Saturday, August 9, 2014

America's Castles - Part II: Return to Heart Island

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
9 Aug 2014N21481SDC (Sodus, NY) - ART (Watertown, NY) - SDC2.81310.5

A Big Budget Valentine

The tale of Boldt Castle and its prime mover, George Boldt, is a remarkable one. At the age of thirteen, George came to the United States on his own, penniless. He became a self-made millionaire and is best known for managing the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. He commissioned the construction of Boldt Castle on Heart Island in honor of his beloved wife, Louise. In early 1904, Louise died abruptly and George ordered that all tools be laid down and all work stopped. Heartbroken, he never set foot on the island again.

After sitting unfinished and abandoned for the better part of the twentieth century, Boldt Castle suffered heavily from the combined ravages of weather and vandalism. The family sold the island to the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority for $1 with the stipulations that the property be open to the public, that no one should ever live there (because George and Louise never could), and that it never exceed 95% completion. Over time, restoration efforts have reversed much of the damage and leveraged abandoned building materials to complete much of the work that ended so abruptly in 1904.


The view of Heart Island from above has always reminded me of the computer game Myst from the 1990s. The island is dotted with structures of differing architectural styles, spanning the range from exotic to whimsical.

To the north is the monstrous wooden Yacht House. The tallest of the three doors is easily three stories in height.

The island is vaguely heart-shaped, though it was noted by one of our guides that the final shape of the island is not entirely natural.

From Alexandria Bay, it was a ten minute boat ride for Kristy, The Bear, and me to reach Heart island.

Water Approach

As we boarded the boat for Heart Island, a freighter crossed in front of Boldt Castle. The contrast between the castle and ship was striking and I had to imagine that the early twentieth century workforce that wrought the estate would have been stunned by such a behemoth passing their work site.

With the freighter gone, we could clearly see our destination from the marina.

This tiny island lies immediately west of Heart Island. The footprint of the house occupies most of the islands's surface; there's not much of a yard.

In size and scope, Boldt Castle really needs to be seen to be believed. Yet, as large and elaborate as it is, it somehow never struck me as gratuitous. Or, at the very least, it struck me as tastefully gratuitous. Perhaps George Boldt's rags to riches story gives him something of a pass. He may have been wealthy, but he earned his money by working for it. I could not help but wonder if a broke, thirteen year old immigrant could manage to achieve the American Dream in today's economy the way George Boldt did in the nineteenth century.

On the east side of the island is the Power House. Its foundation stands entirely in the St Lawrence River. From inside, one cannot help but be very aware of this from the sound of waves lapping against the walls.

North of Heart Island is the Yacht House.

Once on the island, The Bear enjoyed playing tour guide, despite never having been there (except as a Chiclet-sized fetus).

So many places to pop a squat!

Our first stop was to Alster Tower, also known as The Playhouse. This whimsical structure with its odd angles and ramshackle form seems to have evolved biologically; it struck us as being too odd to have been rationally designed.

Inside, restoration is still in progress. The structure was obviously quite complete compared to the main house and restorers are fighting damage from weather, time, and vandalism.

The Bear photographs an example of broken plaster in Alster Tower. Though not visible in the photos, the walls are covered with written "Kilroy was here" type nonsense. Infuriatingly, Kristy found one example dated 2014.

A long road lies ahead of the restoration crew to return the Playhouse to its former magnificence.

Boldt Castle is so large that it is difficult to fit the entire structure into frame.

Heart iconography is everywhere. The estate stands as a powerful tribute to the love of two people who lived a century ago.

We followed this pathway to the Power House.

Yup, The Bear is still playing tour guide.

Everyone who passed this fountain needed their picture taken with it. My family was no exception.

The Bear and I were particularly fond of the Power House.

From there, we entered the main house via the humble "porch".

Much of the main and second floors are restored. The upper floors remain largely as they were when work stopped.

This beautiful, domed glass ceiling arches over the main staircase.

This is what would have been George Boldt's room.

Louise Boldt's rooms were immediately adjoining and tastefully decorated in period-appropriate furnishings.

This is the ceiling of a third floor room to which no restoration effort has been invested yet.

The library on the main floor.

The pool room. Restoration crews recovered numerous barrels of imported Italian ceramic tile intended for this space. Freckles on the bottom of the pool are coins cast in by visitors.

This tower was the first structure built on the island. It contained an elevated water tank and was topped with a "dove-cote".  The structure was almost entirely collapsed when restoration efforts began on the island.

This arch was to be the formal boat entrance for island guests.

We departed Heart Island on the 1:10 shuttle back to Alexandria Bay in order to catch the boat to Dark Island.

As we left Heart Island behind, I was left with a mix of emotions that are hard to describe. In total, the property is impressive in scope, imaginatively beautiful, yet melancholy. No one ever lived in the castle. George Boldt, who dreamed so large, could not bear to see it completed after the loss of his beloved. Louise is everywhere, in every detail and every heart hewn into the stone of Boldt Castle.


  1. Oh man, another thing to add to my "to do" list!

    1. Highly recommended! You'll want to stay tuned for Part III, as well...

    2. Seriously. That place is spectacular!