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.