Gilded Age Mansions of the Thousand Islands: Boldt Castle and Singer Castle
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
No study of the Gilded Age is complete without a discussion of the magnificent mansions constructed by the super-rich as they attempted to out-shine each other in conspicuous consumption through architectural display. Although most textbooks focus on Newport’s “cottages”, or George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in North Carolina, New York historians can point to palaces on Fifth Avenue, mansions along the Hudson and the shores of Long Island, or the Great Camps of the Adirondacks.
However, New Yorkers also built two remarkable castles at the far Northern border of the state, each located in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River: Boldt Castle on Heart Island, near Alexandria Bay, and Singer Castle on Dark Island, near Chippewa Bay. Interestingly, these castles were built almost simultaneously (in the first years of the 20th century), only about 30 miles apart, each by a self-made millionaire. Though the names of George C. Boldt (1851-1916) and Frederick G. Bourne (1851-1919) are no longer familiar, in their own era they were well known as innovative entrepreneurs in their respective fields – hotel management and international business. Boldt’s castle was designed to resemble a German fortress on the Rhine, while Bourne’s was based on Scottish castles such as those described in Sir Walter Scott’s novels.
Boldt Castle has the more dramatic story. George Charles Boldt immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1864, and began work as a dishwasher in New York City. His big break came in Philadelphia, where his abilities were recognized by the owner of an exclusive club, who made Boldt the manager of its dining room. Boldt also married the boss’s young daughter, Louise Kehrer (aged 15), who assisted in his later business ventures. After the Boldts established the Bellevue-Stratford as the premiere hotel in Philadelphia, George was tapped by William Waldorf Astor to design, manage, and co-own another grand hotel – the original Waldorf. The major purpose of this mammoth structure was apparently to annoy Astor’s aunt, whose private home was located in the adjoining lot. In the ongoing family feud, William’s cousin, John Jacob Astor IV (yes, the one who died in the sinking of the Titanic), then built the equally luxurious Astoria Hotel next door. It was Boldt who made peace between the cousins and linked the rival hotels, creating the famed Waldorf-Astoria, then located at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.
Both the Bellevue-Stratford and the Waldorf-Astoria reflected the Boldts’ leadership in the hotel field. Instead of seeing their hotels as stops for transient guests, George and Louise created palaces where the rich (old and new) could be appropriately pampered and publicly display their wealth. George stressed impeccable service and elegant cuisine, and is credited with inventing room service; Louise contributed her taste for elaborate decoration and promoted the use of hotel’s public spaces by women with the addition of ballrooms and private dining rooms. The Boldts’ hotels served the upper-crust and made George a millionaire.
In 1900 Boldt, who had been vacationing with his family on Hart Island in the St. Lawrence, decided to build a castle as a tribute to his wife. He not only renamed Hart Island “Heart Island”, but also reshaped the island itself to resemble a heart. To undertake this vast construction plan, he hired approximately 300 workers – laborers, stone masons, carpenters, and artisans. The castle was to be six stories tall, with 127 rooms, and approximately 60,000 square feet large; the yacht house alone covered 35,000 square feet. The main house would be ornamented in the best Gilded Age style, with tapestries, mosaics, and elaborate furnishings imported from Europe and around the world. Unique features included medieval flourishes, such as a drawbridge and a dovecote, as well as modern amenities like the indoor swimming pool and steam-generated powerhouse to provide power and light. The so-called “Alster Tower,” named after the defensive towers along the Alster River in Germany, was conceived as a play area, complete with a basement bowling alley, ballroom, billiard parlor, library, café, grill and kitchen. Jackie Craven, a journalist specializing in architecture and tourism, writes that “the eleven-building complex is exuberant and outrageous, as though its creators had taken five hundred years of architectural history and spilled it across the craggy island.” The cost has been estimated at $200 million in today’s dollars. His plan was to present the castle to his wife on Valentine’s Day, 1905.
Then unexpectedly, in 1904, Louise Kehrer Boldt died. George immediately ordered that all work on the castle be halted, and Boldt Castle was abandoned and never finished. Very soon, the structure became a vandalized ruin, which it remained until it was acquired in 1977 by Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Slowly, Boldt Castle is being brought to life as a tourist attraction and spectacular wedding venue, though some of the renovations have become controversial.
