The Thousand Islands are a wonder in their own right. But two majestic architectural specimens residing within them deserve special attention: Boldt and Singer castles. In the Gilded Age the nation’s wealthiest flocked to the Thousand Islands for their summer retreats. Boldt Castle and Singer Castle are what remain of this era. Each, in its own way, is straight out of a fairytale. This first of two posts concerns Boldt Castle.
The tale of Boldt Castle is both heart-warming and tragic. It begins as a rags to riches story: The Castle’s owner, George C. Boldt (1851-1916), was a self-made man. He immigrated to the US from Germany in 1864 and worked as a dishwasher in New York City. Later, when working in Philadelphia, the owner of an exclusive club took a liking to the young Boldt and hired him to be manager of the club’s dining room. George soon fell in love with his new boss’s daughter, Louise Kehrer, and married her. The life they built together sprung not only from love, but strong business acumen. Together they made the Bellevue-Stratford the premiere hotel in Philadelphia, attracting the attention of William Waldorf Astor, who asked George to design, co-own, and manage the original Waldorf. The hotel ultimately became the famous Waldorf-Astoria (a remedy to the Astor family feud over rival hotels). George and Louise revolutionized the hotel industry by creating a luxurious arena for conspicuous consumption. George is credited with inventing room service and prioritized fine dining, while Louise contributed her fine decorating sense and created suitable public spaces for women by adding dining rooms and ballrooms.
In 1900 George was vacationing with his family on the Thousand Islands and became inspired to build a castle for Louise. And so began his project of love. He purchased Hart Island and, ever the romantic, renamed it Heart Island and modified the land to look like a heart. Modeled from the rhineland castles of his homeland, the castle was to be six stories tall with 127 rooms and approximately 60,000 square feet. He also intended to build out buildings – a yacht house, and a play house containing a bowling alley, billiard room, library, and kitchen. He intended to gift the castle to Louise on Valentine’s Day, 1905.
But the castle would never be completed. This dream came to a crushing halt in 1904 when George telegraphed the workers to immediately “stop all construction.” Louise had died suddenly and the heartbroken Boldt could not bear to finish the castle without her. He left the castle just as it was, now a testament to his lost love, and never returned.
For 73 years the castle lie subjected to the elements and vandals, reducing the castle to a derelict wonder; a shadow of George Boldt’s nearly forgotten dream. But, like a phoenix from the ashes, the castle would be restored. In 1977 the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the castle and has been restoring it to its former glory ever since. The work accomplished over the past few decades is remarkable. I consider it one of the greatest examples of historic preservation I have ever encountered. The grounds are immaculate and sprinkled with heart-shaped flower beds. The first two floors are completely restored, allowing visitors to tour the ballroom, parlor, dining room, kitchen and butler’s pantry, bedrooms and more. The upper floors are open to visitors, but have yet to be restored. Some of these rooms feature exhibition on the restoration process and history of the castle. Otherwise visitors will see nothing but sad, graffitied walls. Despite signs protesting such sacrilege, many cannot resist signing their initials and dates of attendance. But by the looks of the lower floors and grounds, it is only a matter of time before these, too, are fully completed and restored.
There are a number of tour options to choose from. Boldt Castle is just about a ten minute ferry ride from Alexandria Bay, but to get the full Thousand Island castle experience, I recommend doing what I did: taking a longer tour that includes a trip to Singer Castle on Dark Island with the option to stop at Boldt Castle on the way back. Or, if you will be visiting Alexandria Bay for a few days, you might wish to tour each on separate days and really savor the experience. More information can be found here. Whichever you choose, you will not be disappointed. Until then, Boldt Castle and Singer Castle await your close scrutiny and dropped jaws.