Dick's Castle is 102, but still under construction

Poured-concrete Moorish building overlooks Hudson River

August 07, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

At 102 years and counting, Dick's Castle may be the longest-running construction project ever. Vast, odd, sometimes even beautiful, the vaguely Moorish poured-concrete folly sits in Garrison, N.Y., like an old pasha on a hill overlooking that jog of the Hudson River between West Point to the west and the Shawangunk Mountains to the north.

Thus sited, Dick's Castle claims as its home what is perhaps Garrison's most stunning vantage point - which may explain why the place has been wrestled with by so many for so long. Lee Balter, its current owner, has bought and sold the place, or at least pieces of it, at least twice. Now, he lives in its tower and has converted the rest of it to six condominiums.

In 1903, give or take a year or two, a wealthy financier named Evans P. Dick built this castle's shell - a 40,000-square-foot volume - with visions of the Alhambra in Spain clearly dancing in his mind. He sketched in 34 fireplaces and chimneys but built no flues or fireboxes. Two cavernous chambers at opposite ends might have been realized as a kitchen and a ballroom.

Save for these suggestive spaces, he built no interior walls or staircases, and laid in no wiring, heating or plumbing or a roof, though an aqueduct stretched 100 feet or so. (Swan boat rides were planned.) By 1911, Dick had run out of money, and his castle was abandoned.

In 1946, Anton J. Chmela, the founder of General Quartz Laboratories, a manufacturer of quartz crystal oscillators for communications use during World War II, bought the place and made one wing livable. He lived under that putative ballroom, eventually adding electricity, plumbing and a septic system - but for that space only. Around him were the huge, still-empty volumes of the rest of the castle, which gained notice in the 1950s as a make-out spot, Balter said.

Chmela sold the castle to the Dia Foundation in 1979 for about $1 million, said Balter, who bought it from the foundation in 1987, also for about $1 million, with a small group of investors. Balter, a businessman, former investment banker and the chairman of the Tallix Foundry in nearby Beacon, sold off pieces of the castle's voluptuous land, reducing the parcel from 92 acres to 17.

In 1989, when his wife, Anita, developed breast cancer, he sold the rest, with the half-finished castle, to a group of developers, again for about $1 million.

Anita Balter died in 1991. A year later, Lee Balter asked the owners of Dick's Castle, who were then in bankruptcy (they'd done some work - they built a red roof and some rickety construction stairs and shored up its skin before their cash and energies leaked away), if he might watch the Fourth of July fireworks from an empty room with glassless windows: the best seats on the Hudson.

He and a friend, who also had lost a partner, sat up there like two children, Balter said, and "thought what a wonderful place it was."

"We decided to rescue the poor bank who was holding the defaulted notes" to the castle, he said, which is to say he bought the place back, this time for a little more than $2 million.

As to why, Balter will say in answer that he is "just comfortable with real estate." On a "roots trip" to Russia with his wife in the 1980s, he recalled recently, she said Russia "was the only place she really felt comfortable, because she knew I couldn't buy anything."

Balter has a way of molding the air with his hands - it's a gesture that suggests endless, expensive possibilities. Deploying that gesture, he described his former plans for the place: Until 2000, he considered making his castle a high-end health spa, or a high-end restaurant/wedding venue, or maybe a place for plastic surgery.

His neighbors - on all that lovely wooded land he'd sold them the first time around - politely suggested "that I was barking up the wrong tree," he said. Certainly they didn't want a business smack in the middle of their homes. So five years ago, he filed plans to finish the castle, by building seven fantastical residences within it. Like Chmela, Balter moved in, in a nominal way, roughing it first in his tower, the spot from which he'd seen the fireworks in 1992.

Remember, there were no proper stairs, so he climbed a temporary staircase and then a rickety ladder to his aerie, which had no plumbing or electricity. But with such a view, he said, "who cares about the niceties."

Juergen Riehm, a principal of 1100 Architect in New York, designed six stern, spare "townhouses" around and below the tower - one as large as 7,700 square feet. By 2003, Balter began to sell them as condominium units as soon as they were done for $300 to $1,000 a square foot, depending on the view.

"The idea was to try and preserve this fantasy that someone had thought of for themselves," Riehm said, "while making these independent spaces."

Mostly, Riehm and Balter created simple, near-white-box spaces, three of which have been sold. "He rationalized the place," Balter said of Riehm. "He tamed it."

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