Two of America’s greatest monuments to bygone wealth and opulence now allow you to spend the night
uring the Gilded Age, the time of the great robber barons and before the 1929 stock market crash, newly minted moguls built palaces as a celebration of their titanic achievements in business and finance. Many such palaces were abandoned following the Great Depression, with some eventually razed, but two spectacular specimens in New York—Oheka Castle on Long Island and the Castle Hotel and Spa in Tarrytown—survive to this day as luxury hotels. With the castles’ close proximity to New York City, they make for a fascinating weekend getaway for work-weary locals as well as a history-rich side trip for Big Apple tourists.
In 1914, when financier Otto Hermann Kahn set about building his home on the Gold Coast of Long Island, he wanted to live on the island’s highest point. So Kahn had mounds of earth hauled up to his Cold Spring Harbor compound, thereby artificially creating the apex of Long Island and making a kind of Mount Olympus for his majestic 109,000-square-foot summer home, which he named Oheka (a conjunction of his name). At the time the second largest private residence in the United States (Kahn lost out to the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate in North Carolina on that one), Oheka boasted 127 rooms for entertaining foreign royalty, heads of state and stars of the silver screen.
Though less remembered today than his counterparts Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, Kahn and his castle were legends in their own time. Kahn served as the model for the character Mr. Monopoly in the popular board game, and his home may have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby’s ostentatious abode. It was also Oheka—not Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California—that served as Xanadu, the home of Orson Welles’ character in the film Citizen Kane, in an opening flyover shot.
Following Kahn’s death in 1934, his family continued to live in Oheka for five more years and then sold the property. For three decades, it was operated by a military academy until, almost inexplicably, the opulent palace became an abandoned derelict building, rife with rubbish and vandalism and a frequent victim of arson.
In 1984, developer Gary Melius learned that Oheka Castle was on the market, and on a lark, he low-balled the bank with an offer of $1.5 million. To his surprise, it was accepted. Today, nearly 30 years and $30 million later, the restoration of Oheka is 70 percent complete.
In October 2013, a Tuscan-inspired steakhouse will debut at Oheka, and plans are under way for a spa facility. Run by the Melius family, the hotel consists of 32 guest rooms, the pride of which is the Olmsted Suite ($1,095 per night), which is named for the Olmsted brothers, sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central and Prospect parks in New York City. The brothers created the castle’s spectacular French-style gardens, which feature clipped greens, parterres and water terraces and help make Oheka a popular site for weddings and celebrations of all kinds. Golf and tennis are available at the neighboring Cold Spring Country Club, the golf course and acreage of which were originally part of Kahn’s estate.
When one approaches Oheka on the tree-lined gravel driveway, the castle not yet visible, a sense of anticipation mounts. When at last you pass through to the castle’s grounds, “it’s the wow factor that hits you,” says Nancy Melius, Oheka’s director of marketing and design. “You just can’t believe a place like this exists in America. It’s something magical that you couldn’t build today.”
On the north side of New York City, in the Hudson River Valley, lies another remnant of the Gilded Age, when millionaires took to heart the old adage that a man’s home is his castle. Howard Carroll made his fortune as a newspaperman, playwright and businessman. When he set about building a grand home for his family, he chose as his model Ireland’s Lismore Castle. Construction on the abode began in 1897 and was completed in 1910.
Decades later, after serving briefly as a school and then as offices for a financial firm, the building was purchased in 1994 by Japan-based Sankara Hospitality Group, which began restoring it. It reopened in 1996 with 31 guest rooms under the name Castle Hotel and Spa. Carroll’s house is truly deserving of the castle moniker, says general manager Gilbert Baeriswil. “It is a real castle in the sense that it is constructed like a fortress, with towers and turrets, and is made entirely of stone sourced from the Hudson Valley.”
The hotel’s Royal Treatment package consists of two nights’ accommodation in a luxury suite, breakfast and dinner for two, two massages, champagne and a four-course dinner for two. Equus, the on-site restaurant, is Zagat-rated and features a menu based on Auberge-style French cuisine and locally sourced ingredients.
In September 2013, the Castle Hotel and Spa will proudly unveil its new spa facility, the first Thann Sanctuary Spa location in the United States. Headquartered in Bangkok and popular throughout Asia, Thann draws on a variety of wellness philosophies and offers a comprehensive menu of services, from skin treatments to traditional Thai and Swedish massage.
It’s worth noting that while both buildings each look like a palace that could house generations of a European clan, as mentioned, Oheka Castle was inhabited by Kahn’s family for only five years following his death; Carroll’s castle housed his widow and children for 25 years after he died. These two buildings’ ultimate destiny—a hotel for the many, rather than a single-family dwelling—tells us something that the newly rich of any generation have such difficulty believing: Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and it’s easier for a man to imagine his home is his castle than to make a castle his home.
CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD is the author of Ivy Style. He lives in New York City.