A brief history of Kasteel Well


By Maeve Lawler, Kasteel Well Bureau Chief

Kasteel Well, a Dutch national monument, is a moated castle nestled in the countryside of Well, Netherlands. Each day, students cross a wide wooden bridge to access the medieval brick buildings that stand out against the lush, green grass of surrounding gardens and fields. This sometimes eerie-feeling set of historic buildings is brought to life by the daily activity of students. 

“The castle,” as it is so fondly called by Emersonians, can house up to 90 Emerson students each semester, where students have the opportunity to live and take classes at the college’s abroad campus. The castle’s history is an integral part of the living and learning experience for students each semester. 

Well, Limburg 

Well is located in Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. It’s close to the German border and between the Dutch cities, Nijmegen and Venlo. 

The small town has roughly 2,500 residents and sits between “old” and “new” Well. When Emerson students arrive at Well, they are greeted by green fields scattered with sheep, horses, and geese. The river Maas is also a short walk from the castle, bordering “old” Well, while the main street in “new” Well offers students access to a general store, bakery, and a butcher. 

History of Kasteel Well 

According to the Well Archive website, the castle was originally built in the 14th century and renovated in the 17th century. It’s characterized by its medieval architecture as students, staff, and tourists are surrounded by arches, wooden beams, cobblestone walkways, and creaking wooden floors. 

The property is engulfed by a large outer moat, hugging the gardens and the castle’s buildings, including the barn, Voorburcht building, Main Castle, and an old tower ruin. A small inner moat with bright orange koi fish surrounds the Main Castle. 

The town’s “sweet water” well prompted the townspeople to build a watch tower around this well in 975 A.D. Later in 1275 A.D., Duke Geldern came from Germany to Well and built a castle around the watchtower. Since then, 11 noble families have lived at the castle. 

Much of the castle’s appearance today dates back to its 17th-century expansion and repair, facilitated by the Duke of Limburg. 

When the Von Schloissnigg family sold the castle in 1905, its chain of noble inhabitants ended. In 1906, Dr. Juris Richard Walters from Dusseldorf, Germany, lived in the castle with his wife until 1939. 

Since the Walters’, the castle has been owned by various local foundations and societies. After World War II, the castle served as a temporary shelter for people returning to Well as the town’s war damages were being repaired. A school of agriculture was also based out of the castle post-war. 

The Limburg Castles Foundation has owned the castle since 1969, then Emerson College rented the property in 1986 and formally purchased it in 1988—marking the official start of Emerson’s European campus. 

How Emerson Acquired the Castle 

According to Rob Dückers, executive director at Kasteel Well, Emerson acquired Kasteel Well out of a desire to establish a study abroad program in the 1980s. 

At the time, many other U.S. colleges were looking to establish programs in the Mediterranean. Emerson, looking to do something different, started searching for properties in Brussels, Belgium. 

As Brussels is also the capital of the EU, Emerson thought this would be a good location for an abroad program, Dückers said. The college was unsuccessful, however, in finding an affordable property.

The program’s first director, John Barbetta, a former theater professor at Emerson, received a tip that the Limburg Castle Foundation was looking for an owner of Kasteel Well. The tip led to a two-year “trial” program in 1986 when Emerson rented the property. After the trial proved sustainable, Barbetta decided to purchase the property. 

Dojna Krecu, the senior program coordinator at Kasteel Well, emphasized the benefits for students studying in a peaceful environment like Well. 

“The moment you arrive here and look around, you’re very easily isolated,” Krecu said. “That gives our students more rest than a usual, hectic city life.” 

Castle Maintenance  

Upon purchasing the castle, Emerson began a series of renovations, which have been ongoing since the start of the program. The last major renovation was in 2014, Dückers said, when a new roof was installed on the Main Castle. 

The next big project for the castle is to install new heat pumps in April or May to heat the castle more sustainably. 

The Netherlands government helps to take care of national monuments like Kasteel Well through subsidies, explains Huber Simons, the castle’s senior operations and facilities manager. Because Emerson is now the owner, the college makes long-term maintenance plans every six years to submit to the government and receive these subsidies. If the plan is approved, the government will cover 60 percent of the maintenance, with the remaining 40 percent covered by the college, said Simons. 

“I think it’s very rewarding to keep a national monument in good shape because then you can pass something onto the future,” Simons said. 

Appreciating the Castle’s Beauty 

Dückers appreciates the sense of history he feels while working at the castle. His favorite space is the staff room, one of the oldest parts of the castle with its 14th-century cellar-like architecture intact. 

“Even though it’s not the grandest place in the castle, it’s where I sense the historical environment most,” Dückers said. 

His other favorite part of the castle is a stone with an embedded chain and handcuff, which is on display in the courtyard. The stone, found in the cellar of the Voorburcht tower, indicates this cellar was likely used as a prison, Dückers explained. 

He finds this stone another “great way to connect with history.”

Because the castle has such a rich history, Krecu noticed that students generally have respect for preserving it. 

“I know from talking with my Boston colleagues that, because it is such a historical monument, the students are much more respectful [to] this building,” she said. 

The castle’s beauty never gets old for both Dückers and Krecu, despite the many years they’ve spent working amongst its historical charm. “Every day when I drive to the castle, I see the castle from the car and the road [and] it still amazes me how beautiful it is,” Krecu said. 

Dückers said he considers himself lucky to be working at the castle. 

“What makes this place so special is the way that the building connects with the community that is in there,” he said. “The community is special, the building is special, the program is special. That makes it an absolute joy to work here.” 

Dückers also sees the benefits of students studying and living where an intimate connection with history is fostered. 

“I think the big advantage of [living at the castle] is that you learn that history is not a bad thing, but history is something that still is living and that the past can tell us something about who we are, where we come from, where we are going to,” he said.