Castle in the Air
A patron of the arts dreams up a condo with royal appeal
By A.J. Loftin â€¢ Photographs by Daniel Aubry
For nearly a century, anyone traveling through Garrison would have seen the Moorish castle on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson, its turrets and balconies commanding an imperial view of the river. One of New York’s lesser-known financiers, Evans P. Dick, built the castle in the early 1900s. A creamy yellow, wedding-cake confection, an American version of Spain’s Alhambra, the castle took its rightful place as one of this country’s first examples of poured-concrete construction. But as can happen in the case of rich men, Dick’s ambitions soon outstripped his cash supply. He left a 40,000-square-foot folly with no plumbing, no interior walls, and no roof. “Dick’s Castle” became a local landmark, as well as a popular make-out headquarters for the youth of Garrison and its environs.
Now it’s another rich man’s scheme. “I’ve been a sucker for beautiful women and beautiful real estate all my life,” says owner Lee Balter, a self-described idiot savante who made a fortune trading stocks on Wall Street back in the 1960s. Balter delivers this well-rehearsed line while seated at a minimalist stainless steel kitchen counter in one of seven remarkable apartments he’s carved out of the castle’s shell. His words illuminate, if not support, his quest for a fifth wife. As for the castle — well, he’s already bought it twice.
After Evans Dick ran short of funds, the castle lay abandoned until 1946, when Anton Chmela, a manufacturer of quartz-crystal oscillators used for communications during the Second World War, fell prey to the old pile’s charms. Chmela made one of the wings livable, eventually adding plumbing, electricity, and a septic system, but he never got any farther, and the smooching by neighborhood teenagers reportedly continued outside his precinct. In 1979, the Dia Foundation bought the castle from Chmela, intending to create a showcase for light sculptor Dan Flavin, as well as a gallery for his collection of Hudson River School paintings. But Dia’s funding got tied up in court for a time, and the castle went back on the block.
That was when Balter first bought the property. He was living in Garrison at the time — he owned the Bird and Bottle Inn from 1965 to 1978 — and had become not only a sucker for real estate, but also for contemporary art. (He was chairman of Tallix Art Foundry in Beacon for 15 years, funded the nonprofit public arts group Minetta Brook, and is currently affiliated with the Dia Art Council.) Balter paid $1 million for the 92-acre property in 1987, not with any particular ambitions for the castle (which struck him as a lost cause), but because it came with valuable riverfront lots. So he sold those off, which left the 17-acre wooded landscape that surrounds the castle and its steep approach off Route 9D. Two years later, when a developer offered him $1 million for the castle, Balter readily agreed. He’d made back his initial investment and then some.
Another year passed; and in the summer of 1992 Balter asked the new owners of Dick’s Castle — already in bankruptcy — if he and a friend might watch the Fourth of July fireworks there. As the two friends sat in the castle’s highest tower, watching the lights explode across the Hudson, Balter felt seized with castle envy. So, for just over $2 million, he bought the place back. He pondered various commercial uses for it — health spa, restaurant, plastic surgery center — but Garrison’s anti-development bias, personified by a litigious neighbor, quashed those ideas. Now Balter figures he’s spent something on the order of $9 million turning his Moorish mansion into some of the wildest condominiums this side of paradise.
Balter auditioned two other architects before hiring Juergen Riehm, the German-born partner in the New York firm 1100 Architect, to guide the project. “I had to find someone who could make each apartment magical,” explains Balter, “because you’re living in a castle. You have to suspend disbelief.”
“I have been working with Lee for almost four years,” says Riehm, “and, as he told me, this is the longest working relationship he’s ever had with an architect. We fight sometimes; there’s lots of back and forth, but so far, it’s been fun. Lee makes interesting suggestions.” Riehm carved out seven sleek monuments to monarchic majesty, ranging in size from 1,800 to 7,000 square feet.
Cuban-born designer Orlando Diaz-Ascuy worked on the finishing touches in Balter’s present apartment. “I styled the apartment using pieces Lee already owned,” says Diaz-Ascuy. He chose fabrics, colors, and arrangements that would soften, but not negate, the industrial, avant-garde look favored by Balter. “Castles are usually finished and then it would be heresy to change them,” says Diaz-Ascuy. “So to have an unfinished castle, where you can do whatever you want, that’s a dream. Working on it was something I did for love more than anything else.”
