Washington Post. “I refuse to accept that wanting to reduce immigration is ‘hate.’ ”
But VDare regularly publishes writers who argue that America’s White majority and essential character are being threatened by people of color and who use racist pseudoscience to argue that White people are superior to other races. Its website has featured virulent anti-immigration articles for years, including warnings of “white genocide” from Jason Kessler, the organizer of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers VDare a hate group and has published critical articles about the organization’s presence in Berkeley Springs.
The Brimelows have long made their disdain for a multicultural America clear.
“One of the things we talk about at VDare.com is this idea that diversity is strength, which could not be less true,” Lydia Brimelow said on the conservative podcast “Coffee and a Mike” in November. “Diversity is weakness.”
After a leaked draft in May indicated the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion, Peter Brimelow wrote on Gab: “Next stop Brown vs. Board!” He was referring to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation in America.
That kind of rhetoric has appalled some Berkeley Springs residents, who refer to VDare’s headquarters as the “hate castle.”
The group’s presence in an overwhelmingly White town of fewer than 800 people, where nearly everyone knows one another, has led to ugly exchanges on social media, a defamation lawsuit and letters from VDare’s attorneys that its critics say are aimed at silencing them. Its purchase of the castle has also prompted the New York attorney general’s office to launch an investigation into possible financial misconduct by the organization and its leaders, a Dec. 16 court filing shows — news that is likely to fuel more controversy over VDare’s influence in Berkeley Springs.
“The castle comes up and then there’s this sort of awkward moment where people are like: ‘Are we gonna talk about the castle?’” said Trey Johanson, the owner of the Fairfax Coffee House, where she has hosted meetings for people disturbed by VDare. “I am concerned about our little town suddenly coming to be known as that place where VDare is — you know, the cute little white-supremacist town in West Virginia. That scares the crap out of me.”
But many of Johanson’s neighbors aren’t bothered by VDare. They said it was none of their business what the “castle people” published on their website.
“They are not white supremacists. They’re anti-immigration. They don’t like people just coming over the borders. There’s a lot of people like that,” said Barb Wolfe, 75, who owns a souvenir and gift shop in Berkeley Springs and has socialized with Lydia Brimelow. “Whatever they want to do, it’s not my concern.”
The angst over VDare, especially its involvement with the annual project to bedazzle Berkeley Springs for Christmas, has laid bare divisions about politics and identity that many residents prefer to avoid.
As a Jewish man married to a Japanese woman, Eddy Rubin said it pained him to see his neighbors eagerly awaiting their castle tour.
Rubin loves working in Berkeley Springs, especially during the holidays. Every year, the community turns into a town right out of a Hallmark movie.
One night in December, he and his wife, Hiroko, went for a stroll to enjoy the lights. Then Rubin looked up at the castle.
“In other circumstances,” he recalled telling his wife, “this would be so beautiful.”
Berkeley Springs, also known by its historic name of Bath, bills itself as America’s “first spa.”
It celebrates its history with downtown information markers, including a plaque for “George Washington’s Bath Tub,” the area where the nation’s first president would bathe during his Colonial-era getaways. People can still dip their feet in the town park’s stone pools and feel the mineral water, which flows down from the base of Warm Springs Ridge at 74 degrees.
Though it is located in deeply conservative Morgan County, where 75 percent of voters chose Donald Trump for president in 2020, downtown Berkeley Springs has an artsy, liberal vibe.
Local businesses fly rainbow flags in support of LGBTQ rights and display a sticker cutout of West Virginia with the words “All Kinds Are Welcome Here.” The town is home to more than 125 independent artists, and the local Pride group hosts an annual drag show.
The castle is an iconic part of the Berkeley Springs landscape. Built by Maryland businessman Samuel Taylor Suit in the late 19th century and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has stood above the mountain town since the 1890s. The sandstone edifice has hosted ghost tours, wedding receptions and class trips. Tourists look up in fascination at a form of architecture more likely to be seen in Europe than nestled in the Appalachians.
It had been on the market for 18 months when some welcome news was splashed across the Feb. 26, 2020, front page of the Morgan Messenger: “Berkeley Castle has new owners.”
Underneath was a photo of a smiling family of five outside the castle doors, holding up a set of keys.
Peter Brimelow, the newspaper reported, led an organization called VDare, which many people in Berkeley Springs had never heard of before.
The British-born anti-immigration activist launched VDare on Christmas Eve 1999 as an “extension” of his book, “Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster,” according to the group.
