Jay’s house was just down the road.
Imagine my elation when I discovered that the inspirational mansion from Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 “The Great Gatsby” film stood majestically just an hour away on Long Island. The Otto Kahn estate, known as Oheka Castle, was constructed in 1917 as the summer home of the German born, banker-turned-tycoon.
The “polo player,” my Tom Buchanan-esque counterpart and I decided that a daytrip to this long-awaited destination was in order.
Plans were rapidly made. Tickets purchased. Research completed.
The day of our early journey started in the snow. The staff of the historic hotel rang us to ask if we wanted to continue our tour despite the weather. Of course, we did. Upon our arrival, we saw that the weather deterred the other tour guests.
We were Daisy and Jay. For the day. The mansion was ours.
Awaiting our guide, he and I were escorted to the library of Otto Hermann Kahn of Mannheim, Germany. A reorganizer of the Union Pacific Railroad, Kahn also worked for the investment banking industry through Kuhn, Loeb & Co., the principle rival of J.P. Morgan & Co.
Snapping photos in the reflection of the snow across the gardens outside, we spent silent moments in awe of the antiquity before our guide arrived.
The creator of Oheka castle possessed an imagination “like the mind of God,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald described of Jay Gatsby. After a fire at his family home in New Jersey, Kahn determined to make his new home fireproof. It was a steel and concrete marvel by architects Delano and Aldrich, a duo known for running with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
Meanwhile, the Olmstead brothers, the designers who assisted with the Biltmore Estate and the roadway designs of the Great Smoky Mountains and Acadia National Parks, worked on the French-style sunken gardens. It was an overall project worth a modern amount of $158 million.
The lavish mansion of 27 rooms over 109,000 square feet, was full of 126 servants. They streamed in from the underground passages that lead from the river to the house when parties ensued. Kahn was fascinated with the arts, surrounding himself and his family with the latest artists, singers, and musicians of the 1920s. “Rhapsody in Blue” composer George Gershwin potentially clinked cocktail glasses with Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini beneath these vaulted ceilings. The Marx brothers popped in and out of doorways. F. Scott Fitzgerald could have stumbled upon this roaring shindig.
In 1934, it ceased. Kahn died. The parties ended.
In 1936, he was immortalized as the character Mr. Monopoly. Oheka castle passed from hand to hand, beginning with the Welfare Fund of Sanitation workers to the radio operator’s school for the Merchant Marines, finally occupied by the Eastern Military Academy until 1979.
Years of disrepair ensued.
Our tour guide was a local mother, remembering her children treat-or-treating at “Dracula’s Castle” before it was Luhrmann’s inspirational “Gatsby mansion”. After the tycoon passed and the taxes grew high, his house stood hollow, wind whipped, and vandalized. Not one of the 39 fireplace’s kept its original mantle. Not a single window remained intact.
The tour highlighted small black and white prints of the historic home in disarray. Desks strewn in the print showed the impact of the military school on the house. The plasterwork reconstruction over our heads hid the places were fluorescent lighting hung. Vandalized and left vacant, the house stood an eyesore and nuisance to the surrounding neighborhood.
All seemed lost.
In swept Gary Melius, a Long Island developer in 1984. Years of Halloween fundraising parties in the shell of a home, along with gradual repairs transformed it into the wedding venue, banquet hall, and six star hotel that sprawled before us.
Our tour guide snuck us into the drained swimming pool. Overarched in ivy, the pool wasn’t up to swimming code, but hasn’t been ignored by publications like Vogue for photo shoots. The beauty and isolation were haunting.
One could almost imagine that fateful scene of Jay Gatsby falling back in death, past the ivy and checkerboard tiles, dying unbeknownst to the one he loved. From the tales of our tour, we envisioned the Ziegfeld Follies running the halls and Toscanini performing for guests. The house in its heyday rivaled the depictions of Jay’s home in Luhrmann’s film.
Swept up into the past, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave just yet. Popping down into the restaurant, we requested strawberries and Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut.
We daydreamed and dined. Our adventures forthcoming. Our imaginations inspired. Jay Gatsby, like Otto Kahn, was full of dreams unlimited. They could do anything they could imagine. Anything we could dream, we could do. While the mansion housed inspiration for the tragic story of Daisy and Jay, it held so much more hope and room for expansion. Yes, it fell into disrepair, but came back all the more vibrant.
We crunched through the gardens and snow, taking a long last look at the mansion and its contents.
So many past stories. So much future potential. Like our lives.
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