October 7, 2013

All Aboard: La Duchesse Historic Houseboat in Thousand Islands, N.Y.

  • By: Meghan Drueding
The Antique Boat Museum and La Duchesse, as seen from the St. Lawrence River. Credit: Antique Boat Museum
The Antique Boat Museum and La Duchesse, as seen from the St. Lawrence River.

After you’ve survived sinking to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, not to mention receiving tens of thousands of visitors, you deserve to celebrate a little. So in August the Antique Boat Museum (ABM) in Clayton, N.Y., held a 110th birthday party for its top attraction, the 106-foot-long houseboat La Duchesse. Local residents, volunteers, staff, and family members of the boat’s former owners gathered on board to toast her enduring appeal.

La Duchesse began her life in 1903 as a package of carefully wrought pieces sent from a warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y. Well-known hotelier George Boldt had her assembled at his estate in northern New York’s Thousand Islands. He hosted countless family and friends on board the mahogany-paneled, fully furnished vessel.

Boldt owned the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia and also managed the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. His detail-oriented approach to running hotels also applied to his treatment of La Duchesse, with its meticulously maintained fir decking, stained glass windows displaying the Boldt family crest, and decorative molding.

“He cut no corners, and you can see that in his houseboat,” says ABM’s former director of public programming Lora Nadolski.

The motor-less houseboat is towed by a local landing craft. Credit: Antique Boat Museum
The motor-less houseboat is towed by a local landing craft.

According to Nadolski, La Duchesse was even available to rent during the early 1900s for the then-princely sum of $100 per night -- with captain and tugboat, of course. The latter served as more than just a charming nicety; the boat was built without a motor. “She was always pulled by a tugboat,” Nadolski says.

In 1922 Boldt’s heirs sold much of the family’s Thousand Islands property (including La Duchesse) to E.J. Noble, co-founder of the Life Savers candy company. The boat fell into disrepair over the years, finally sinking in her slip in 1943. This ignominious event proved a literal low point for La Duchesse.

But better days lay ahead. Andrew McNally III, of the Rand McNally map company, and his wife Margaret purchased La Duchesse and sent divers down to repair her damaged hull. The family placed the houseboat in dry dock in 1946, where she underwent a painstaking, year-long restoration.

A look inside the lounge of La Duchesse. Credit: Antique Boat Museum
A look inside the lounge of La Duchesse.

About a decade later, the McNallys replaced her wooden hull with a steel one, ensuring long-term durability. They and their three children enjoyed relaxing and entertaining on La Duchesse for the next half-century. The family eventually donated her to the nearby Antique Boat Museum, which built the McNally Yacht House to shelter her during the offseason.

Public tours of the boat began in July 2005 and continue to be popular among Thousand Islands residents and sightseers. Original items, such as a restored 1905 Steinway piano and the Boldts’ wicker furniture, help recreate a turn-of-the-century atmosphere.

The ABM is three years into a gradual, six-year restoration of La Duchesse. She serves as the Museum’s largest vessel, currently attracting 9,000 visitors per year.

“She helps us tell the history of the Thousand Islands,” Nadolski says. “We don’t know of any houseboats now that are the same age as her. We know there were a lot of houseboats at the turn of the century. She’s one of a kind in that she survives.”

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.


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