VDare is named after Virginia Dare, the first English child born in what is now the United States, who has become a symbol for white nationalists opposed to immigration.
The castle would allow the Brimelows to host meetings after other venues canceled conferences upon learning about their ideology.
It would be a “fortress,” Lydia Brimelow told their followers, from which they could proclaim their views.
The VDare Foundation spent $1.4 million to buy 54 acres that included the castle and three houses. On the November podcast, Lydia Brimelow credited two unidentified donors to the VDare Foundation with funding the purchase.
Public tax records show the foundation raised more than $4.25 million in fiscal year 2019, its best in a decade. A chunk of that money — $1.5 million — came from Donors Trust, a charity that gives to conservative and libertarian causes.
That year, Peter Brimelow’s salary increased by more than $160,000 to $345,364, according to tax filings.
With the acquisition of the castle and nearby properties, VDare moved its headquarters from Litchfield, Conn. It also sold the castle in December 2020 to a new nonprofit, formed by Lydia, called the Berkeley Castle Foundation.
These transactions and Brimelow’s compensation increase are part of the investigation by the New York attorney general’s office into the organization’s use of charitable funds, according to court documents that accuse VDare of withholding subpoenaed information about its operations.
The subpoenas prompted VDare to sue New York Attorney General Letitia James on Dec. 12 in federal court, calling her office’s demands for information unreasonable, unconstitutional and politically motivated.
The attorney general’s office also alleges that the Brimelows have used the castle as their “primary residence,” which could violate laws governing nonprofits in New York.
The Brimelows did live in the castle “for a period of months” until a cottage on the property grounds was ready for them to occupy, Andrew J. Frisch, an attorney representing VDare, wrote in a Jan. 3 court filing. The family is paying $21,624 a year to rent the cottage, according to a lease agreement that Lydia Brimelow signed as both the landlord and tenant.
“There are no financial improprieties,” Frisch said in a statement to The Post. “VDARE has endeavored in good faith to comply with New York’s regulatory requirements, and the Attorney General’s innuendo to the contrary is a pretext aimed at impairing VDARE’s constitutional rights to speech and association.”
There is no mention of VDare on the Berkeley Castle website.
But Oscar Robles, a Honduran who owns a Mexican restaurant in town called Mi Ranchito, said he knows what the group stands for and would not take his family to the castle for Christmas.
“They don’t support us. They are not happy that we are here,” said Robles, a father of five and mariachi singer. “They see us like a threat, and they think that we don’t have nothing to add to United States.”
The Brimelows have embraced Berkeley Springs as their home, attending local church services and dining at the Country Inn. Lydia Brimelow has participated in public yoga classes in the park and joined the board of the Bath Christmas Project, the group leading the holiday tours at the castle.
Hunter Clark, the president and founder of the Bath Christmas Project, said he ignores criticism from people upset that his group is organizing castle tours. “It’s 98 percent of the community who is behind us, and the other 2 percent just want to raise their voice up,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it anymore.”
On the November podcast, Lydia Brimelow said she wants the castle to be a “sort of a hub of American patriotism.” And she described the community surrounding them as “incredibly supportive.”
From the start, people in Berkeley Springs took sides about VDare’s purchase of the castle.
“My heart sank when I heard about the new owners,” Dina Coe, 79, wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Messenger. She called the idea of the castle being sold to an anti-immigration group “a disheartening shock.”
The Messenger wrote an editorial after the sale, affirming the town’s values as apprehension spread about the new owners:
“Unlike some folks, we don’t believe VDARE has the power to ruin the local economy or make a dent in who we are to the rest of the world,” the editorial read. “Truth is, it’s more likely that a new visitor or resident will be enlisted to judge a contest at the Apple Butter Festival or the County Expo than to be told to go back where they came from. That’s what Berkeley Springs is about.”
The letters about VDare published in the newspaper eventually slowed. But that was before a Black Lives Matter rally in the summer of 2020.
The town was already on edge ahead of the Aug. 21 demonstration.
Larry Schultz, the 64-year-old organizer of the rally, said there was a false rumor “that we were going to bring busloads of people from Philadelphia, busloads of African American people that were going to burn Berkeley Springs to the ground.”
Hundreds of people showed up for the two-hour demonstration, most of whom were counterprotesters. Some were armed.
Men waved American flags and shouted “All Lives Matter!” and “U.S.A.!” Schultz said he saw Confederate flags, too.
