Oheka Castle - Otto Kahn on the Gold Coast

Gilded Age on Long Island

large horizontal-oriented estate with chateaux-like hipped roofs and tall chimneys
Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York. Jackie Craven

Completed in 1919, Oheka Castle cost 11 million dollars to construct. The building is both huge and impenetrable. The massive walls made with reinforced steel and concrete measure up to 3 1/2 feet thick. Spanning 109,000 square feet, the mansion was (and still is) almost America's biggest private home. Only the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina outranks Kahn's vacation home.

The evocative name Oheka is an abbreviation of the wealthy financier's name, Otto Hermann Kahn. For fifteen years, Kahn spent summers and holidays in the home with his wife Addie and their four children. The castle eventually fell into ruins, but today the estate and surrounding gardens are restored. Oheka Castle is one of the few Gilded Age mansions that also serves as a hotel, resort, and romantic wedding venue.

Join us as we tour the castle and grounds...

The Legend of Otto Kahn

Combined image, Black and White photo of Otto Kahn (1867-1934) and Oheka Castle
Otto Kahn (1867-1934) and Oheka Castle. B/W Kahn photo Image Number LC-DIG-hec-44246 courtesy Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. and Oheka by Jackie Craven

During an era known as the Gilded Age, Wall Street financier Otto Hermann Kahn achieved staggering wealth. He reorganized railroads, patronized the arts, and, after the stock market crash in 1929, spoke out eloquently in defense of bankers.

Even after his kingdom crumbled, Kahn remained a legend. He became the monocled millionaire cartoon on the popular board game, Monopoly. Orson Wells used Kahn's vacation home, Oheka Castle, for the opening scene of Citizen Kane, the 1941 film about wealth and ambition. Today that castle is a resort hotel where visitors can rediscover Gilded Age luxury.

Ironically, Otto Kahn (no relation to the famous architect, Louis Kahn) was often excluded from social circles. Born Jewish, he could not join prestigious country clubs. Perhaps this is why he decided to build one of the largest and most spectacular homes in the country. He asked the architecture firm Delano & Aldrich to design a Châteauesque style mansion on the highest hill on Long Island. Workers moved earth to build a hill high enough to meet Kahn's criteria.

The Romantic Road to Oheka

Gateway to Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York
Gateway to Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York. Photo © Jackie Craven

Even before the castle rises into view, the road to Oheka suggests romance and intrigue. Beyond the tall front gates, a tree-lined roadway leads through a stone archway. Beyond the heavy stone walls, the castle perches on a green slope overlooking fields, orchards, golf courses, and tennis courts.

Olmsted-Designed Grounds

Grounds of Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York
Olmsted-designed grounds at Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York. Photo © Jackie Craven

At one time, some 443 acres surrounded Oheka Castle. The Olmsted Brothers, sons of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the formal gardens with reflecting pools and fountains.

Although much of the land was later sold, some 23 landscaped grounds remain part of the private estate. Sketches by the Olmsteds guided the designers as they restored the gardens. Five hundred red cedars, 44 London plane trees, and 2,505 boxwoods were planted to recreate the original landscape plan.

The Grand Stairway

Samuel Yellin designed the elegant wrought iron stairway at Oheka Castle
Samuel Yellin designed the elegant wrought iron stairway at Oheka Castle. Oheka Castle Media Photo

Samuel Yellin, celebrated for his work with wrought iron, designed the Grand Stairway that leads from the main foyer to the second story. In keeping with the French Châteauesque theme of the castle, the stairs form a curving valentine shape, reminiscent of the exterior stairway at Chateau Fontainebleau in France.

Samuel Yellin is also known for designing the wrought-iron interiors at the Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington, DC and the great brass door at Bok Tower in Lake Wells, Florida.

Library of Illusions

The Grand Library at Oheka Castle.
The Grand Library at Oheka Castle. Photo ©Jackie Craven

At first glance, you may mistake the Oheka Castle library walls for wood paneling. The wood is an illusion, however. Fearing fire, Otto Kahn had the library walls made with plaster finished with a faux wood grain.

The library shelves contain another secret. The whimsical Otto Kahn concealed a doorway behind stacks of books.

Oheka Falls Into Decay

Oheka Castle overlooks gardens and reflecting pools
At the rear, Oheka Castle overlooks gardens and reflecting pools. Photo © Jackie Craven

The Gilded Age ended with the stock market crash of 1929. A few years later, Otto Kahn died, and in 1939 his family sold Oheka. Kahn's castle became a retirement home for sanitation workers, who changed the name from Oheka to Sanita.

The next forty years brought swift and horrifying decline. Oheka Castle became a radio operator's school for the Merchant Marines, then a boy's military school, and, by 1979, an empty shell — grounds littered with rubbish, architectural details stripped away, rooms gutted and burned.

Rescued From Ruins

Oheka's road to recovery began in 1984 when real estate developer Gary Melius embraced the project. He hired architects, historians, craftsmen, and landscape designers to restore Oheka Castle to its Gilded Age glory. He purchased new roof slate from the same Vermont quarry that Otto Kahn had used. Bit by bit, architectural details were recreated, including more than 222 windows and doors.

Today, Oheka Castle is the crowning jewel on what has become known as the Gold Coast of Long Island, a region made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby. The property has also been the lavish backdrop for weddings, political fundraisers, and the Taylor Swift video for the song Blank Space.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation for the purpose of researching this article. While it has not influenced this article, ThoughtCo.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.