Best Hudson Valley Fall Getaways and Vacations in 2012
Seven historic hotels and fall getaways that make it easy to celebrate the season
(page 4 of 8)
An aerial view of Oheka Castle and gardens
Oheka Castle (Huntington, NY)
By Richard Buttlar
Later this year, Leonardo DiCaprio will star in another big-screen version of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evisceration of the “one percent” who inhabited Long Island’s Gold Coast in the early 20th century (see our 1920s-themed fashion shoot here). Now — as the island’s summer crowds thin out and its fall colors rush in — is the perfect time to explore the over-the-top lifestyle these swells enjoyed.
In the 1930s, hundreds of mansions filled Long Island’s North Shore from Great Neck to Huntington. Providing a weekend and summer retreat for America’s titans of industry and finance, homes on the Gold Coast ranged in style from English Tudor to Chinese Farmhouse. Their landscaped grounds offered every possible amenity — golf links, polo fields, even airstrips. Today a few dozen of these estates remain, the rest victims of dwindling fortunes, high property taxes, and subdivisions.
Several of these palaces are maintained as house museums, where you get a sense of the good times and the enormous staffs who made them possible. But the best way to experience Gold Coast grandeur is by spending a night in Oheka Castle, the largest and arguably most spectacular of its mansions, which now serves as a popular wedding venue and hotel.
Oheka was the dream home of mega-financier Otto Hermann Kahn (O-He-Ka), son of a wealthy German-Jewish banker and allegedly the inspiration for Mr. Monopoly of board-game fame. The estate emphatically validated his membership in high society at a time when anti-Semitism denied him access to many of its privileges. After he purchased 443 acres a few miles from Long Island Sound in 1914, workmen spent two years constructing a hill, creating the second-highest point on the island. To sit atop this new promontory, architects Delano and Aldrich designed a French Renaissance-style chateau, which was completed in 1919. Sporting 127 rooms encompassing 109,000 square feet, it’s America’s second-largest house, exceeded only by the Biltmore mansion in North Carolina.
One of the lavishly renovated rooms at Oheka
Driving into Oheka elicits one of life’s “Holy cow!” moments. The gravel road courses arrow-straight down an allée of tall cedars that block all but a view of a picturesque gatehouse in the distance. Once through its portal, you reach the wide cobblestone forecourt, coming face to face with the mansion’s immensity. Clad in stone, Oheka rises a jaw-dropping four stories to a steep, slate-covered roof studded with dormers and peaked towers. More wonders await inside, beginning with the über-dramatic double curving staircase leading from the lobby to the house’s main floor. Not surprisingly, when directors need a backdrop screaming wealth, they come to Oheka; starting with Citizen Kane, it’s been featured in a host of movies and TV shows, including the current cable hit Royal Pains.
Kahn entertained lavishly at Oheka (a little too much for his retiring wife, Addie, who called it “the zoo”). Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, George Gershwin, and Harpo Marx are just a few of the guests who enjoyed his hospitality. As a guest today, you’ll breakfast in the dining room where 50 or more people — a servant standing behind each chair — sat down for sumptuous repasts in Kahn’s day. You can wander through the ornate, high-ceilinged ballroom where Enrico Caruso sang for his supper; or curl up with a book on a plush sofa in Kahn’s library (the “paneled” walls actually are plaster painted to resemble wood). You can arrange to play 18 holes at the country club surrounding the estate, once Kahn’s private course. Perhaps best of all, you can retire upstairs to one of the 32 elegant and comfortable guest rooms. There you can luxuriate in a claw-footed tub or arrange for an in-room massage. If you get hungry, head back downstairs to Oheka’s restaurant, which offers a delicious but, at the moment, limited selection. (The kitchen is in the process of being expanded.)
As you wander through the house, take notice of photographs in each room that tell the story of Oheka’s miraculous preservation. The mansion served a variety of purposes after Addie Kahn sold the property in 1939, five years following her husband’s death. But from 1979 to 1983 it stood abandoned, easy prey for vandals. The photos show the damage inflicted on Oheka — so much that after developer Gary Melius purchased the house and 23 remaining acres in 1984, it took nearly two years just to empty it of debris. Thanks to the most expensive private house restoration project in history, Oheka’s original splendor has returned. Today, it enjoys pride of place on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s roster of Historic Hotels of America.
Oheka’s grounds also are a joy to explore, especially in fall when surrounding trees offer a riot of color. Saunter through the meticulously tended formal garden, with its myriad reflecting pools and fountains, and enjoy vistas of Long Island Sound from the broad terrace. Wherever you wind up during your stay at Oheka, inside or out, you’ll feel like the king of this quintessential Gatsby-era castle. Rooms range from $395-$495 per night, with breakfast included; a special package is available that includes tours of other Gold Coast mansions. You can also book a guided tour of the house and grounds starting at $25.
To get there: 135 West Gate Dr. 631-659-1400; www.oheka.com
What to do
No visit to Long Island is complete without hitting the beach. At Caumsett State Historic Park in Lloyd Harbor, 15 minutes from Oheka, trails in the former estate of Marshall Field III (of department store fame) skirt rolling fields and pass through wildlife-filled woodlands on their way to a picturesque stretch of shoreline perfect for sunning, strolling, and picnicking. Also check out the magnificent estate barns — one for Field’s polo ponies, the other for his prize-winning Guernsey cows.
The village of Huntington, five miles north of Oheka, also is worth a stop. Voted Long Island’s top downtown for five years running in a regional poll, it’s got a humming Chelsea vibe, with scads of boutiques, art galleries, and antiques shops. The Long Island Fall Festival takes place in the village’s Heckscher Park (Oct. 5-8, www.lifall.com). The Heckscher Museum features a small but impressive collection, including works by many artists who called Long Island home; a show of nine illustrations by Robert S. Neuman is on view through Nov. 25. Huntington also has restaurants offering every cuisine imaginable. One very popular spot with locals is Cassis, a classic French bistro.
For information about other Gold Coast mansions available for touring, visit www.goldcoastmansionsoflongisland.com.
» Skytop Lodge (Skytop, PA)
» Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa (Saratoga Springs, NY)
» Oheka Castle (Huntington, NY)
» Great Stone Dwelling (Enfield, NH)
» 1850 House Inn and Tavern (Rosendale, NY)
» Grafton Inn (Grafton, VT)
» Vanderbilt House Hotel (Philmont, NY)