HAMBURG - The first time Frank Hinger walked inside the Gingerbread Castle and looked around the condition of the crumbling landmark he wanted to buy, he admits to thinking, "Oh, (naughty word)." "It was a disaster," he said Tuesday. As Hinger, a tall, athletic-looking 42-year-old with sparkling eyes and rock-star hair, talked, some 30 people in white t-shirts and protective gloves clambered over, through and around the castle. Two days earlier, the 74-year-old castle had been disappearing under lush growths of poison ivy, weeds, and whatever could dig a root into the crumbling masonry. But the white-shirted army had arrived Monday morning and poured their sweat into ripping out the vegetation, giving statues face-lifts, scraping, painting, weeding, raking, sweeping and otherwise having a great time doing something they'd think of as work if they had to do it at home. The work crew were all employees of Hampton Inns who had volunteered to spend two days working on the castle. They were there because the hotel chain, which is a subsidiary of Hilton, had chosen the Gingerbread Castle as the 21st project in its five-year-old Save a Landmark program. The work to be done is daunting - half a million dollars worth, said Hinger, who was once a contractor. Melissa O'Brien, Hampton's director of public relations, said her company's goal was not to complete the project, but to "kick-start" it. Besides nearly 500 man (and woman) hours of volunteer work over two days, Hampton Inns also gave Hinger $25,000 towards the project. "I can't believe how much work they've done," he said. "I can't get anybody to work that hard." The national hotel chain selected Gingerbread Castle as its New Jersey project because of its uniqueness and quirky fun qualities. "I'd like to hit all fifty states," said Hampton vice president Judy Christa-Cathey. Hampton Inn first learned of the castle nearly five years ago, said Christa-Cathey. She said Hinger made the project easier because of his experience as a contractor. Plans were made prior to the crews' arrivals Tuesday morning, and a recently rare bright sunny sky allowed the workers to tackle their tasks with gusto. Hinger, who bought the castle in 2003, said that the Hampton Inn funding would help to begin work on the exterior of the castle, but that a great deal more money and work is needed to renovate the interior as well. "It's a drop in the bucket," said Hinger, but, he said, "It's enough to get it started," said Hinger. It took artist and architect Joseph Urban two years and $250,000 to build the original Gingerbread Castle in 1928 at the request of Wheatsworth Mills owner William Bennett. The flour-mill owner was inspired to build the castle as a publicity stunt after having seen the Urban-designed set for a NY Metropolitan Opera production of "Hansel und Gretel." The castle was a popular tourist attraction for many years, drawing families and busloads of schoolchildren to take a 25-cent tour of its turrets, bridges, and fairy-tale friends. It had since fallen into disrepair and has been closed to visitors for years, but people still call to ask about tours. "I get fifteen to twenty calls a day," said Hinger. "I hope to reopen it for tours in spring of 2005," he said. "God willing and money permitting." He said that profits from Frank's Castle Grille, the restaurant and music venue he operates across the street from the castle, go toward the project as well. He hopes that the publicity generated by Hampton Inns, which taped a report on location that will be distributed to television stations around the country, will lead donors to him. Hinger believes that Gingerbread Castle belongs to the people, and he hopes that local residents and fans of the castle will help the restoration by making donations to the project. "I'm not the owner; I'm just the caretaker, and I hope someone else will do it a hundred years from now," he said. "If one fifth of the people who ever visited here gave a dollar, we'd have it." Hinger said he has no interest in making money off the castle, just enough to pay for upkeep and expenses once it's restored. "I want to see kids smiling," he said. "I want to see their eyes sparkling. "That will be my payback."