A Controversial Restoration

A Controversial Restoration

by Paul Malo

Boldt Castle, on one of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, between northern New York State and eastern Province of Ontario, ranks among the largest and most prominent houses in the United States. The seven-story granite structure, comparable in grandeur to Hearst Castle in California, has sparked debate about the appropriate goals of historic restoration.

Boldt Castle draws some quarter-million international visitors each summer, and the number has increased annually as an ongoing campaign of improvement continues. The cost of recent years’ work now approaches $15 million.

But much of this work is not consistent with the original construction. This raises a critical question: to what degree should a historic building be “improved” to attract and entertain visitors?

At Boldt Castle in the past three years a grand staircase, a great stained-glass dome, and a marble pavement have been installed in the central rotunda. None of this work is authentic, and it was fabricated without reliable documentation. In the meantime, visitors are given misinformation about the history of the place, provided instead with a romantic, fictionalized account.

The management has indicated its intention to disregard evidence produced by historical research. Instead it says it will continue its present narrative because this has proved satisfying to tourists.

Restoration architects typically have two, partly contradictory goals: to stabilize and restore historic buildings to their nearly original state and to make such places inviting to visitors. Is there a line between these two goals that should not be crossed? Boldt Castle demonstrates how a mission of public entertainment may gradually supplant concern for historical authenticity, even with well-intentioned stewardship.

A Unique American Castle

Construction of Boldt Castle began in 1900. It was designed for industrialist George Boldt by William Hewitt of the Philadelphia firm Hewitt & Hewitt. The castle is akin to other country houses of the period designed in a French Chateauesque style, such as Biltmore by William Morris Hunt, but is more inventive in form and less reliant on Beaux-Arts planning and historic precedent.

Hewitt’s complex design did not rely on major axes and symmetries but is composed asymmetrically, with picturesque intentions. The castle has six towers and some twenty distinct roof forms. Its 127 rooms (including thirty bathrooms) are arranged on seven levels surrounding a rotunda that rises to a stained-glass dome beneath a skylight.

Around the central atrium on the main level are five major spaces: a reception room, library, dining room, billiard room, and ballroom. Other public spaces are elsewhere: an indoor pool at the lowest level and a fifth-floor tearoom opening onto a roof terrace.

In the tradition of great country houses, Boldt Castle was designed to accommodate large parties. The many chambers were probably intended to provide suites for about a dozen couples, accompanied by children and servants.

The death of Louise Boldt caused her husband to abandon the nearly completed project. The poignant tale was more moving when the landmark seemed abandoned, falling into ruin. According to the legend, Boldt’s intent was that it become a massive ruin, “complete in its incompletion,” as a memorial to love.

The Island’s Other Buildings

The property has three other buildings of architectural merit and historical interest that are open to the public. Unlike the castle, these were completed. The huge yacht house is a rare survivor of a virtually vanished building type. Its colossal doors and cathedral-like interiors admitted great steam yachts of the period, with tall masts and rigging standing.

The Alster Tower, described at the time as “a smaller castle,” is perhaps the most imaginative and romantic of the four structures. Its eccentric, rather Gaudi-esque plan, with no square corners or parallel walls, and its multilevel section with spaces overlooking other spaces yield a remarkable fluid interior.

The fourth major building is the Power House, called at the time “the water castle” because the picturesque masonry structure was built in the water offshore with access provided by a flying stone bridge.

The monumental granite Arch of Triumph, which bears the date 1900, served as a water gate into a lagoon, formed artificially by embankments intended to receive flanking colonnades terminating in domed “temple of love” pavilions.

Interpreting History

Because hundreds of thousands of people visit Boldt Castle each summer, it holds great potential for enhancing public appreciation of architecture and history. But this requires interpretation based on reliable historical research.

When a historic property is to be developed as a public resource, the first step should be a professional “historic structures report” that documents conditions and plans treatment of the physical facility.

Even if public education is the ultimate goal, structural stabilization may be the first priority. However, the danger in developing a restoration project is that if this initial view focuses too intently on the material structure, it may preclude adequate interpretation of what the building meant to the creator and may mean to us. Instead of enriching public information, management may choose to enhance spectacular effects.

This has happened at Boldt Castle. Visitors are provided no context, for instance, to understand significance the odd Arch of Triumph. The symbol recalls specific precedents, one built at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and others in New York City, all commemorating the arrival of the United States on the world scene and celebrating the nation’s imperialist exploits.

The arch may have been intended to honor the personal triumph of owner George Boldt, who had acquired a fortune with stunning swiftness. It may also have celebrated the Great Bull Market of the time with its consolidation of industries into controversial “trusts,” such as U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation. These interpretations are not conveyed to visitors, who may simply wonder about the oddity of the massive stone portal rising from the water.

Without historians’ input, operation of a “heritage tourism” site may be regarded as mere entertainment. If visitors are entertained, and if attendance increases, management regards its mission as successful.

Will Success Spoil Boldt Castle?

The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, the not-for-profit organization that owns and operates the landmark derives substantial revenue from tourism, which it reinvests in dramatic improvements each season. These result in increased attendance, yielding more income. No end seems in sight for this cycle. Once structural stabilization has been accomplished, when should purported improvement stop?

One such “improvement,” built in 2000, is a grand staircase where only a steel framework had existed for nearly a century. Dubious of character for the period, and for the architect’s manner, the new feature combines massive wood railings with marble treads — an unlikely combination.

No architects’ details existed for the staircase (shown only at small scale on floor plans), but closed portions of the building still contain unopened crates of woodwork. Instead of undertaking an inventory of those cases, the proprietors invented a new staircase.

During the summer of 2001, visitors were amazed to see a new stained-glass dome above the staircase, crowning the four-story rotunda. Costing some $200,000, it was impressive but, again, not based on an original design. At the same time, about $70,000 was spent casting inauthentic bronze stags to surmount the Arch of Triumph. Visitors during the summer of 2002 may expect to see a new black-and-white marble floor in the rotunda beneath the dome.

Where will it end? Visitors are told that the castle will not be finished but only restored to its condition when original construction work ceased. Yet the new staircase, glass dome, and marble floor in the adjoining rotunda are evidence that this “plan” has been abandoned.

Not only is the architectural fabric being compromised, but the building (which never was occupied) is being fitted with modern furniture, carpets, and lighting fixtures. If this campaign of “finishing” continues, Boldt Castle may look like a giant modern furniture store set in a fake historic house.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated instance. Boldt Castle is one example of a more widespread problem: the “development” of historic buildings into “theme parks” for public entertainment.

Paul Malo is an architectural historian, professor emeritus at Syracuse University, and author of Boldt Castle: In Search of the Lost Story. Not surprisingly, this book is not sold in the Boldt Castle gift shop.

Sadly, Paul Malo died this past July 22, 2008 of pancreatic cancer.
Click here to read Paul Malo – Remembered, by Kim Lunman.

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