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Cherry Island's Casa Blanca


It was love at first sight that saved Casa Blanca, a grand Gilded Age estate on Cherry Island.

The century-old cottage near Alexandria Bay, N.Y. overlooking a stretch of the River known as Millionaire's Row, came up for sale in 1962. Albert Amsterdam was already smitten. The medical supply businessmen from Syracuse first took a shine to the 27-room mansion while boating in the Thousand Islands with his wife Edith and their young children.

"My husband never took his eyes off of it," recalled Edith in an interview at Casa Blanca, as tour boats and ships glided past the veranda overlooking Heart Island's Boldt Castle. The Amsterdam’s first spotted Casa Blanca during a family boating trip in the Thousand Islands in the 1960s when they started shopping for real estate here."We were looking for an island where the kids could get out of the boat and run around," said Edith.

The couple took a tour of the Cherry Island estate but it was not love at first sight for Edith. "It smelled musty. Every window had a dark green shade and ugly drapes. You couldn't see outside. Your feet stuck on the varnish on the floors." She turned to Al and said: "Don't fall in love with this horrible place."

But it was too late. "He said 'I'll make a ridiculous offer and nothing's going to happen.'" As it turned out, Edith recalled, it wasn't that ridiculous. The realtor called back and said: "Congratulations. They've accepted the offer." The former owner sold it to the Amsterdams because the only other buyer planned to tear the historic cottage down and build an A-frame on the foundation.

Today Edith, 89, has come to love Casa Blanca as much as her late husband did when he first set eyes on the place over half a century ago. Edith, known for her wide-brimmed Victorian hats, is the Grand Dame of Cherry Island. In the boathouse, there's a 1946 Hutchinson named Lady Edith. She was named Alexandria Bay's Citizen of the Year for her philanthropy. She has opened Casa Blanca to two public tours every summer for the past three decades to raise money for the Alexandria Bay Township Historical Society to support the society's Cornwall Brothers Museum.

The Amsterdam family has owned this cherished estate now for longer than any of its previous owners. Casa Blanca, built in the late 1800s, was originally owned by the prestigious Pullman family and was known as Melrose Lodge. The Pullmans were among the first wave of millionaire industrialists to build elaborate summer homes here during the region's Golden Age. George M. Pullman, of Pullman, Illinois, revolutionized railway travel by inventing the Pullman sleeping car. He built one of the region's first castles, known as Castle Rest near Cherry Island, in 1888 on Castle Rest Island, also known as Pullman Island. (The castle was later demolished though other original structures remain). Pullman invited President Ulysses S. Grant to visit in 1872. The publicity cast an international spotlight on the Thousand Islands.

James Pullman purchased Cherry Island for $40 in the 1870s. Louis Marx, a German-born sugar and tobacco planter in Havana, Cuba, purchased Melrose Lodge for $3,500 in 1897 and renamed it Casa Blanca. Marx also maintained a residence in New York City. Marx's brother-in-law was Nathan Strauss, owner of New York City's Macy's Department Store. Strauss and a business partner built two other large summer estates called the "Twin Cottages" on Cherry Island. Only one of them remains. Mary Marx Bernheim sold Casa Blanca in 1928 to Willet C. Evans of Evans Dairies in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Hundreds of visitors annually arrive aboard a tour boat at Cherry Island each summer for a Victorian tea and tour of the mansion. Meeting Edith, who graciously greets her visitors on the veranda wearing one of her trademark hats and elegant outfits, is a highlight. The grandmother of six has hosted 64 public tours for the past 32 summers. "I love it because they love it so much." The mansion features a reception, library, billiards room, original furniture and tin ceilings as well as original outbuildings including a pump house, ice house and laundry house. Inviting red hammocks are strung along a path past gargoyle statues including a huge lion and a stone gazebo. White wicker chairs line the white and red mansion's porch, a focal point for family gatherings. Casa Blanca's romantic island setting is also rented out for weddings.

Edith has also been honoured for her philanthropy in Key West Florida, for her charity work at another historic Grand Manor: The Curry Mansion. The New Jersey native and her late husband Al were visiting Key West in 1975 when they spotted the century-old white mansion for sale. They promptly purchased the stately home, named after William Curry, a penniless Bahamian immigrant who became Key West's first millionaire and started building the mansion in 1855.

"I have a hotel, accidentally," said Edith of the Key West property where she now winters and hosts local fundraisers for non-profit organizations. The estate has also been converted into the Curry Mansion Inn and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As much as she loves her Key West home, Edith keeps a special place in her heart for Casa Blanca. "I always called this home," she said, enjoying the view of Boldt Castle from the kitchen on a sunny day at the end of the season - her 52nd summer on Cherry Island. "It's the most beautiful place in the world."

By Kim Lunman, www.islandlifemag.ca

Kim Lunman is the owner/publisher of Island Life Magazine (www.islandlifemag.ca.)  A profile of the past five years of Kim’s work was published in our November 2013, issue of TI Life.  Her company, Thousand Islands Ink, is based in Brockville. Lunman is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in the Boat U.S. Magazine, Lakeland Boating, Reader's Digest, Globe and Mail and The National Post.

To see all of Kim Lunman’s TI Life articles, click here, and to read a more complete biography, see our About Page.

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Comments

Ian
Comment by: Ian
Left at: 9:21 AM Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Love hearing stories behind the homes and islands that we sail past every summer. Thank you!
Donna
Comment by: Donna
Left at: 6:09 AM Wednesday, October 8, 2014
My husband and I spend as much time as possible each year on the tour boats on the river. To say we are in love with the area just wouldn't express our feelings enough. Visiting the River feeds our soul. We have spent years enjoying the beauty of Casa Blanca as we pass by and wondering about the history of this lovely home and island. To think that it could have been torn down and its beauty and grace lost forever was shocking. We are so glad that Edith and Albert saw the beauty in the home and saved her! We are also from Syracuse but make the drive up to Abay as often as can. The next time we visit we will look at Casa Blanca in a new light-as the beautiful love story it also represents!
Reggie Seigler
Comment by: Reggie Seigler
Left at: 11:28 AM Monday, July 10, 2017
I had the tremendous pleasure of performing on Cherry Island this past Saturday and meeting Phil Amsterdam and all of his staff. My gift of music and song has made room for me over the years to mingle in the presence of many people whom most people of my means would only dream of meeting. These gifts have also allowed me to enjoy many many very beautiful places in the world. I found Cherry Island, even on a partly cloudy and intermittently rainy day, to be one of them. This place has a beautiful character and a staff of people people to match. Thanks to the bride and groom and Cherry Island for hosting the Soft Spoken Band.

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