NEW YORK — On Saturday at 10 a.m., Boldt Castle opened to the public, the wide St. Lawrence River offering sweeping and dramatic views of the majestic retreat built in the early 1900s. In spring, the river is still relatively cold, the region still waking from its winter slumber.
More than 300 miles south, occupying an entire city block, is the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a symbol of luxury. As the early morning calm gives way to the hustle and bustle of the weekend, taxicabs will pull to the iconic curb, discharging passengers into the arms of opulence.
Both were once the dreams of the same man: George C. Boldt, a German immigrant who took both the hotel world and the north country by storm.
“George’s two ambitions were to be head of a large hotel, and to build a castle like those he’d seen in Europe during his boyhood,” reads a 1965 story in the Thousand Islands Sun — a story that, along with many other artifacts from Mr. Boldt’s life, 1851 to 1916, is kept in the archives of the Waldorf Astoria.
Live in the north country long enough — for one summer, typically — and you will come to know Mr. Boldt’s tale. How he vacationed in the region and set out to build a grand home for his wife, Louise, how she died prematurely, and how, despondent, he halted production on the castle, dying later of a broken heart.
His story and his name are a point of pride for the region. The castle, situated on Heart Island within view of Alexandria Bay, is now promoted as a tourist attraction. More than 6.2 million people have visited the site in the past 38 years, according to the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which manages the property. TIBA has rehabilitated the site, restoring parts of the home and improving others, bringing Mr. Boldt’s vision to its full flower.
It is therefore no surprise that Mr. Boldt’s name is well known in Northern New York. He is a major celebrity in the area.
What is perhaps more surprising is that he is also well regarded in New York City, a place with celebrities, millionaires and billionaires aplenty. At the hotel he once managed, he is still remembered fondly.
“He’s a favorite of mine in the Waldorf Astoria tale,” said Erin Allsop, an archivist for the hotel.
The hotel maintains a collection of stories about Mr. Boldt and his exploits, including clippings from the Thousand Islands Sun, a letter from the 1000 Islands International Council, photos, letters from his son and notes assembled by hotel executives. Yellowing with age, they reside in a small room near the hotel’s corporate offices along with old uniforms, awards and other odds and ends from the institution’s 122-year history.
It is important to note that the Waldorf Astoria that exists today, on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, is not the same hotel where Mr. Boldt lived and worked. The original Waldorf-Astoria was on Fifth Avenue where the Empire State Building now stands. The two hotels, initially named the “Waldorf” and the “Astoria,” were built at different times by competing cousins and later linked physically by a walkway and symbolically by a hyphen. The name of the current Waldorf Astoria hotel is not hyphenated.
It was at this original Fifth Avenue location that George Boldt solidified his reputation as the consummate hotelier, perfecting many of the innovations associated with the modern hospitality industry.
Though he never set foot in the hotel’s current location, which was completed in 1931, his presence is felt there. His portrait hangs in the lobby and in the hotel’s offices, where he gazes down from a place among the executives and managers who have guarded its reputation throughout the years.
“He was a very unique and unusual businessman,” said Stanley Turkel, a hotel historian from Queens and author of a book about Mr. Boldt and two other important figures from the Waldorf-Astoria. “He was a forerunner and pioneer in hotel services and expanding hotels to what they became and are today.”
After having success in the hotel industry in Philadelphia, Mr. Boldt entered into an agreement with William Waldorf Astor to manage the Waldorf Hotel, which was completed in 1893.
In another curious connection, Mr. Astor was defeated by Roswell P. Flower, 30th governor of New York and native of Jefferson County, in 1881 as a candidate for Congress.
A few years later, in 1897, Mr. Astor’s cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, opened the Astoria hotel next to the Waldorf. The two hotels were eventually joined by a walkway/fashion runway christened “Peacock Alley,” effectively becoming one establishment, the famed Waldorf-Astoria.
“He made them into one of the greatest hotels in the world,” Mr. Turkel said of Mr. Boldt.
Among the innovations Mr. Boldt is credited with bringing to the Waldorf-Astoria, according to Mr. Turkel:
n Room service;
n Relaxation of a rule prohibiting men from smoking in the presence of women;
n The installation of an orchestra in the hotel lobby.
According to Ms. Allsop, Mr. Boldt also did away with separate entrances for men and women and created the use of a velvet rope to connote exclusivity.
