Kasr-el-Nouzia, its creator called it. Palace of Pleasure. Like a pastel gingerbread house iced that would be found in the medieval French countryside, roofed in Moorish mystique. Tufted, peaked, curlicued, etched -- all over a copyrighted 19th century wooden frame.
Even in the historic racing city known for Victorian mansions, the Batcheller Mansion Inn stands out like a fairy tale palace, a legacy of its creator, George Sherman Batcheller.
"Unlike George, I viewed it, saw it and used it as a house of pleasure," says Bruce Levinksy, owner of what is now a nine-suite inn that is widely considered one of the city's finest places to stay.
Batcheller -- lawyer, legislator, diplomat, entrepreneur -- was born in the 1830s, a descendant of John Batcheller, a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, and Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, Ambrose Batcheller, came to upstate New York by way of Vermont, making a fortune in lumber from the Sacandaga River Valley, an area since named Batchellerville.
George Sherman Batcheller was on his way home to his "palace" when he died in Paris in 1908.
"He only lived in it two years, and then he died," says Doris Lamont, Saratoga Springs archivist. "He barely enjoyed it."
This house, built in 1873, seems to be the rather sober judge's one giant stamp of whimsy. Correspondence reveals he had no affection for the horse racing that now dominates the city's image. He vigorously opposed plans to put a hippodrome in the city's Congress Park.
He spared no expense or vision, commissioning architects to design an amalgam of styles from around the world, and especially from the Middle East. A trademark of Kasr-el-Nouzia is the minaret jutting from the patchwork of roofs -- Saratoga's touch of the Arabian. As if to ensure its uniqueness, the plans for the house were secreted away among Albany's state archives.
With Batcheller's only heir a daughter who had no children, the house withered over the generations. In 1971, it narrowly escaped the city wrecking ball.
To re-create the building today would cost more than $3 million, says Levinsky, a Saratoga Springs developer. In the late 1980s, Levinsky purchased Batcheller's dream house for about $400,000. Less than two decades before, the widow who was the last of a string of its owners couldn't get $50,000.
Eugene Turchi, the owner before Levinsky, had managed to get many of the interior charms returned by making a public appeal. Fixtures such as the handcarved newel post at the foot of the entry hall staircase were left in the driveway in the middle of the night.
Carefully following the lines of the house, Levinsky carved out nine suites, varying from well-appointed to elaborate, all with private baths and distinctive personalities.
During track season -- late July through August -- Levinsky books solid the inn's nine suites, the rates for which are from $250 to $395 a night. During the off-season, the same suites go for a comparative bargain: from $120 to $200.
Off-season can be a wonderful time to visit Saratoga Springs. By no means does the city stop in its downtime; it simply unclogs. There are still streets full of boutiques, cafes, restaurants and book shops, as well as dance and history museums and steaming mineral baths. The biggest difference is August's traffic exhaust has cleared away and the city regains its subdued Victorian charm. It's a perfect stopover for skiers, who are only about an hour away from several Adirondack Mountain and Vermont ski slopes.
Guests who arrive early enough can explore the unoccupied rooms.
The second-floor Katrina Trask room ($180 to $375), is named for a Brooklyn-born socialite. Trask was a writer given to mournful themes, perhaps by fate. The death of her children inspired a volume of poems that went into four editions. Her attachment to a tract of garden she found mystical led to the founding of the Yaddo artists' retreat nearby. Furnishings in that room include a brocade settee, king-sized canopied bed and private terrace.
It's modest compared with the Diamond Jim Brady ($200 to $395) room upstairs. In addition to the mirrored bath, with its whirlpool tub for two, there's a pool table. The room was named for Diamond Jim, the illustrious railroad tycoon with the continent-sized appetite.
"We named the room after different Saratoga personalities," explains Sue McCabe, the mansion's live-in innkeeper. "He was a big gambler and back then he frequented the casinos."
Other rooms are named for Diamond Jim's lady, Lillian Russell; Lucy Scribner Skidmore; William Collins Whitney; Richard Canfield, and Rip Van Dam.
The inn's common areas are laden with Victorian detail. Guests settle on the sofas, carefully nibbling home-baked cookies as they flip through an extensive selection of books. Everything gleams -- chandeliers, mahogany fireplaces and polished parquet floors. Though Levinsky refers to it as a professionally staffed inn, it is run with the familiar charm of a bed-and-breakfast.
IF YOU GO
For more information on the Batcheller Mansion Inn, write to 20 Circular St., Saratoga Springs, New York 12866; call 1-800-616-7012 or 518-584-7012; e-mail mail@batcheller mansioninn.com; on the Web, check batchellermansioninn.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times