By Stephanie N. Ambarsumyan
Entering and Leaving the 20’s.
On New Year’s Eve, I anticipated the imminent spectacle of the New York City ball drop in the time capsule of Soviet culture that is my in-law’s Brooklyn apartment. In Russian, my father-in-law gave a speech about the exciting moments to come in the new year, and I looked apprehensively at the shot of vodka in my hand. I’d had enough olivier and caviar to choke a horse, and yet, my mother in law insisted on walloping heaps of mayonnaise-slathered (albeit delicious) helpings of cuisine onto my gold and white china plate.
The stupor from over indulging in the Russian spread, combined with the inhumane lack of sleep from being a new mom, left me nearly forgetting that New York, and the entire world, would be welcoming a brand new era at the stroke of midnight. It had seemed, at least according to my Instagram feed, that Americans were beguiled by the possibility of another “roaring 20s.” My mind conjured up images from The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve taught dozens of times as an English teacher. Champagne, jazz music, flappers, tuxedos, and Gilded Age mansions for housing the aforementioned three. There is a scene where the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, forgets about his own birthday.
As the ball began to drop and those around me began to count, it dawned on me that as society was ready to welcome the “20s” I was days away from preparing to leave my own 20s behind me. This would be my final year to secure a foundation in life before turning 30, when the “building” of an “adult” life allegedly begins. “Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness” is how Nick Carraway, described the impending development of the big 3-0.
As I prepared to enter the last year of my 20s, I meditated on Nick Carraway’s feelings towards turning 30. In many ways, of course, I was not lonely. I noted that I had my husband, both parents, a son, and a small, core group of friends. However, I could not help but reflect on every other birthday celebration of my 20s. A memory of my 24th birthday in particular stood out. Twenty or more of my friends and I stayed over at the luxurious Standard Hotel which boasts floor to ceiling windows – presumably for those with voyeuristic fetishes in mind – housed in Manhattan’s exclusive meatpacking district.
We danced and imbibed in New York City’s hottest night clubs, transported via a behemoth of a party bus. I remember the night as an endless barrage of flower bouquets, free drinks, and a $2,000 bill for dinner which upon its arrival, I didn’t blink an eye at. What was I to care? It wasn’t me who was paying. I felt like a celebrity that evening. In my mind, I always assumed the throngs of friends I celebrated with would attend every birthday celebration of mine my whole life.
Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald, I found myself unable to cope (even if I only admitted this to myself) that my roaring decade of popularity and evenings out in New York City – the “golden shimmering mirage” – had ended. As I turned 29, and with 30 looming on the horizon, I made the disheartening realization that I have nowhere near as many friends as I once had a few years ago. Even among the friends that remained close there was no time to celebrate something as trivial as my birthday. My core group of friends were pregnant, closing on houses, moving out of New York, working 16 hour days, and – feeling their own “hot whips of panic” upon nearing 30 – and in response, were desperately navigating the dating scene.
Bleary eyed, in the early morning hours sitting at the school where I teach, I scrolled through Groupon looking for a way to celebrate my special day that did not involve a Bacchanalian evening and the torture of wearing black stiletto heels. It felt like a half-hearted endeavor as I scrolled absent-mindedly just knowing I’d settle for some minor off-Broadway performance. Suddenly my finger abandoned the mouse and my fingers found their way to the dry patches of skin on my lips, as they often do when I’m deep in thought. “Oheka Castle” I mused. An overnight stay at Long Island’s only castle-cum-luxury hotel. The groupon was my own, personal, green light on the end of a dock. A signal to “go for it.” My finger hit “purchase.” In a minute or less, I had booked my trip to Oheka Castle.
Why would someone in my position be interested in staying at Oheka Castle? As stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, I am a book nerd and English instructor. As such, it is my duty to fawn ceaselessly over writers of the “lost generation.” This is a labor of love, for I passionately and intensely love the writers of this era as if I know them personally. The first time I saw Baz Luhrman’s rendition of Gatsby on screen, I sobbed.
