Why this marvelous structure was left neglected for decades has been a mystery for many visitors to the region. The real story of the castle and the couple who started the construction is even more captivating than many fictional accounts told through the years.
George and Louise Boldt, the making of a legendary couple
Heart Island with its beautiful Boldt Castle was the dream of the famous hotel magnate George K. Boldt. It was meant to be a summer retreat for his beloved wife Louise and their family.
George Karl Boldt was born on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. In 1864, George Boldt left his parents and Rügen for America. To cross the vast Atlantic Ocean to seek opportunities in a new land at only 13 years of age, all alone with no other family members with him was a decision that requires a great deal of courage.
George’s beginnings in America were humble, working a variety of entry-level jobs in hotels and restaurants in Manhattan. He made the most of his opportunities to learn as much as he could about the hospitality industry and at the age of only 22, became manager of Cornwall Mountain House, one of the larger hotels on the Hudson River. It did not take long for people to realize that George was a visionary and a natural in the hospitality business and he quickly rose through the ranks to become the assistant manager of the famous and exclusive Philadelphia Club. It was here that he met the love of his life, Louise Kehrer, daughter of the manager. Louise was born on Valentine’s Day in 1862 and had a sentimental fondness for hearts, which influenced the naming of Heart Island and the design of their dream castle many years later.
When George and Louise got married, he was 26 and she was just 15 years old. At the time, it was not uncommon for girls her age to get married. Although Louise was very young, she was very intelligent and extraordinary, well versed in the complex operation of restaurants and accommodations. Louise became George’s loving wife and his dedicated partner in his journey to sensational success in his hotel business.
With the relationship that he developed amongst the wealthy members of the Philadelphia Club, George was able to get the financial backing he needed to go on to build the most profitable hotel empire in history. From his first hotel, the Bellevue in Philadelphia to the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan, the largest and most luxurious hotel in the world when it opened, George Boldt repeatedly set new standards for premium hotel service in North America. It was Boldt who introduced room service to American hotels. His methods and principles of hotel management were studied and his guidance was sought by hotel proprietors everywhere. George Boldt became the leading hotel expert in the United States, if not the world. Louise was the ideal partner in her husband’s quest for greatness. She was in charge of planning the décor and furnishing for his luxury hotels.
Building magnificent structures on Heart Island
After the grand opening of the Waldorf Hotel, George and Louise were exhausted and needed relief from the stress of constructing another new hotel in Manhattan. They visited the Thousand Islands with their 2 children for the first time in the summer of 1893. For nearly 200 years, this remarkable region has been a summer paradise for boaters and tourists. It was a well-known summer resort for many of North America’s wealthiest family. Spending the summer in the Thousand Islands where they can enjoy outdoor activities was the much-needed getaway for Louise and the children. George agreed that a summer home here would be a great gift for Louise, so he systematically started to identify suitable homes and prepared to bid on any property in an attractive location. While spending her time here in the summer of 1893, Louise already had her eyes on a beautiful home on Hart Island. That lovely home was the summer residence of Elizur Kirke Hart, president and owner of Orleans County National Bank. After Hart’s death in 1893, many expressed considerable interest in buying the prime property. Even though the Hart family made it known that they had no plans to sell, Edward Dewey, a friend of George Boldt quietly purchased Hart Island. And then just 11 days later, Dewey transferred ownership of Hart Island to Louise Boldt. George presented Louise the deed of the island that she loved as a gift on July 1, 1895. This smooth transaction was another fine example of George Boldt’s efficient operational style to achieve the results he desired.
Immediately, Boldt changed the spelling of the island’s name from Hart to Heart, reshaping the island to make it look like a heart by adding a lagoon to secure dockage for visiting boats, giving real meaning to the island’s new name, a celebration of Louise’s fondness for Valentine’s symbol. From the moment that they purchased the property, it was Louise’s most favorite place. It was always intended to be her special place to enjoy with her children and some day with her grandchildren.
The centerpiece of George’s plan for Heart Island was Boldt Castle, a magnificent château for Louise. He wanted to create something special and original that would always be remembered as the most spectacular home in the Thousand Islands.
