'Downton Shabby': An American went online to search his genealogy. Now he's saving his English ancestral castle.

·7 min read
An aerial view of Hopwood Hall from 1924.
An aerial view of Hopwood Hall from 1924.

LONDON – Many people searching genealogy websites for information about their ancestors encounter poignant geographical details, long-lost relatives or historical insights – good, bad and ugly.

Michigan-born actor, screenwriter and producer Hopwood DePree found an abandoned, but once-resplendent 50,000-square-foot estate in the English countryside – his family's ancestral home where his 14th great-grandfather was born.

Armed with little more than a Hollywood resume, a spray tan and deep unfamiliarity with British customs, norms and manners, DePree, 52, came up with a plan to rescue the neglected 60-room, 600-year-old mansion.

Long ago, Hopwood Hall teemed with butlers, maids, cooks, cleaners, carriage drivers, farmers, beekeepers, blacksmiths, butchers, weavers, wood cutters, carpenters, stablehands, horsemen and ice keepers. When DePree moved to England to rescue Hopwood Hall, it was all but ruined.

USA TODAY wrote about this ultimate fixer-upper quest in 2019. After a U.S. literary agent saw the story, she asked DePree to turn his tale of swapping Los Angeles for a hard hat, acres of damp plaster and a rural scene just outside Manchester into a book. Now that book is here: Downton Shabby: One American's Ultimate DIY Adventure Restoring His Family's English Castle. It publishes with William Morrow (HarperCollins) on May 31.

What follows is a lightly edited Q&A with DePree conducted in London this week before he traveled to the U.S. for the launch of the book.

What’s the latest? Bring us up to date with where the renovations stand.

DePree: The ghost of (my distant cousin) Lady Hopwood who legend has it haunts the Hall must be happy with our renovations because we’ve been able to make a massive amount of progress over the past few years. Even during all the lockdowns, the local community stepped in with an amazing outpouring of support. We’ve stopped the majority of the roof leaks, repaired scores of leaded-glass windows that had been smashed in vandal attacks, and with the assistance of a flock of grazing sheep, we’ve uncovered the former gardens underneath decades of overgrowth and mudflow. Now we’re in the middle of rescuing the old servants' wing from near collapse with a grant from Historic England.

One of Hopwood Hall's many wood-paneled hallways, seen in 2011.
One of Hopwood Hall's many wood-paneled hallways, seen in 2011.

What other stories have you heard about people who’ve entered into the world of ancestry research?

DePree: I've heard all sorts of fascinating stories! One friend recently told me that after doing a DNA search, she discovered she has a half-sister living in Phoenix. Needless to say, their father had some explaining to do. It’s incredible what you can discover. People tell me that after they heard my story, they started searching their ancestry in the hope of finding their own abandoned family castle. I always ask them to let me know if they do so that we can form a support group.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw famously observed that the
'British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common tongue.' What’s been the most fascinating aspect of spending
time in the UK for you?

DePree: I’m in awe of how old so many buildings are in England. I always laugh whenever Bob (Bob Wall, a restorations expert who is also the caretaker of Hopwood Hall) talks about a "modern building." For him that means is was built in the 1800s. Hopwood Hall was constructed in the 1400s. In my hometown in Michigan, if a house was built in the 1800s it probably has a plaque on it. And in LA, the tours of celebrated historic homes were mostly built in the 1920s.

You write in the book that at the start of this journey you were the kind of person who had 'practically burst into tears' in a Home Depot parking lot when trying to do a relatively simple home improvement task. How are your DIY skills now?

DePree: I wish I had realized how easy my former self used to have it at Home Depot – waltzing in and grabbing a DIY item off the shelf, throwing it in a cart and paying for it at checkout! At Hopwood Hall, many of our works have to be done with the methods that my ancestors would have used hundreds of years ago: Hand-making leaded-glass windows, baking bricks out of clay, creating plaster molds and making goat-hair mortar. I’m definitely not looking forward to the day we have to make paint made of cow urine.

Hopwood DePree with a barrel full of debris on the grounds of Hopwood Hall, in 2018.
Hopwood DePree with a barrel full of debris on the grounds of Hopwood Hall, in 2018.

What’s your favorite room in Hopwood Hall?

DePree: It’s difficult to say my absolute favorite part of Hopwood Hall, but I’m a sucker for grand entrances so one of my favorites is the Gallery Corridor. It’s a very wide, ornately carved hallway that stretches about a hundred feet long and would have welcomed visitors as they entered the Hall. It would have been lined with centuries-old portraits of my ancestors along the walls. There is an incredible stone fireplace at one end dated 1658 that was a gift to the Hopwoods from Lord Byron (the Romantic movement poet). The Gallery Corridor very much embodies both the history of the Hall and residents who lived there, but also it is all about the future too as we battle against time to rescue it. Recently we had one of the ceilings collapse, which was devastating. But we are well on our way to rescuing that too. The challenge with a house this enormous is that it’s hard to keep up with all the repairs and to know where to focus our efforts. I made a video on my YouTube channel about the Gallery Corridor and someone contacted me saying they know where at least one of the old portraits went, which is amazing news. We are determined to track down as many of them as we can.

When can Americans start visiting?

DePree: Americans can start visiting this summer when we open the medieval doors to welcome guests from near and far. We’ve been amazed at the number of people requesting tours so we’ve actually had to set up a reservation system. Brides have even contacted us to see when we’ll be ready to host weddings. Beginning June 18th we’ll offer hardhat tours of some of the rooms: The Guards Room, Reception Hall and Family Chapel to kick off summer and to celebrate the release of Downton Shabby and from then on, we’ll have activities on certain weekends throughout the summer. We’re also going to be offering workshops this summer where visitors can learn historic building skills. Since Hopwood Hall is still being renovated, tickets are very limited but those interested can book ahead at www.HopwoodXIV.com.

The 'Downton Abbey' movie sequel was just released, the TV series inspired the title of your book. Tell us how your life in England compares to the drama?

DePree: To be honest I feel a bit "below stairs" like one of the servants. ("Downton Abbey" follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in an Edwardian mansion in Yorkshire, England.) I'm constantly in a hard hat and work boots and my former LA clothes have been eaten up by moths. Lucky for me that several members of Historic Houses (a charity that gives grants for heritage projects in England) who own other beautiful country estates across the UK have been incredibly welcoming and have invited me to visit, so I've gotten a chance to appreciate and take part in the real-life "Downton Abbey"-esque splendor and hospitality. These homes are incredibly inspiring for what we will eventually be able to offer visitors of Hopwood Hall.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Downton Shabby: Q&A with LA man saving his family's castle from ruin