It’s served as the backdrop for marriage proposals and wedding days, an enchanted scene that has captured imaginations for decades.
But over the weekend, a large upper portion of Madame Sherri’s “castle” steps in the woods of Chesterfield, N.H., gave way, crumbling to the mossy, fern-covered ground below.
Fans of the weather-beaten stone stairway, which is tucked away along a hiking trail in the Madame Sherri Forest, are lamenting the loss of its tallest arch after news of the partial collapse was reported by the Chesterfield Conservation Commission and local media outlets.
Many posted pictures on social media of their time spent exploring the granite steps, remnants of a country house built nearly a century ago and owned by an eccentric New York socialite.
“Sad to hear part of it fell,” one person wrote on Instagram Tuesday. “But glad to see so many people got to experience it before it did.”
Jack Savage, president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which owns the 513-acre property where the stairs are located, said the damage occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday and was likely nothing more than an act of nature. No one was injured.
“Gravity is constantly at work, and this is a ruin, so it’s no particular surprise that pieces fell down,” he said. “This is about the passage of time, and about the immutable force of gravity, I suppose. I’m sad and sorry for those people for whom it’s a particularly special place, but it’s not to be unexpected.”
Savage said the stairs are among the most popular attractions among the 190 properties the society owns around the state, drawing somewhere around 10,000 people a year in all types of weather conditions.
“It’s really captured people’s imaginations and attention, so when part of it falls down it’s no wonder that people are sad to hear about that and care about it,” he said. “There’s a story attached to it.”
The stairs were part of a house owned by Madame Antoinette Sherri — born Antoinette Bramardi, in France — a New York City socialite with a gaudy, outsized reputation. It was built in the Chesterfield woods in the 1930s.
Sherri, who worked as a Broadway costume designer, was known as “one of New Hampshire’s most eccentric residents,” according to the Chesterfield Historical Society. She was famous locally for both her personality and the impressive parties she threw in the elegant retreat.
“The parties matched Madame Sherri’s outrageous and sometimes shockingly scandalous behavior. She reigned as Queen of the Ball and held court in a cobra-backed chair that she called ‘The Queen’s Throne,’ ” according to the society’s website. “She made a point to outdo her guests in her outlandish costumes and was known for her extravagant entrances.”
But by 1959, Sherri’s fortune had dried up and she left the house in the woods. It fell into disrepair and later burned down in 1962, leaving behind the cascading stone stairway — known as “Primrose Path” — and the house’s foundation. Sherri died three years later.
Savage said while there have long been signs asking people to stay off the stairs, there is now caution tape to warn visitors away.
“We will have to find a more permanent way to allow it to be there, but make sure people aren’t tempted to climb around on it,” he said. There are no immediate plans to reinforce the remaining arches.
The stairs have always been a popular attraction with hikers passing through the forest. But interest exploded with the use of social media over the years, bringing droves of photographers and videographers to capture the mystical scene.
On Instagram, row after row of pictures show the steps from every angle, in all seasons, images that seem pulled from the pages of a fairytale.
In one picture, a woman wearing a baby blue dress poses barefoot on the steps, as if she’s dramatically fainted. Another shows someone proposing to their partner at the bottom of the stairway. Others portray the steps blanketed in snow in winter, draped in orange-and-brown leaves in fall, and surrounded by lavish green plants and trees in spring and summer.
“Besides the lore of Madame Sherri, the forest and castle have been a popular spot for photographers of all types,” Peter Cannizzaro, a Newton photographer, said in a message.
Cannizzaro recently traveled to the woods to take pictures of the stairway and noticed part of the third arch had fallen. Due to poor lighting conditions that day, he returned the next day to find that that part of the steps was entirely gone.
“It was heartbreaking to arrive and see them partially collapse, and shocking to be one of the last to capture them before the third [arch] completely toppled,” he said.
In June, Matt Antaya and his wife, Sara, got married next to the steps and triple arches, surrounded by a small group of friends and family.
Antaya, 33, said the couple chose the spot because “it had that New England fairytale look to it.”
“We wanted something simple and connected to nature in a way, and it’s a one-of-a-kind sort of place,” he said.
Antaya said they were disheartened by the news but hope the remaining two arches can hold steady. One day, he wants to show his children where he married his “best friend.”
“It stinks that some of the magic is gone,” said Antaya, whose wife is pregnant. “I was hoping to go back later on to show my kids. Hopefully some of it is still there.”