The castle was designed to rise 6 storeys from the highest point on the island with 2 feet thick exterior walls constructed out of granite. To ensure that the colour of the stone was uniform and they have an abundant supply of granite required for the construction, Boldt had a fully operational stone quarry on Oak Island, 16 km downriver from Heart Island. He had as many as 150 quarry workers cutting each stone to a number of predetermined sizes so that the rectangular blocks would fit together. Because of the meticulously engineered system for cutting the stones to precise specification, once they were shipped to Heart Island, the workers didn’t have to make any adjustment to a single piece of stone when putting it together. The castle was designed to have a total of 127 rooms, including an elegant ballroom so George can dance with his wife. Construction was moving along at an astonishing pace.
In addition to the château, Boldt also built 4 more spectacular structures. One of them is the whimsical and playful Alster Tower. Local residents often compare it to a fancy sandcastle. Unlike any other structure in the Thousand Islands, Alster Tower was designed with a lighthearted approach and intended to evoke a sense of joy. Boldt intended it to be a playhouse for his children to enjoy a variety of games with their friends.
Boldt also wanted to create a more impressive formal entry point to Heart Island. He had his architect firm designed and built a magnificent granite arch, with a heart-shaped stone placed in the centre. Life size figures of 3 stags, traditionally associated with heaven, and light were placed on top.
Impressive stone archway designed as the formal entry point to Heart Island, with a heart-shaped stone placed in the centre. Life size figures of 3 stags, traditionally associated with heaven, and light were placed on top.
At the east end of Heart Island, Boldt built the Power House to accommodate the electrical generating plant and domestic water pump for the island. It was fully capable of generating the electricity required for a small hotel. It’s intriguing to see that Boldt demonstrated beauty and style even for the most utilitarian structure. The Power House resembles a small medieval castle connecting to Heart Island by an arched stone bridge. An illusion of a medieval stone castle rising directly from the water was achieved with the footprint of the structure completely covers the reef that it was built on. Mesmerizing!
Boldt also built La Duchesse, an impressive 7 storeys yacht house on Fern Island to store his boats, a few hundred yards across the river from Heart Island.
The unfinished dream
From the moment they were married, Louise was a strong and energetic partner who played a vital role in her husband’s unparalleled success. Her remarkable skills and impeccable judgment set new standards for the tasteful interior designs of his luxurious hotels. She provided George the support he needed to keep taking on new challenges at an extraordinary pace. Louise stood by his side and helped him through tough times when he thought he might have taken on too much.
The price for their amazing accomplishment in this case perhaps was paid by Louise’s health. In 1902, her health started to decline; she looked so much older even though she just turned 40. At 10 PM on January 4, 1904, just over one month before George was planning to present her with the completed castle, Louise died unexpectedly. All along he was planning to present Louise with his ultimate gift of love on Valentine’s Day. She was under a doctor’s care and George was aware of her depression. However, he did not know that her condition was so critical.
George was devastated and heartbroken. Within 24 hours of her passing, he sent a telegram ordering all the work on Louise’s magnificent château to stop immediately. At the time, everyone thought that the stop-work order was a temporary tribute to Louise. With the castle so close to completion, all the major components required were already on hand or scheduled for delivery, with so much investment and effort already spent, no one believed that the project might be abandoned forever. The order to resume work was never issued, the castle and the entire island was left to the elements after Louise died.
George Boldt continued to spend the summers in the Thousand Islands with his children but never again set foot on Heart Island. Throughout his life, George was extremely demanding to the last detail, determined to finish everything that he started. It’s fascinating and baffling for such a man to allow Heart Island and Louise’s château to decay right before his eyes.
Perhaps his final decision not to resume construction is an example of his remarkable insight into human nature. Had he went ahead to finish the château and sold it to private ownership outside of the family to recover his cost, there would be no mystery, no fascination, no tours, and no one would write about their extraordinary lives today. It would seem that the unfinished castle, a symbol of their love and accomplishments, became the longest lasting tribute that George bestowed on the love of his life.
For 73 years, Boldt Castle and other stone structures on the island were abandoned, left exposed to vandals and the region’s harsh winter weather. In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority (TIBA) acquired Heart Island along with the nearby yacht house. Over the past 30 years, millions of dollars have been invested in the ongoing restoration of this magnificent island back to what it was meant to be. The painstaking restoration effort gives today’s visitors to Heart Island an opportunity to visualize the magnificence of a bygone era and experience the tragic love story of George and Louise Boldt. It is now one of the biggest attractions of the Thousand Islands, not to be missed.