While spending this past weekend in the Thousand Islands, I decided that a tour of Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay might be a fun excursion. Both a popular tourist attraction and historical location, it makes for an interesting paradox: how to balance the historical integrity of a place, while at the same time catering to the desires of a constant influx of multitudes of tourists. I entered Boldt Castle with this in mind, and have a number of observations, as well as suggestions for the further improvement of the site.
First, however, a historical background will set the context. The creator of Boldt Castle, Mr. George Boldt, was born in 1851 and served as a highly influential figure in the development of the American luxury hotel industry.
“Boldt’s first hotel was the Bellevue (1881), at the NW corner of Broad & Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. He soon bought a competing hotel, the Stratford, at the SW corner. Two decades later, on the site of the Stratford, he built the largest hotel the city had ever seen, the 1,090-room Bellevue-Stratford Hotel (1902–04, now the Park Hyatt).
The enormous fortunes generated by robber barons in the post-Civil War Era led to an unprecedented level of luxurious living for wealthy Americans. Boldt catered to this new super-rich class, charging the highest prices for the very best, and becoming one of them in the process.” (source)
Boldt later served as proprietor of the original (and famous) Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The video that is shown in Boldt Castle about George’s life claims that while working as proprietor of this hotel, he contributed to the creation of the Waldorf Salad, and coined the phrase “the customer is always right.” Correct? Not sure. But, interesting possibility? Certainly!
“At the turn-of-the-century, George C. Boldt, millionaire proprietor of the world famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, set out to build a full size Rhineland castle in Alexandria Bay, on picturesque Heart Island. The grandiose structure was to be a display of his love for his wife, Louise.” (source)
Boldt’s wife Louise was his inspiration for the commencement of the building of Boldt Castle in 1900. The Boldt family had already spent summers in the Thousand Islands for many years, even living in a cottage home on Heart Island (the location of Boldt Castle) before it was built. Their cottage home was moved across the lake one winter (over the ice) and converted into the yacht house that now sits on Wellsley Island.
Apart form the construction of the Germanic-style castle, the island also boasts four other significant stone structures – including the stone archway (the entrance to the island from the river), the power house, the stone tower (or children’s playhouse) and Louise’ stone gazebo.
When Louise died abruptly in 1904, (just a month prior to when George was supposedly going to present the castle to her), he halted construction and never completed the endeavor. Supposedly, never returning to Heart Island again.
The castle was therefore entirely abandoned, and left in ruin (and severe vandalism) until 1977 when the island was purchased by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority and underwent extensive renovation, apparently with the goal in mind of returning the castle to its condition upon the end of construction – therefore – you would assume unfinished.
Here is where we reach some of my concerns regarding the historical integrity of Boldt Castle. Obviously as such a major tourist attraction in the Thousand Islands region, Boldt Castle demands a particular aesthetic – this being of course, perfect. The castle holds weddings and other such events, and clearly attracts innumerable visitors. In any case, the restoration of the castle and grounds is too good, in my estimation. While the interior of the castle is impressive, (and certainly would have been impressive it had actually been completed and fully furnished by George Boldt – which it wasn’t), it is a slippery slope when it comes to recreation of material culture and landscape.
View the location of Boldt Castle from above here:
Upon touring the castle, I got the sense that the renovation of the castle was predominately aimed at boosting tourism, as opposed to preserving the location’s historic integrity. In my opinion, there was no standard of comparison in terms of the material culture of the original structure, thereby the current interior of the castle cannot be considered entirely historically accurate.
There were, of course, certain portions of the castle that were not renovated entirely (perhaps because the renovations are relatively recent, and they simply haven’t finished yet). The fourth floor is for the most part incomplete, with brick walls, vandalized plaster and areas blocked off for sunken floors. But somehow, even the bare-bones areas of the castle didn’t come across as historic.
In another regard, certain elements of the castle as an institution of public history bothered me. With the goal of public history being, of course to educate the public, there was very little education happening. There was an over-dramatized video program displayed on the second floor of the castle in an entirely modern room, but as far as I could tell, there were no walking tours throughout the building, and none of the people that worked there had any rich historical discussions with the guests.
Something else that I always look for in locations such as Boldt Castle are ways in which the public can interact with the history of the site. An example of which is in the preservation itself – I would have loved to see some portions of the renovated rooms left in their original state (or even stripped to the bare architectural elements), so that the people viewing them can actually learn something, as opposed to just viewing a nicely decorated 20th century space. I would have loved to have seen some exposed brick, or stone framework, or even cases with original moldings or any found archaeological materials (I’m sure there must have been something). There was 1 single case with some original architectural materials in the main entrance of the castle, but it was in no way front-and-center, and was quite underplayed.
In my personal opinion, Boldt Castle is a really interesting opportunity to explore early 20th century culture of leisure – looking at a wealthy, up-and-coming family who chose a middle of nowhere location and drew from European architectural influences as a means of recreating a historic atmosphere, enriched with all the niceties of 20th century upper-class American life. Instead, visitors to Boldt Castle experience a very nice looking, decorated castle, that doesn’t live up to all of its educational potential. And to be quite honest, with the level of tourism it receives as it, I’m not totally sure it will ever have the motivation to serve as a true site of public history. Of course, my intention in bringing up these issues is not to downplay the historical significance of Boldt Castle or insult the work that has been done to restore this location – but rather to open up the forum for discussion regarding these issues that surround public history as a discipline and the ways in which historical preservation can be interpreted.
I had a great time touring Boldt Castle, and would certainly recommend visiting this very interesting location, it was certainly a beautiful experience. However, I would also recommend doing your homework first – learn about the history of the family, the time period and the architecture, and go into the experience with the idea in mind that the material culture is questionable at best. That being said – go see Boldt Castle the next time you are in Alexandria Bay!