One of the most enduring tales is that Mr. Boldt discovered Thousand Island dressing and brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria. Competing claims for the creation of the dressing have emerged over the years, but it is relatively indisputable that Oscar Tschirky, known as “Oscar of the Waldorf,” popularized the dressing, along with eggs Benedict and the Waldorf salad, at the hotel.
Mr. Tschirky, the famed maitre’d’hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria, was discovered and installed in his position by Mr. Boldt, who also required all his staff to be clean-shaven, an unusual and controversial stipulation at the time.
He was known to be exacting but fair and more generous than many of his peers.
According to a one account transcribed in the Watertown Daily Times in 1925, Mr. Boldt never dismissed an employee from his payroll during the depression of 1893, despite the fact that there were only 40 guests in a hotel with 970 servants.
Mr. Boldt was paid an exorbitant sum for his expertise, earning $500,000 in 1903 — worth well over $11 million today. It was unusual for a hotel manager to earn such a salary, but Mr. Boldt had a unique profit-sharing arrangement with the Astors and eventually branched out into banking and other business endeavors. He grew his enormous fortune by catering to the super-rich of the day — “robber barons” such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Boldt possesses great industry, remarkable organizing skill, daring and imagination,” reads an article that ran in the Thousand Islands Sun on Aug. 26, 1903, and is kept in the Waldorf Astoria archives. “He happened to drift into the hotel business in his youth. He would have succeeded in making a few millions (sic) no matter in what business he had entered. But he has proved that he is peculiarly fitted to conduct a hote (sic). The Waldorf-Astoria is one of the most perfect machines in existence.”
In the late 1890s, as Mr. Boldt’s fame and fortune grew, he and his family began vacationing in the Thousand Islands, a fashionable retreat for wealthy city residents at the time. Mr. Boldt owned land and a farming operation on Wellesley Island and, in 1895, purchased Hart Island — later to renamed and reshaped into “Heart Island” — for $20,000, according to Times archives. In 1900, construction began on the home soon to be known as Boldt Castle. The project was abandoned shortly after Mrs. Boldt’s death in 1904 — but whether it was halted due to grief or some other reason is open to interpretation.
For a thorough study of the Boldts’ abandoned home on Heart Island, one would be hard pressed to find a better examination than “Boldt Castle: In Search of the Lost Story” by Syracuse University professor Paul Malo, who died in 2008.
The book, which is told in an unconventional format as a conversation between four interlocutors, examines and deconstructs the legend of Boldt Castle in an attempt to get at the true story. Among other things, it scrutinizes the love affair between George and Louise Boldt, probing the tale for weaknesses and maudlin sentimentality. A popular rumor that Mrs. Boldt ran away with her chauffeur is examined and eventually debunked in favor of the theory that Mrs. Boldt, who played a substantial role in Mr. Boldt’s early success, felt isolated as her husband’s fame and fortune increased beyond all measure.
But for Ms. Allsop, the Waldorf Astoria archivist, the love story endures.
“Based on what I’ve read, the love story is true,” Ms. Allsop said. “He built Boldt Castle for his wife. When she died, he was devastated. In my belief, he died of a broken heart.”
Ms. Allsop said that a lot of Mr. Boldt’s biography is concerned with his hotels. He was an obsessive, a fanatic, a man of whom Mr. Turkel wrote, “Perfection — the perfection of hotelkeeping — was his religion.” Boldt Castle, his unfinished home on the St. Lawrence River, and the summers he spent in the Thousand Islands shed a different light on a man who rose from humble beginnings to being one of the wealthiest citizens of his era.
To Ms. Allsop, the story of his love for his wife is the story of his life.
Mrs. Boldt died on Jan. 8, 1904. Mr. Boldt died on Dec. 5, 1916, at age 65. In his obituary, which ran the following day in the New York Times and hailed him as the “Genius of Waldorf,” the work ethic that made him was cited as the very thing that killed him.
“It was said by his associates that worry and overwork were responsible for Mr. Boldt’s end. He was always working and planning, and, despite the advice of physicians and friends, kept up the strain until the last,” the obituary read.
His beloved retreat, mentioned in the same paragraph, followed him to the end.
“Most of his summers for a good many years had been spent on his thousand-acre estate on the St. Lawrence River, near the Thousand Islands, but he did not spend much time there last Summer, finding the dampness did not agree with him. He came back to the city and worked hard.”