The second castle, originally called “The Towers”, has a happier history – it was completed and enjoyed by its owner, Frederick Gilbert Bourne, at that time President of the New York-based Singer Manufacturing Company. Bourne, the son of a minister, was also a self-made millionaire, though the stories of how he got his start differ widely. In my favorite, Bourne — like a Horatio Alger hero — met Alfred C. Clark, son of the President of the Singer Company, while working at the Mercantile Library in New York City, and Clark offered him a job. According to a different tale, Frederick met Alfred at church and impressed him with his singing voice. All stories agree, however, that Bourne started in a low-level position and eventually worked his way up to be President (1889-1905) while still in his 30s. His major contribution to Singer was in creating its stand-alone advertising department and increasing its international presence, making Singer sewing machines a true multi-national corporation. Bourne lived with his family in an apartment in the Dakota in New York City, and even before commissioning “The Towers” had already built a 110-room summer mansion called “Indian Neck Hall” at Oakdale, Long Island.
“The Towers,” now “Singer Castle,” was less grandiose than “Boldt Castle.” Constructed between 1902-1904, it was built of the same local granite used for Boldt Castle, but only four stories tall, with just 24 rooms. Costing a mere $500,000 (as compared to Boldt’s 2.5 million), the design included tunnels, dungeons, turrets, secret passages, and other fanciful details; decorated as a hunting lodge, the walls sported the heads of moose, elk, deer, and caribou. Here Bourne vacationed with his wife and eight surviving children, entertained the rich and the famous, and enjoyed driving his speedboats. The property remained in the Bourne family until the 1960s; it is currently available for tours, special events, and even overnight stays.
Interestingly, both Boldt and Bourne were also associated with two important New York City architectural landmarks which have since been destroyed – Boldt with the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, designed by Henry J. Hardenberg and built as two hotels in 1893 and 1897, and Bourne with the Singer Building designed by Ernest Flagg and completed in 1908. At 47 stories, the Singer Tower was briefly the tallest building in the United States, and is still the tallest building ever to have been deliberately torn down. The Empire State Building now stands where the first Waldorf did, and the site of the Singer Building, demolished in 1968, is now 1 Liberty Plaza, adjacent to the site of the World Trade Center.
These stories demonstrate several themes in New York’s history: opportunity, entrepreneurial innovation, and architectural creativity. They also challenge the notion that “upstate” and “downstate,” are always at odds. Here, the wealth generated in New York City was lavished as far upstate as one can get, with the very architect of “The Towers” (now Singer Castle) the same man who designed New York’s Singer skyscraper. In addition, these castles are physical reminders of two long-dead business tycoons who each, in his way, typifies the Gilded Age saga of the self-made man in New York State. A recognition of their business endeavors moves our understanding of the heyday of capitalism in New York beyond the stereotypes of “robber barons” and railroad consolidation, adding the service and multi-national marketing sectors to our view of the state’s economy.
One final connection: George Boldt is said to have popularized Thousand Island salad dressing at the Waldorf-Astoria based on a recipe he learned from a local fishing guide in the Thousand Islands.
 Jackie Craven, “Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands; A Gilded Age castle built for a tragic love.” http://architecture.about.com/od/castlesusa/a/boldtcastle.htm
 Paul Malo, “A Controversial Restoration.” http://boldtcastle.wordpress.com/stories/a-controversial-restoration/
 Christopher Gray, “Once the Tallest Building, but Since 1967 a Ghost,” The New York Times, January 2, 2005. “Article 3 — no Title.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jan 02, 1. http://search.proquest.com/docview/92993628?accountid=12761.
 Rob Van Wyen, “Frederick Bourne & The Long Island Maritime Museum,” The Dolphin; Volume 38, Number 1: Winter 2007.
Boldt Castle, History; http://www.boldtcastle.com/visitorinfo/index.php/about/
Boldt Castle, A Virtual Tour; http://boldtcastle.wordpress.com/
Singer Island Castle; http://www.singercastle.com/start.html
Patty Mondore, “Frederick G. Bourne and ‘The Things that Matter Most’,” January 13, 2013;