My Medievalizing Vacation, or, The Gothic Adventures of the Robber Barons

I wasn’t expecting to make it medieval during my upstate New York vacation. I had no plans to drink mead at a Renaissance Faire, shoot objects at my neighbors from a back-yard catapult, play Dungeons and Dragons in a dimly-lit basement, or write an academic paper on medievalizing architecture in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t even watching the episode of that treehouse show on Animal Planet in which “Peter builds a citadel fortress for a Texas couple who loves all things medieval”

If you are into that stuff, go here for examples:


The truth is that I don’t like crusader battle reenactments and medieval dress-ups. Medieval make believe is not my thing. As far as I’m concerned, real history, in entertainment, politics, and all other arenas, is far more interesting and curiosity-provoking than that wannabe fakery. What the real past leaves open to the creative imagination is just as stimulating as all that imitation stuff.

But there I was in a hotel in Watertown, NY, minding my own business, when the rack of tourist pamphlets in the corner near the registration desk yelled out at me: “Come hither, fair prince.”

Well, it didn’t actually say that…. The point is that I was surprised to see brochures on the rack offering visits to not one but two medieval castles – in upstate New York?!

Wealthy businessmen built the castles as island retreats for friends and family in the years around 1900. Those men of industry are in their graves now, and the importance of their castle retreats has waxed and waned. The islands now serve the local economy by giving tourists a way to spend a few bucks passing the time, or, if you prefer, passing the time by pretending to go back in time. What the tycoons possessed that the majority of the tourists do not have is vast sums of money. But it is fair to say that the castle builders and the tourists do have in common a fascination with “Medieval Times.” Still, any good historian would want you to ask how much the 19th-cenutry fascination with the “Medieval Time” matches our own. That is worth some investigation.

an icon depicting Constantine and the Bishops in attendance at Nicea

A disclaimer before we continue…. I always put the term “Medieval Times” in quotation marks. For good reason. The European Middle Ages was a period of 1000 years. Any medievalist can point out substantive changes and dramatic contrasts over that millennium. In other words, there was no single medieval times for us to look back at. When we speak of the Middle Ages, we should take care to specify whether we are, for instance, speaking of the period in the transition from late Rome into early medieval centuries (around the time of the Nicene Creed in 325)

or the period, let’s say, between Clovis (d. 511) and Charlemagne (d. 814), characterized mostly by subsistence farming (near-starvation punctuated by prayer)…. [Here is a test… which of these images is a truer representation of Charlemagne because it was produced closer to his time? Choose the one on the right. What do you make of that? Maybe he was not all that we have made him out to be. Charlemagne-Schmarlemagne!]

To put all of this more bluntly, and as I tell my students, Medieval Times is a restaurant, a restaurant that has nothing to do with anything medieval but everything to do with our expectations about entertainment and restaurant behavior in the present.

Now back to our main interest… those two medievalizing castles in New York….

One is Boldt Castle, on Heart Island (formerly Hart Island), in Alexandria Bay near where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. Born in Prussia in 1851, George Karl Boldt, immigrated to the US in 1864. At age 25 his future father-in-law hired him to manage the dining room of the Philadelphia Club, an early “gentlemen’s club.” Catering to robber barons with a taste for luxury living, he made a quick fortune as the owner-manager of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, beginning in 1881, and by 1900 he had also become proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. And here is a historical tid-bit for you to employ at parties: he is said to have introduced Thousand Island Dressing to the Waldorf-Astoria’s salad menu.   

According to local lore, Boldt desired to build a castle for his wife. The architects G.W. and W.D. Hewitt designed the estate, which included a huge masonry residence and a stone observation tower (after Boldt’s, towers became a must-have feature for the elite owners of neighboring islands), as well as several outbuildings. Then tragedy struck. His wife died in 1904. Construction immediately stopped. It is said that Boldt never returned to the place, leaving the site “as a monument of his love.” It remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1916 and remained in a state of disrepair until the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority purchased the property in 1977. The estate granted the purchase price of one dollar on condition that the bridge authority would put revenues from operations toward restoring the property and maintaining it for public use.

Images of Boldt Castle

The other one is Singer Castle, originally called “The Towers,” and then “Dark Island Castle,” and even later, from 1965 until 2001, “Jorstadt Castle.” The decreasing habitability of the place in that later period has led to various legends and exaggerations that have increased interest among tourists.

Frederick Gilbert Bourne, President of the Singer (sewing machine) Manufacturing Company, came late to the upstate New York castle-building boom.  The complex of residential and other buildings, designed by the architect Ernest Flagg, was the last of the imposing stone “castles” to be built in the period from 1888 to 1905. Flagg, it is said, took his inspiration from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Woodstock or the Cavalier, from 1832, in which he described a castle in Woodstock, England.

The Boldt and Singer castles had at least one thing in common in the years of their inception, according to common telling. After his wife died and he stopped construction, the workers Boldt employed moved directly into the construction of Bourne’s castle. Something more illustrates some commonality between these two structures: both islands and the structures upon them suffered as a result of changes that came generally to the accumulation and use of extreme wealth as the result of the world wars, the Great Depression, and later events. The death of Bourne’s daughter, who won a contentious inheritance after her father’s death, signaled a significant period of change for Singer Castle. The Christian Brothers religious community acquired the island in a combined sale of several properties. Finding it costly to maintain and of little use to their mission, they sold it to a well-connected evangelist, who by many accounts was much like the well-connected evangelists of recent decades – a sham and scam charlatan. Researchers have suggested that the Harold Martin Evangelistic Association, at least with respect to Dark Island, was a front for Martin’s personal aggrandizement: he used the castle as a personal residence while it was tax exempt on the basis of its “religious” use (courts eventually ruled in his favor on the grounds that he held services on site on Sundays). He renamed the place Jorstadt Castle, giving it the surname of his family’s before its immigration into the US from Norway. Thus, even in the renaming there appears to be evidence of improper personalizing of the use of the supposed religious resource.