Balter moved in as construction continued, selling off each of his living quarters in turn for upwards of $1 million apiece. Now he’s living in the southwest tower, a one-bedroom bachelor pad, awaiting completion of a much larger downstairs apartment where he can properly house his collection of books, sculpture and paintings. The southwest tower apartment posed tremendous architectural challenges, Balter says, not least because part of it was originally a terrace. Riehm enclosed the space and introduced new bays of windows with views west and south, as well as adding eastern windows facing an interior courtyard. Balter hired a concrete cutter to copy the columns and capitals of the original windows. He borrowed inspiration from Carlo Scarpa’s restoration of the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona for exterior windows that would open like French doors beyond the decorative archways.
The kitchen area, along the northern side of the apartment, opens onto a living space arranged around a simple fireplace. Flanked by arched windows facing the river, the space gives the effect of eating, or reading a book, in heaven. The architect put radiant heat under the floor, an elegant brushed concrete that contrasts nicely with Balter’s Oriental rugs.
The apartment’s relatively modest bedroom has French doors opening onto a spectacular Hudson-facing terrace — a perfect trysting place on a moonlit night. Balter added east-facing skylights to the bedroom for morning light. The bathroom’s enormous tub faces its own balcony looking upriver as far as the Shawangunk Mountains. The obligatory walk-in closet off the bedroom feels slightly cramped but workable. Stacked washing machines share the closet space, and there’s also a cedar closet and some storage space beyond. A couple could certainly live here, but for a single person it’s ideal. That is, a single person with $1.975 million to spare.
“The taxes are lower on a condo than on a house,” says Balter, rising without roaring enthusiasm to his role as salesman-in-chief. “So it’s really a good arrangement, especially for older people who want the beauty of living in Garrison, looking over the river, but don’t want to cut the lawn and worry about repairs.”
Balter carefully skins an apple, seated at the stainless steel kitchen island that was ground to a matte finish at the Tallix foundry in Beacon. The 14-foot-long structure had to make a grand entrance via crane, along with Balter’s 16th-century Spanish refectory table. “Like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way,” he says, and his blue eyes flicker as determination competes with nostalgia to get the upper hand.
“I think the appeal for someone like me is that as you get older, you really think about how you’re turning into detritus and becoming useless soon,” he said. “So I think taking an old building that’s useless, a ruin, and making it something wonderful, is really a good parallel for us old geezers. You identify with it, you feel, â€˜I can do this.’”
A lovely formulation. How sad that it’s not quite true. People may lose their beauty and charm as they age, but castles — ah, castles weave their enchantment even when they’re glorious ruins.
Polished cement floors and the long kitchen counter (inspired by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd’s steel boxes) make an interesting contrast in textures with the 17th-century Spanish refectory table and Oriental carpets. “Architect Juergen Riehm defines the spaces and Orlando Diaz-Ascuy colors them in,” says the owner
The living room’s breathtaking view — stretching from the Bear Mountain Bridge to the Shawangunk ridge — is framed in a series of concrete arches. The sleek kitchen was designed by the owner, who loves to cook (and has a degree in home ec)
Mixing it up: Contemporary photographs by Balter’s friend Lee Friedlander flank a 1729 tapestry. The custom-made sectional sofa designed by Diaz-Ascuy divides the room and softens the industrial aspects of the dÃ©cor
Bed, bath and beyond: The architect made the most of the view — there’s even a reflection of it in the shower room. The bathtub surround and floors in the bathroom and bedroom are local bluestone, ground smooth as marble. ”Installing it was some job,” Balter remarks. ”It took two people to hold each stone.” In the bedroom, French doors open onto a terrace, while sun streams in from skylights in the angled roof
A carousel horse enlivens the area that the original owner intended to be a reflecting pond; to enter the castle, guests were to be pulled across it in a swan boat, with the arched windows in the stone wall breaking up the remarkable views as they floated by. Balter briefly considered fulfilling the fantasy, but logistics were too difficult. The entrance to three of the apartments is through the colonnaded cloister garden, complete with pool and fountain