Historic Ballston Lake ‘castle’ opens its doors to visitors Sunday

The trees have grown much higher around William Bliss Baker’s summer home on Ballston Lake, taking a
The image on the left shows "The Castle" on Ballston Lake as it looked around 1900. It was built in 1885 for artist William Bliss Baker. At right, the home as it appears today. (Historic photo courtesy John Scherer; current photo by Bill Buell/Gazette ...
The image on the left shows "The Castle" on Ballston Lake as it looked around 1900. It was built in 1885 for artist William Bliss Baker. At right, the home as it appears today. (Historic photo courtesy John Scherer; current photo by Bill Buell/Gazette ...

The trees have grown much higher around William Bliss Baker’s summer home on Ballston Lake, taking away much of the view he use to enjoy from his third-floor studio back in the 1880s.

“The Castle,” however, now the home of Rey and Gini Whetten, still presents an impressive picture to visitors who find their way to the southeastern tip of Ballston Lake. For those intrigued by the house and its history and want a closer look, the Ballston Lake Improvement Association will hold a public house tour Sunday from noon-4 p.m.

“The Castle,” at 159 Eastside Drive in the town of Clifton Park, is where Baker produced some of the finest paintings of the 19th century, including what is probably his most significant work, “Fallen Monarchs,” just a few months before he died.

“When we first bought the house we thought it might be nice to buy one of his paintings and hang it up somewhere inside,” said Rey Whetten, who moved in with his wife in 1982. “Gini knew some art dealers so we looked into it. Well, one, you can’t buy any because they’re all in museums, and two, they cost upwards of a million dollars.”

‘Historic House Tour’

WHAT: A tour of “The Castle,” home of Rey and Gini Whetten

WHERE: 159 Eastside Drive, Clifton Park (Eastside Drive is accessed off Schauber Road)

WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $20; $10 for Ballston Lake Improvement Association members. Children under 12, free

MORE INFO: Reservations suggested; www.ballstonlake.mylaketown.com

While the view of the Berkshires to the east and the Catskills to the southeast are gone, you can still see Ballston Lake through the trees, and the original stonework Baker used to construct the house remains its dominant feature. Baker grew up in the town of Ballston on his family’s large estate, Hawkwood Mansion, at the corner of Route 50 and Middleline Road.

Baker’s father, Benjamin, was a graduate of Yale University and a brigadier general during the Civil War. He served in the New York State Assembly in the 1870s, and was also director of the Albany City Bank and a founder of Albany Rural Cemetery. William, born in 1859, began studying at the National Academy of Design in 1876, and over the next decade became one of the most popular Hudson River school painters in the country, just as that movement was beginning to subside. Sadly, he died on Nov. 20, 1886, just seven days before his 27th birthday, and just a year or two after building “The Castle.”

“He didn’t get to live there for very long, but he was an amazing painter, a very unique man and a famous artist who lived right here in Clifton Park,” said John Scherer, the Clifton Park historian. “His family was very well to do, and he rubbed elbows with many other top painters, like Frederick Church. His works were on display in New York City and other major galleries around the country.”

Scherer will serve as a docent for Sunday’s house tour, and will be joined in that capacity by town of Ballston historian Rick Reynolds, who knows a good gig when he sees one.

“John has a legitimate claim on the house because it’s on that one section of the lake that is actually in the town of Clifton Park,” said Reynolds. “But Baker was from Ballston, ‘The Castle’ is on Ballston Lake, and it’s such a fascinating story that we both lay claim to it.”

With 130 paintings already to his credit in the fall of 1886, Baker died after suffering a fall while ice skating. He is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.

“Many art critics of the time considered the loss of his life to be a significant blow to the American art scene,” said Reynolds, and in his New York Times’ obit the newspaper said his death “deprived America of one of its most promising artists.”

As well as “Fallen Monarchs,” which hangs in the BYU Museum of Art in Salt Lake City, and “Morning After the Snow,” on display at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University, Baker’s legacy isn’t complete without looking at “The Castle.”

“When he built it you could only gain access to it by the lake,” said Scherer. “It looks basically the same as when he built it, three stories high with turrets and balconies. It’s a very unique house, and the owners have done a great job taking care of it.”

“Sometimes we feel like the house sort of owns us more than we own it,” said Gini Whetten. “It’s not a museum, it’s a home, but we’ve kept it the way he built it as much as we could. We’ve tried to remain very true to that era.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply