By Alison Sundermier and Jason Lee
Oheka castle was abandoned for 7 years (1978-84), covered with ivy and crawling with rats. It was vandalized, looted and devastated. Vandals tried to set it ablaze hundreds of times but because of what the mansion was made of—marble, plaster, cement, slate, steel framing—Oheka Castle could not be destroyed.
Gary Melius, a real estate officer who started as a plumber, found and bought the tarnished Oheka Castle in 1984 and has been restoring it ever since.
Oheka is just one of dozens of mansions built at the turn of the 20th century. Wealthy business tycoons from the booming industries of steel, transportation and manufacturing needed land to build their estates. They found prime real estate overlooking open fields, acres of forests, bays and beaches on the north shore of Long Island. It was here that the millionaires decided to build their mansions. Even as a depression ravaged the rest of the country in the 20’s, these mansions stood as beacons of prosperity on what is now popularly known as the Gold Coast.
“I tell people when they come to Oheka castle that we are not a museum,” said Lauren Bartholomew a docent working at Oheka. Indeed as the number one wedding spot in the US the castle is still a fully functional and livable space. Not only is it the second largest estate every built in the US. It is the Largest private renovation as well.
The mansion was home to Otto Herman Kahn, who made his money on Wall street in the railroad industry. Kahn was German and Jewish which made him a outcast in the early 1900’s. He was excluded by the white Anglo-Saxon high society, but that hardly cheapened the grandeur and luxury of his Long Island estate, which acted as a summer and weekend retreat for Kahn.
“The house has really come full circle to what it was before,” said Bartholomew. “What he’s done is he’s saved it for all time. It will never fall into disrepair again like many of the other gold coast mansions.”
Deep in the forest trails of Muttontown Preserve there are several stone structuresstanding in ruin. They are all that remains from the foundation of a once great Gold Coast mansion that was enveloped in mystery even when it was standing. The briefly exiled Albanian King Ahmett Zogu had many other homes besides Albania, including England, Egypt and France, where he eventually died. In the mid 1950’s King Zog bought an estate in Muttontown New York. It was an old house built before the 1920’s for Charles Hudson of the steel industry. Originally Knollwood Estate, the property became known as King Zog’s estate. There is no evidence that Zog or his family ever occupied the Long Island home. The rotting building was intentionally razed to the ground by Oyster Bay county for safety purposes in 1959, leaving behind only portions of the foundation.
Finding these ruins in the maze of the Muttontown trail is no easy feat, though graffiti artists seem to manage the task every now and then. In the winter the forest surrounding the ruins is quiet, even wind can’t find its way through the dense forest walls into the overgrown glens.
Those Gold Coast estates that didn’t fall to total chaos found different purposes in the community. Most who look at Arnold & Joan Saltzman Fine Art building on the Nassua County Museum of Art property probably wouldn’t guess that it was once a home to the son of a rich steel and railroad tycoon and his wife.
White washed walls and borrowed art displays and exhibits cover the original wood crafted walls of the refurbished mansion in Roslyn. To the quick eye the building is for all intents and purposes a museum. Underneath that however it is still the home portrayed in the old photographs, just without the furniture or the decorative animal-head trophies.
The china set on display is the very collection found in the house once owned by Frick’s son Childs, and his wife Francis.
The bedrooms are the most significantly changed rooms in the place. Accessed by a spiral staircase near the front of the house, they are all now the otherwise empty homes of exotic and unique exhibits, most of which have no relation to the houses history at all.
“In a way our exhibits have sort of become exhibits themselves: this is what museums used to look like,” said Kirsten Amundsen, the mansion tour guide. “The museum of natural history has amazing funding so they get to redo their dioramas and redo their displays constantly ours haven’t changed since they were put in beginning in the early 1920s they themselves are now historic.”
William Vanderbilt II always intended for his mansion to become a museum. In his will he deeded his property to Suffolk County and requested that everything in the home be preserved in its original state.
Vanderbilt loved nature and the ocean. He gathered nautical specimens from around the globe to display in solid glass containers lining the walls of his home.
He chose to build his house on Northport harbor, one of the deepest harbors on long island so he could have someplace to put all of his yachts (he owned 10 in his lifetime).
Vanderbilt collected artifacts ranging from pottery to an Egyptian mummy. He even hunted animals—from bears to whalesharks— and, with the help of a taxidermist preserved and arranged them in diaramas depicting their natural habitat and their interactions with other animals.
Today, the Vanderbilt estate is not only a mansion and a museum, but a planetarium and a park, where children and families come to learn about nature, science and culture.
Museum policy at Vanderbilt prohibits the use of photography inside the mansion. The museum curators don’t want visitors to put together virtual tours of the museum. More importantly they like the sense of mystery and adventure that comes with visiting the mansion for the first time.