[A historian’s aside about hypocrisy: You can decide for yourself what you think about the implied hypocrisy in Martin’s personal use of Dark Island, as well as the use of legal loopholes by those, speaking generally, who can afford to hire lawyers to find the loopholes and befriend the judges who will determine their cases. But here’s what I think. You might remember that I made reference in an earlier post to hypocrisy. I suggested there that hypocrisy might be widely practiced by our species. But I also implied that, just as it often takes money to make money, at a certain level of wealth and consumption, “normal” hypocrisy undergoes a phase change. Most of us would benefit by considering the costs to our well-being when we permit economic and social elites to operate by hypocrisies of an entirely different order of magnitude and meaning.]

According to reports, Martin’s period of possession of Dark Island led to the deterioration of the place as a result of two kinds of theft. First, what I have read implies that he pilfered some number of ornaments and furnishings. Second, as his own interest in the place waned, thieves of various kinds visited the island in his absence and took away their share of booty.

In 2001, a group led by a German financier who specializes in buying and selling islands bought Dark Island under the name of Dark Island Tours. Dark Island Tours has undertaken some renovations and opened the island to tourism. It has also listed the island for sale with Sotheby’s for $22 million. It seems that King Money will likely relieve the island of pesky tourists and return it to use by and for the well-heeled.

I’ve got plenty more to say about the direction we have begun to travel in….

I have not offered any real description of the way that the constructions on these islands medievalize. The pictures might begin to offer some of that explanation, although there is much about the intentions and preoccupations of the owners, the architects, and early visitors to the two fortress islands that images of the exteriors cannot convey.

That these are not the only examples of medievalizing buildings in New York also deserves some discussion. I am reminded that a couple of hours south of the Thousand Islands region is an old armory in Amsterdam, New York, now build for tourist accessibility as Amsterdam Castle. Commuters on the Hudson Line of Metro North Railroad make their daily pass by Bannerman Castle on a tiny island in the middle of the Hudson near at the gap between Storm King State Park and the Hudson Highlands. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of the greatest of the medievalizers in the period of the American castle builders, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller did his medievalizing in a variety of ways. He established monasteries along the Hudson River, he had Riverside Church built in the form of a Gothic church tower, and he bought a private collection of castle remnants from the artist George Bernard. For his part, Bernard bought or pillaged, depending on whose story you believe, several Catalan and French castles, bringing them stone by stone across the Atlantic until he ran out of money and convinced Rockefeller of their suitability for the purpose of building a museum in upper Manhattan, now the Cloisters Museum.

That was then. But as we approach castle building closer to the present day we discover that a few scholar-theorists who are eerily prescient. Here, for instance, is what Umberto Eco had to say about the human cost of a big build by someone you know:

“such postmodern neo-medieval Manhattan new castles as the Citicorp Tower and Trump Tower [are] curious instances of a new feudalism, with their courts open to peasants and merchants and the well-protected high-level apartments reserved for lords.”

I certainly plan to return to a discussion of New York’s medievalizing architecture in later posts. For now, you might have an interest in looking at Paul Halsall’s entries for “Medieval New York” on the Fordham Medieval Internet Sourcebook.

Of greatest interest to me is a question that is much too large to treat now, which is in what ways interest in the real and imagined medieval pasts has changed in the years from the conception and building of these two castles into our own time. Boldt and Bourne had a number of medievalizing preoccupations. The architectural historian Robin Fleming asserted that America’s industrial-age nouveau-riche Protestants felt the need to claim a lofty European heritage (despite the fact that the heritage they cherished was a Catholic one). Jan Ziolkowski, who has written prolifically on nineteenth-century American medievalizing, speaks generally of such buildings as these as “a big piece of rocky equipment to signify Christianity.” Most of us nowadays do not share the need so keenly to Christianize our Middle Ages. Admittedly, however, we share with our industrialist forebearers a liking for stories and settings that inspire various of our desires for romance, grandeur, and order.  We also share a fascination for false origins. And, like them, we like the dark and kinky. On that subject I’ll tell you that at least one of these castles has a network of underground passageways. Such passageways served as nothing more than a means for servants to access the various buildings on the islands as they attended to the needs of the lords they served. Such an explanation, you can imagine, is insufficiently exciting to tourists when deciding whether to pay a visit. Don’t all of us, when embarking on a touristic adventure, prefer to overlook such mundane realities in favor of explanations that provoke a richer range of emotions. So it is, then, that the tourist brochures describe the spaces below ground as “dungeons” or “crypts.”

2 thoughts

  1. Very interesting analysis. Particularly intrigued by the parallels with modern day skyscrapers in Manhattan. The so-called public atriums at the base of many of these buildings are often grudgingly allowed by the owners. Despite their “negotiated” tax exemptions, some owners frequently try to restict access to such public space as much as possible.


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