As we board Uncle Sam’s ferry, a girl in a wool cap and a collar turned up against the rain tells us the proper way to affix our life jackets. “Don’t worry though,” she says, “this ship isn’t going to sink so enjoy your trip.” And we do. After making our way up to the bow to take pictures, a couple and their son take rapid fire panoramic shots of the vessels cruising by. Our little boat rocks back and forth in the wake of a gigantic black liner that has passed. It’s unclear which building is our destination, whether it’s the one we just saw or something farther off in the distance. The stone structures only seem to get larger and larger as we approach, until finally it’s obvious. Towering on Heart Island, there it is: The ship and its half dozen souls have arrived alive and intact at Boldt Castle. Mrs. Louise Boldt had not been so lucky. Though designed for her in 1900, she would never live to see it. Her husband, George, came to America in pursuit of the dream. From nothing, the Prussian immigrant amassed a fortune in the hotel industry, and eventually became the proprietor of NYC’s Waldorf Astoria. The true object of his affection was the woman for whom the castle was constructed. Indeed, the little brochure you pick up inside the castle says, “For Boldt, to dream and to do were synonymous.” Boldt Castle, while unfinished, is the stuff of fairy tales. There’s no doubt that someone has said that in every essay written about it; the phrase is cheap. You can see a fairy tale castle in a Google Image search, and in every leather bound, gold-inscripted anthology of bedtime stories. But to step inside is another experience entirely. When we alight from our little boat, we say thank you to the ferrymen and are directed to a box office wherein sit two smiling old ladies. They are flanked by signs that remind you to stop by the Gift Shop and to Not Feed the Seagulls. Another tells us that all money spent here serves to fuel further renovations. Eight dollars paid, and hands stamped, the crowd splinters and follows the signs along a handful of paths that lead to the same entrance. We each admire the ornate stone and the finished wood roof above. It's raining but we are shielded by the surrounding trees and the massive barrier against the elements that the castle provides.
Large wooden doors open up and quell preconceptions. There are two pleasant women stationed at the entrance, in two of the dozens of chairs placed strategically around the first level. They sit in front of a roaring fireplace that casts light on the tile which displays the castle’s crest — the letter “B” inside of a heart. It’s clear that this is not your typical Medieval stronghold. There are no chintzy suits of armor, no wall sconces illuminating the way. It’s a few centuries too young, but no less magnificent. Beyond the entrance there are so many rooms within sight that it’s difficult to know where to start. So you choose your own adventure. We make our way individually, starting in the library, where one can imagine the aroma of fat cigars. There is a yellowed novel on a tiny desk behind velvet ropes, a story that Mrs. Boldt likely never got to enjoy. The library opens up into a grand ballroom, labeled with a bold number 8. For tourists needing a more obvious ambience, majestic classical music is piped into the castle, and you close your eyes and imagine gentlemen guests stumbling over the proper way to ask a lady for a dance.
A wide stairway leads to the second level separated by a brass railing tacked into the middle, ruining some of the splendor. It’s obvious from the art hung with care and the beautifully detailed carvings that this was meant to be a love letter, but has been converted to cater to tourists’ needs.
Although one can explore at their leisure, there are ropes restricting you from really delving into the intricacies of the different rooms. There are signs on every chair, every delicate surface that reminds you to “Do Not Touch.” Don’t touch the piano or the organ. In the billiards room, do not play pool. Do not fiddle with the books or the shelves. We walk through the first level, which feels empty despite all the furniture and the roaming visitors. It’s a wonder that this monumental place ever could have felt like a home. Even with a thousand guests sleeping wherever they fell, one could still hear an echo if they called. There are twelve rooms on the first floor and unfortunately, all you can really explore without feeling like an intruder are the two bathrooms. Up on the second floor, the map handout notes that there are 19 rooms that visitors can peruse, although there are a handful more that are locked up, awaiting renovation. No doubt a butler would have tended to each guest, to each bubble in the numerous baths, but how one could buttle without constantly stepping into the wrong room and then retreat, retracing their steps to the correct location, is a complete mystery. More velvet ropes and displays of their possessions — like a sun umbrella adjacent to the perfectly-made bed.
There’s a feeling of uneasiness. That, were this place not inhabited by jawing tourists snapping pictures on their cell phones, it would be haunted. That although it was a labor meant in earnest, there is something missing. The little brochure says that upon word of Mrs. Boldt’s death, a telegram arrived at Heart Island ordering all construction to cease immediately. Without such a rich, bitter history, the building would feel more abandoned than it is. Some staircases lead to nowhere, but when you climb to the third and fourth floors it’s obvious where the construction halted. Up there are glass cases that display the sprawling maps of Boldt’s exploits and a novel that belonged to Mrs. Boldt. But moreover it is barren. There are chunks of plaster missing, holes in bricks that provide a pinhole into another unfinished room. Wayward visitors have taken it upon themselves to finish decorating this level. Formerly servants’ quarters, no fire was ever lit in the empty stone hearths. Now the walls are covered in graffiti. Some is written in marker and pen, while the more daring artists have taken the time and risk to outright carve their own love letters into the walls. It must have been a task to graffiti the ceiling. Nevertheless, kids on field trips — from Philly, the Bronx, Ontario, wherever — mark their place so that they might come back with their own kids in 30 years to show them that a castle is not just a thing in a book. When you think you finally have reached the end of Boldt’s unfinished tour de force, there’s still more. The tourists realize that there is a basement and on the way down — now the third floor, now the second, now the first — a woman with a thick French accent says, “It will be beautiful when it is finished, no?” We’re reminded on the walk downstairs that the castle is as pretty as it is somber. There are hearts around the legs of the pool table, on surfaces visible to only the keenest eye. Through the basement door, which is tucked away next to the bathrooms, we again step lightly. The staircase opens up into a vast expanse of tunnels; it’s more space than a hundred families of the late 1800s could have afforded. There are bright red arrows on the walls, your only tour guide. All paths lead out or to the pool, wherein floats a ceramic frog filter, above tadpole coins. We tourists toss our own handful of change in and make a wish like everyone else who has found this place. If you were to skim it, you might find money as old as the first visitors. But there’s not a whole lot of time left to look. It’s still raining and if we don’t catch the ferry back now, we’ll have to wait for the next one at the top of the hour. So our group rushes to meet it after one last glance at the strange stone faces by the Italian Garden, at the Power House which never had the chance to light the castle it was built to serve. No one really says anything on the way back. A group of teenage girls sit staring at their cellphones while a middle aged couple stands by the Captain’s quarters and share a brief kiss. The woman smooths her husband’s greying hair. She smiles at him. Although he no doubt has not built her a castle, at least their home is not a tourist’s afternoon off.