Gold Coast Grandeur
Stepping into Fitzgerald’s world with a day trip along Long Island’s historic mansions
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” profiled high society’s antics and escapades in sprawling mansions on Long Island during the Gilded Age of the 1920’s. Along the so-called Gold Coast along the western part of Long Island is a unique collection of enormous estates which have been preserved and restored to their original opulence. Open to the public for tours, special events and dining, these mansions and their gardens are the finest examples of architecture and landscaping from this storied era.
Financier and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn was not only a patron of the Metropolitan Opera in its founding days, but built the second largest private residence in the US (The Biltmore in North Carolina is the first) which he named Oheka Castle (an acronym for Otto Hemann Kahn). Constructed from 1917 to 1919 in Huntington, Long Island, near Cold Spring Harbor (easy access for private yachts to and from Manhattan), the castle estate is located in the middle of 443 acres and designed to resemble a French style chateau, this 109,000 sq.ft.,127-room estate was a summer home from the 1920’s where Kahn invited royalty and heads of state, plus world renowned entertainers and performing artists, like silent movie star Charlie Chaplin and opera singer Enrico Caruso for lavish weekend parties. Ironically, Mr. Kahn’s likeness was used in the original Monopoly board game as Mr. Monopoly.
Oheka Castle cost $11M at the time. Celebrated mansion architects, Delano & Aldrich, supervised the project. The grand staircase in the entry foyer was inspired by the one at Chateau Fontainbleu in France. Almost entirely fire-proof, the mansion was built using plaster and decorated with a “faux bois”, a technique from the Middle Ages which gives the plaster walls the warmth and grain of fine wood paneling.
The famous landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers (Frederick Law Olmstead designed Manhattan’s Central Park), created a formal garden that can be seen from one side of the mansion. Newly planted red cedars line the drive leading to the courtyard. London Plane trees and Boxwoods were re-planted around the eight reflecting pools and three fountains to bring back to life the layout of the formal garden.
From the time Kahn died of a heart attack in 1934 until 1984, Oheka Castle had many lives and changed owners, from being a military training academy and a private school. In 1984 the ruined property was purchased by Gary Melius who painstakingly restored the property to its original grandeur down to the slate roof tiles sourced from the same quarry in Vermont, and custom-made windows and doors replicated by craftsmen according to original designs. In total, $30M has been spent to refurbish and replicate the estate, and 70 percent is complete. Primarily used as a special event space and wedding venue, Oheka Castle is equipped to handle functions and overnight guests. A new book called “Images of America-Oheka Castle” is out this month and is written by local residents Joan Cergol and Ellen Schaffer ($21.99). www.oheka.com
The next time you’re looking to plan a day trip that combines history with rich past, you can re-live the Great Gatsby life and motor around the Gold Coast visiting six mansions and their gardens that belong to an association called Gold Coast Mansions of Long Island. www.goldcoastmansionsoflongisland.com