Castle Above the River

A residential castle, re-envisioned as a condominium by Lee Balter, sits above the Hudson River.

"An attractive nuisance” is what Lee Balter thought of Dick’s Castle when he first laid eyes on it, in 1987. A 40,000-square-foot semi-Moorish fantasy, the reinforced-concrete structure sits on a hilltop above Garrison, New York, with sweeping vistas of the Hudson River. But the land was a valuable commodity that spoke to Balter, whose varied background includes not only real estate and market trading, but also a long stretch in the hospitality industry. As for the castle, “there was no electricity, heat, water, or septic system. There were no interior walls and no staircases. I saw it as an old wreck, but an interesting one, with fabulous views. And it’s a castle. There aren’t a lot of residential castles anymore.”

Construction on Dick’s Castle began in 1903, when financier Evans P. Dick and his wife returned from a trip to Spain, where they decided to build a home as imposing and magisterial as the Alhambra in Granada—one that would rival the storied Vanderbilt mansion up the river in Hyde Park. The couple envisioned a 52-room home with 25 fireplaces and its own canal on land they had acquired in the 1880s, but not long after the stock market took a dive in 1906, the Dicks ran out of resources for their Moorish dream.

The castle sat unfinished and empty for years. After Evans Dick died, his heirs took the roof off the place because taxes are lower on uninhabitable buildings. In 1946, an inventor named Anton J. Chmela bought the ruin, making one wing livable but leaving the rest alone. He later sold it, according to The New York Times, for about $1 million to the Dia Art Foundation in 1979. During the years that it sat abandoned, the castle became a legendary trysting place for young lovers and even an ersatz skating rink when ice covered the exposed concrete floors in the winter.

Like the castle, Balter is a bit of a legend himself. The son of a Russian immigrant on the Lower East Side, he later lived in the Bronx, then Mount Vernon. “We were pretty poor,” he says, “but not dirt poor.” His father died when Balter was 11, and his mother went to work (after writing to Eleanor Roosevelt for help getting a job). He studied at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and later owned the historic Bird & Bottle Inn in Garrison, a 1761 coach house on the New York–Albany Post Road, from 1965 to 1978. By 1987, he was chairman of the Tallix art foundry in nearby Beacon. (One of his four former wives had a keen interest in art, which piqued his own.) Tallix fabricated sculptures by artists such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and Nancy Graves and cast the bronze panels on the Museum of Folk Art for architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The foundry’s most famous job: a 24-foot-tall bronze of Leonardo Da Vinci’s never-completed equestrian monument Il Cavallo, which now resides in Milan. Balter himself owns a lot of art, but says he doesn’t collect it or buy it as an investment. “I just know people,” he offers.

“I saw it as an old wreck, but an interesting one.
There aren’t a lot of residential castles anymore”

After buying the castle, Balter and his investment group recouped their money by selling off parcels of the original 92-acre estate, and while he could have sold up to 35 lots, he sold only seven. “When you buy a piece of land for development,” he explains, “the simple goal is profit. But there is such a thing as psychic income. Some sellers concerned about the future of their properties care about psychic income as well as monetary gain. Making just a couple of great river-view lots put the project in the black. So why put in ten?”

Only two years later, with his wife Anita ill with breast cancer, Balter sold the castle to developers, even though he “was starting to like the building.” In 1992, after Anita died, he asked the new owners if he could watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the castle. He and a friend who had also lost a partner climbed up ladders to the roof and, “like two pashas,” cracked open a bottle of wine and watched the brilliant bursts of light up and down the river. Inspired, he says, “I signed a memo of understanding to buy back the castle only a couple of years after I sold it.”

That’s when plans for the future of Dick’s Castle began in earnest. And then changed. And changed again. The list of things that Dick’s Castle almost became includes: a grand estate with swan boats ferrying guests across a manmade pond to the entrance; a museum for the works and collected Hudson River School paintings of artist Dan Flavin; an upscale retirement home for women from New York City; a discreet convalescent center for plastic surgery patients; and a cooking school for airline chefs. Instead, after dealing with the notoriously finicky local planning board, drilling and re-drilling wells, and replacing water-ruined rebar and pilfered columns, Balter turned the castle into condos, some of them as large as 5,000 to 7,000 square feet, including a penthouse. “How many castle penthouses are there?” he says.

To transform the raw space, Balter worked with Juergen Riehm, principal of 1100 Architect, and renowned San Francisco designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy “for flair,” he says. Now the castle comprises eight residences, and Balter has lived in every apartment but one while the others were under construction. Finally, he has settled into a four-story space of his own.

The primary floor includes a book-lined double-height living room, a master suite, and an ample kitchen and dining area, where Balter can fit up to 20 at his dining table. The master suite is an “intensely personal space,” and like the rest of the house is “full of things that mean something to me, stuff that I care about.” His metal bed was custom made by one of his former tenants, and the rosewood dresser was a gift from architect Paul Mayen. “The antique dresser next to the bed was part of Aileen Osborn Vanderbilt Webb’s collection. When I bought her home, Whippoorwill Farm, I also bought all the contents. She had founded the American Crafts Museum, so it was full of treasure.” There’s even a tubular elevator that Balter had installed to please a potential buyer, who ended up not taking the bait.

On a small balcony off the south side of the living room mezzanine, he’s prepping space for a bamboo sleeping porch designed by art-world twins Doug and Mike Starn, along the lines of their Big Bambú installation at Dia: Beacon. (Works by the Starns also hang above the fireplace and in Balter’s bedroom.) Down a flight of circular stairs is an airy art studio where Balter’s friend (and former girlfriend) Kaaija Korpijaako works, and a single room on the floor below it sits empty, a potential guest room or separate apartment.

During his real-estate career, Balter has owned other grand buildings, such as the Locusts, the 1860s Hudson River mansion built by railroad tycoon William Dinsmore, later owned by Mrs. Vincent Astor, and now operated as a resort by André Balazs. At one point Balter was in contract to buy the former box factory that is now home to Dia: Beacon, but he stepped aside in the interest of improving the riverfront city instead. “Real estate is a lot of fun,” he says, “and life is a lot of fun. I’m an alchemist. My world is taking detritus and fixing it up and making it beautiful and useful. I’m an old fart. If I can take something that is old and decrepit and make it beautiful and useful, there’s hope for me.”

click for a gallery view of images of this fabled folly turned into something for the ages

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