Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Could Live There, Thousand Islands-Style

It's finally time for the second post on houses I want to live in. Rules/background on this here. In a nutshell, I post about really cool houses. The two featured in this post are quite near each other; both are in the Thousand Islands, a region once known as a major summer destination for very rich people. I suppose a little background on the Thousand Islands--where the salad dressing was invented*--might be appropriate. So.

The Thousand Islands region is in the St. Lawrence River, between New York and Ontario. There are actually way more than one thousand islands there, the number is closer to 1,800. The region is technically an archipelago, stretching for about fifty miles. Some of the islands are protected or parks, many contain homes, and one is even owned by Skull and Bones. Since we're talking about a river here, boats have always been pretty important. A lot of shipping occurs through the St. Lawrence though shoals (basically (mostly?) underwater islands that don't count as islands) make that a little difficult which means there are a lot of shipwrecks around. A more fun boat fact is that a lot of alcohol was smuggled over the border from Canada to the US during Prohibition. Enough?

Although the area is not too far from my home, I had only been to the Thousand Islands once, on a family trip to Toronto, and we just drove through without stopping. This summer, I decided it was time for me to finally go back and actually see the place. I had wanted to visit the area for a long time because I really wanted to see Boldt Castle, number one on the houses list:

1. Boldt Castle, Heart Island

If you're not familiar with Boldt Castle, it's an unfinished mansion located on Heart Island (originally spelled "Hart") which, thanks to George Boldt who owned the island and had the home built, actually is somewhat heart-shaped. In fact, the whole island and the house incorporate a heart theme, perhaps appropriately since George Boldt had the home built as a gift for his beloved wife, Louise. Sadly, four years after construction on the house began, Louise died. George was so grief-stricken, he immediately ordered that all work on the Castle be stopped and he never set foot there again.

Unfinished, the building lay in disrepair for many years (along with other buildings on the island) until it was acquired by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority in 1977. In the following decades, a lot of work has been done to restore the Castle and it has seen many visitors. There are, however, a few conditions regarding the building. One is that it can never be finished. Another is that no one may ever spend the night inside the Castle because George and Louise never did and (supposedly) no one ever has. The cynic in me thinks that condition's a little unlikely since the structure did just sit there for about seventy years. Plus, I have to wonder if maybe that condition might be revoked in the event of some kind of disaster.

On to the building itself. Since Boldt Castle is on an island, the logical way to reach it is by boat. It's very close to the mainland; you can see the building from Alexandria Bay, the mainland NY "gateway" to the Thousand Islands region. There is a small replica of the Arc de Triomphe (with, I think, deer on top) through which visitors were initially expected to pass in order to reach the island. The arch was never used during the Boldts' lifetimes and so it has not been used since. Visitors now approach from the side.

One of the most impressive features of the building is the beautiful glass, domed ceiling that dominates the main entryway. I think the ceiling is about six stories high and, walking up the grand staircase through the center of the building, it's hard not to look up. Rooms and hallways are built around the open center of the building, many offering glimpses of what life might've been like for the very rich in the early twentieth century. This is done both through furnishings in the style of the time and through background information and artifacts of the Boldt family. The result is an interesting mix of historical home and museum.

Even more of an interesting mix results from the various stages of completion of the house's rooms. It seemed to me that the higher up one goes, the worse the rooms look. Much of the building is not restored and, presumably, some of it never will be. It's very strange to see a perfectly painted and furnished room followed by a room with boards everywhere and graffiti all over the walls.

Heart Island also has very impressive grounds. There are other buildings on the island including a funny-looking tower where the Boldt family actually did live while on the island. Unfortunately, it wasn't open so I couldn't go inside. I did walk around, though, visiting the gardens and other island buildings:

Pictured above is the Power House, meant to supply the island with power, which is now a museum. It also isn't exactly original; the building had a bit of a run-in with some fireworks with rather disastrous results. A nearby island contains the Boldt Yacht House, that's apparently very impressive though I wouldn't know. I had hoped to go there but it had started to rain and it was getting kind of late. Next visit.

2. Singer Castle, Dark Island

When I first decided to visit the Thousand Islands, as I said, I really wanted to visit Boldt Castle. I had never even heard of the less well-known Singer Castle. Reading about the boat trips around the region, I found one that went to "Singer Castle on Dark Island" and knew that I absolutely had to take it. How could I not? And I'm so glad I did as it turned out to be the highlight of my trip.

Singer Castle was built during the late 19th/early 20th century for Frederick Bourne, then president of the Singer Company, you know, the one that makes sewing machines. Hence the name Singer Castle. As in other homes both in the Thousand Islands and elsewhere (Newport, Rhode Island comes to mind), Singer Castle was originally and often referred to as a cottage. I wonder what that makes my studio apartment.

The castle's architect, Ernest Flagg, based plans for the castle on Sir Walter Scott's book, Woodstock. The result is a bizarre but amazing building with secret passages, tunnels, and even a dungeon which was not, as the tour guides joke, for punishing Bourne's children.

Another interesting fact about Singer Castle is that, although it's in the United States, it is literally just over the border. In fact, Bourne's daughter Marjorie (who owned the castle after the death of her father) kept her wine on a nearby Canadian island. Pretty ingenious considering that was during Prohibition.

Unlike Boldt Castle, Singer Castle has been cared for continuously since it was built. As a result, the whole building is furnished and in good condition, as though people still live there. In fact, the building can actually, in a way, be lived in. It's possible to book the Castle as though it were a hotel and, so they say, basically get the run of the place. I'm rather desperate to do that! As interesting as the tour/main visit was, it was only possible to see some of the passages and "secrets" built into the home.

Well, that's it for now. I do have quite a few more pictures of both "castles" but, as always, posting pictures can be a bit of a pain. If there's another (better) way to post pictures with Blogger, I'd love to hear about it

*Wikipedia doesn't necessarily think the dressing was invented in the Thousand Islands. But who cares what Wikipedia thinks?