Kurt Griffith, now 64, a mixed-race Berkeley Springs resident who attended the rally, called the experience “a little bit terrifying.”
The next day, a local man, Ted Stein, blamed VDare for the rancor at the rally.
“A racist org (@vdare) bought a literal castle in my town,” Stein wrote in a tweet that VDare would eventually cite in legal action against him. “They organized this violent counter protest to locals having a BLM vigil in the park. Biker gang. A militia. And hundreds of armed racists. Never happened before VDARE.”
VDare responded with a post on its website, calling Stein’s accusations “a lie.”
Seven months after the rally, Stein responded to a different tweet from Peter Brimelow, writing “BTW, the whole town knows it was you who brought the racists with guns in.”
This time, an attorney representing VDare and Peter Brimelow emailed Stein demanding he retract his allegations, according to court documents. Stein did not — and VDare sued him in August 2021 for defamation.
VDare had previously sued the city of Colorado Springs and the New York Times. Both cases were dismissed.
At first, Stein attempted to fight the defamation lawsuit. But eventually, the parties reached a settlement, which stipulated that Stein pay $20,000, post a retraction on Twitter and publish that retraction as an advertisement in the Messenger, Peter Brimelow wrote on VDare.
“I regret the harm my false charges caused to Mr. Brimelow or the VDARE Foundation, and will endeavor in the future to accord those I perceive as political opponents with greater respect and dignity,” the apology read. Stein, who declined to comment, has made his Twitter account private.
Two other locals received legal warnings from VDare, Peter Brimelow said.
One of them was Lisa Marie Briggs, a 35-year-old trans woman. During the 2021 Christmas at the Castle event, Briggs stood outside the Country Inn and held a sign that read “There is HATE at the CASTLE.”
After reading a Dec. 17, 2021, post on VDare’s website that read, “Trust all transgenders, just like you’d trust any autistic schizo drug addict with HIV,” Briggs began going to the Brimelows’ local Catholic church.
During a Mass, Briggs, who said she open carries a 9mm pistol everywhere she goes, shook hands with Lydia Brimelow and recalls telling her, “Peace be with you, Black Lives Matter.” She said she also waved at the Brimelow children.
Two months later, she received a letter accusing her of harassment which stated that if she did not cease her activities, the Brimelows would file a harassment complaint with the county sheriff’s office, initiate a civil cause of action and pursue a restraining order.
Asked about the legal warnings, Peter Brimelow described Briggs as “a local Leftist transsexual who was posting salacious online comments about our little girls and stalking my family at church with guns.”
Briggs hasn’t been back to their church since August and did not protest Christmas at the Castle last year. But she worries about what she sees as an acceptance of VDare in Berkeley Springs.
“I feel like they are starting to become normalized,” Briggs said.
In contrast, Scott Collinash, the chef at the Country Inn and co-founder of Berkeley Springs Pride, said he’s talked to the Brimelows when they’ve come into the restaurant and called Lydia Brimelow “a delightful woman.”
“I’m sure they both know that I’m gay, and they have not said anything to me,” Collinash said. “They have caused me no trouble at all. And they have caused Berkeley Springs Pride no trouble at all either.”
The Brimelows haven’t offended Hiroko Rubin, either: “If they want to preach [to] people, they can, but they don’t do it.” She described Lydia Brimelow, who has taken her yoga classes, as a “very sweet, down-to-the-earth woman.”
When she and her husband took their walk to see the Christmas lights, she said she wasn’t troubled by the sight of the castle the way he was.
When visitors filled the great hall of the castle on an early December evening, no one mentioned VDare.
Strangers came together, waving their arms to get a crying baby to smile for a photo.
Families walked up the staircase covered in red carpet and saw a display of a toy penguin diving down a mini slide. Kids picked up faux snowballs and tried to sink them through a basketball hoop.
There was no sign of the Brimelows. There were no Confederate flags or talk of an immigrant invasion.
As people left the castle, they looked out over the town. They were on the grounds of VDare’s headquarters, but all they saw were twinkling lights.
An earlier version of this story noted that in 2019, Donors Trust was a charity associated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The reference to the Kochs was removed from the story because public tax filings show the Charles Koch Foundation gave Donors Trust only $25,000 in 2019 after sometimes giving more in previous years.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, copy editing by Gaby Morera Di Núbila, video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard, design by Andrew Braford.