More than a century ago, George Boldt, the turn-of-the-20th-century proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, purchased Hart Island to build a monument to express his love for Louise. She never got to see it.
They may not have been Romeo and Juliet, or even Katniss and Peeta, but New York once had a real-life star-crossed couple with a love as intense as any you’ll find in fiction.
On Valentine’s Day, as you enjoy your candy kisses, your box of chocolates and your bouquet of flowers, think about a love so strong that no ordinary gift would do: the love George Boldt held for his wife Louise.
More than a century ago, Boldt, the turn-of-the-20th-century proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, purchased Hart Island in the Thousand Islands, located in the St. Lawrence Seaway that separates New York from Canada.
Boldt planned to build a monument to express his love for Louise. He altered the shoreline to resemble a heart, renamed it “Heart Island” and began construction on a 120-room castle he wanted to present to his wife on her birthday, Valentine’s Day.
Work began in 1900. Boldt hired 300 construction workers to build the estate, and no expense was spared. Nothing was too lavish for the love of his life.
The first building to be completed was “Alster Tower,” intended to serve as guesthouse and as a playhouse for the Boldts’ children, George Jr. and Clover. The family stayed in the tower as work continued on the main building.
But, alas, Louise never received her lover’s gift. Her health deteriorated as the construction progressed, and she grew increasingly weaker. In January of 1904, her heart gave out. She was only 41.
George, in deep despair, telegraphed the construction site from New York City and ordered the workers to leave the island immediately. The project was abandoned. The children never ran down the hills or played in the tower again, and George himself never set foot on Heart Island again.
There Boldt Castle sat, frozen in time, itself a victim of a failed heart, abandoned for 73 years until 1977, when the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and vowed not only to restore the site to its 1904 condition, but also to finish the mansion according to Boldt’s specifications.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Boldt Castle is one of the jewels of the Thousand Islands, sitting alone on a private island overlooking Alexandria Bay. And once on the grounds, you cannot escape George and Louise’s love story.
The island’s heart motif is seen throughout the landscaping, woodwork, inlaid marble, stained glass, masonry and statues. The mansion’s opulent first floor has been restored (including Louise’s portrait over the mantle at the base of the stairwell). The second-floor bedrooms have been furnished as if George and Louise had actually lived and loved there. And the grounds are immaculate, maintained so that others may enjoy, and perhaps even profess their own love for each other in the wedding chapel and gazebo.
“Carrying on with this historic love theme, Boldt Castle plays host to over 60 weddings each year, with couples seeking this real life love story and Heart Island as a setting for their special day,” says Shane Sanford, director of Boldt Facilities.
Heart Island, open to the public between May and October, is accessible only by boat, and a number of tour companies in New York and Canada provide transportation. Once on the island, families can stroll the grounds and tour Boldt Castle and all the other buildings. There is an admission fee to tour the site ($8.50 adults and teens; $6 ages 6-12). Touring a second island, where the Yacht House is located, costs an additional $5 for adults and teens or $3 for ages 6-12. There is a discount ticket ($11 or $7) if you visit both islands.
Dave Parfitt is a Rochester, N.Y.-based travel writer. He is the founder of Adventures by Daddy, a digital database offering family-friendly travel advice from a father’s point of view.