Singer Castle- A Lost Palace Rediscovered

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Set on an island in the middle of the winding St. Lawrence River, the red-tipped turrets of the medieval-inspired Singer Castle are an unexpected sight. One of only a handful of American castles open to the public, this Thousand Islands landmark is barely over a century old, but has a surprisingly rich history.

The end of the 19th century was an age that belonged to the tycoon, the industrialist, the creators of the young American empire- individuals with immense power, and the closest there would ever come to New World royalty. Based mainly out of New York, the nearby Thousand Islands region quickly became their favoured playground. Stately holiday homes for the East Coast elite sprung up along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and for the luckiest, dotted the region’s many small islands. Having risen from a modest background to become president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Frederick G. Bourne was the epitome of the era’s celebrated self-made captains of industry. It was in this picturesque region that he purchased the 7-acre Dark Island, intending to build a modest lodge to enjoy one of his favourite pastimes, hunting.

In typical Gilded Age style, the simple hunting lodge was to soon become a far greater undertaking than possibly he himself imagined. As a surprise in honour of his wife, Bourne decided instead to secretly create a magnificent palace fit for (industrial) royalty. To carry out his vision for the island, he engaged the popular Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, who counted other prominent businessmen like Andrew Mellon among his clients. Although more accustomed to designing skyscrapers than turrets, Flagg was inspired by the detailed description of the medieval palace in Sir Walter Scott’s popular historical novel “Woodstock”, and in 1902 the immense task of creating an authentic castle on Dark Island began. Completed in 1905, the 28-room Singer Castle had required three years, an incredible quantity of granite, and half a million dollars- an almost unimaginable sum at the turn of the century.

Sir Scott’s novel had portrayed Woodstock Palace in its faded twilight and eventual ruin, so perhaps Flagg had felt moved to recreate the castle in its lost glory. Nearly a millennium past, the dark oak woods of England’s Oxfordshire were just as untouched as the Thousand Island forests, and equally attractive to the era’s urban elite. Rich with deer and other game, a portion of these massive forests near London was declared a royal hunting ground by early Norman rulers, and a palace named Woodstock (literally, “a clearing in the woods”) was built for their enjoyment. Described by Sir Scott as an impressive construction with imposing stone towers, secret passageways, and mysterious twisting staircases that led nowhere, for six centuries Woodstock would be a favourite place of respite for the royal families, and the site one of the most enduring medieval myths- the tale of Fair Rosamond.

The beautiful mistress of Henry the II, legend has it that Rosamond was hidden from his jealous wife Eleanor d’Aquitaine in a bower accessible only by a drawbridge to an upper window, and her tower surrounded by an intricate garden labyrinth that only he could navigate. However, the wronged Eleanor was not to be deterred. An errant thread from a gift Henry had brought to Rosamond showed his queen the path through the maze, and she victoriously poisoned her rival. Unfortunately, the setting of this legend and other fascinating English myths was lost when the palace at Woodstock fell under siege during the English Civil War, and thereafter fell into total decay. By the time Sir Walter Scott published his 1832 novel on the castle’s part in the conflict, the open well where Rosamond had gathered water, and a few stones of her bower, were the sole remnants of a castle once beloved by England’s highest royalty.

While a few weathered pillars and the still-flowing stream of “Fair Rosamond’s Well” are the only traces left of old Woodstock Palace, the story of Singer Castle has taken a far more positive course. Purchased in 2001 by real estate preservation firm Dark Island Tours, no expense has been spared in restoring the island to the original turn-of-the-century glory. Capturing the essential romance of a medieval-style castle, the beautiful gardens, picturesque turrets and mysterious network of secret passageways have proven to be popular attractions. Now open seasonally to public tours, the castle receives more than 35,000 visitors each year, and plays host to dozens of extraordinary weddings. And for those who long for a more complete fantasy of reigning over one’s own kingdom, an exclusive rental is available of the Royal Suite, a stunningly-appointed entire wing of the castle.

Pleasantly isolated from the outside world, private islands are wrapped in fantasy, with a character essentially conducive to realizing dreams of an ideal life. In the case of Frederick Bourne and his inspired architect, what began as a simple plan for a hunting lodge turned into far more- the resurrection of a lost royal palace virtually forgotten but for a few poems and a novel, and what must have been an unforgettable gift for his wife. Preserved now for many years to come, Singer Castle is a true icon of both Beaux-Arts and medieval English-inspired architecture, and the chance to visit this unique historical private island is not to be missed.

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