The beauty and grandeur of the era belonged to those of the past, and I would never experience it for myself. Oheka Castle was in large part a source of inspiration for The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald visited the chateau with Zelda while living on that “riotous slender island.” In its heyday of the 1920s, Oheka Castle hosted lavish cocktail parties, the kind Fitzgerald sought inspiration for his great American classic. The mansion was used partly as the setting for Jay Gatsby’s colossal home.
Otto Herman Khan was the original owner of the home. He was a banker and philanthropist, as well as a contemporary and competitor of JP Morgan. In addition, he was the inspiration for the Monopoly man (as if his resume were not impressive enough) at least according to the lovely tour guides at the estate. The castle was built on a 443 acre plot in the Cold Spring Hills neighborhood of Huntington, NY; its construction cost over $100 million dollars based in today’s economy.
Needless to say, Khan possessed an unfathomable type of wealth. The gargantuan size of the estate cannot be overstated enough. In fact, the 109,000 square foot estate was twice the size of the White House. Unlike the White House, Khan and his family did not live in the 127-room estate full time. Oheka Castle, the second largest private residence in all of the United States was merely Khan’ summer residence, which happened to host a number of royal figures, politicians, and celebrities at its glamorous parties in the 1920s. Chaplin, Gershwin, and the Folly girls all indulged in the opportunities for fun provided at the estate such as ballroom dancing and swimming.
Just a few short years after the stock market crash, Khan died of a heart attack in 1934. Not wanting to maintain the upkeep of the property, his widow sold the estate to none other than the New York City Mayor at the time, Fiorella La Guardia. Under his care, it became a retreat for sanitation workers and their families who were only expected to pay $1.00 per day of retreat.
The building came into the hands of the Merchant Marines during World War Two for radio operating school afterwards. Then, it became a military training school. Due to the resistance of the Vietnam War, enrollment plummeted at the school and so, was closed. Oheka Castle remained entirely abandoned and fell to the whims and delights of local vandals and thieves. Gary Melius, a developer and contractor, was undoubtedly inspired by those with an interest in preserving the castle’s history. He bought the property and the 23 acres surrounding it.
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby sincerely believes that his love from five years ago (Daisy) will abandon her high society husband (Tom) for a man she hasn’t seen nor loved for five years (Gatsby) after reuniting at Nick Carraway’s house. The consensus is largely that he is delusional. When seeing photographs of Oheka Castle after years of vandalism, arson, and theft, there were undoubtedly throngs of skeptics who wondered if Melius’ plans for restoration were not entirely as delusional as Gatsby’s own dream.
The post apocalyptic edifice would have been better suited as a shooting location for The Walking Dead. However, both Gatsby and Melius carried “infinite hope” and saw the boundless possibilities of a dream that seemed to many, to be utterly unattainable. However, Melius was also equipped with something that Gatsby never had, yet desperately needed: a plan and professional help.
Melius and his team of historians and researchers used photographs, salvageable relics from the mansion, and original architectural drawings to bring Oheka Castle to its former splendor and to maintain its historical authenticity.
Today, Oheka functions as a wedding venue (notably hosting one of the Jonas brother’s nuptials). A plethora of movies (such as Citizen Kane) and numerous television shows, have been filmed at the estate including HBO’s new thriller Succession. (this sentence doesn’t make sense) A dizzying list of celebrities have visited the castle and filmed music videos on its premises including Taylor Swift for her Blank Space shoot. Beyond all of this, Oheka Castle is a luxury destination for anyone looking to fulfill their dreams of living like the Buchanons.
The long driveway to the castle is lined with an impressive array of sizable and perfectly trimmed trees which seem to brush against the sky. This is where most visitors start to gain awareness that this is not merely a “hotel.” However, the first view of Oheka Castle undoubtedly casts a feeling of awe and surprise on any first time guest’s spirit – this is where the transformation to another time period entirely really begins.
On first thought, it would not at all be outlandish for one to rub their eyes and wonder if they were actually on a trip to France’s Loire Valley and not in fact, on a weekend getaway to Long Island, New York. Guests should prepare to become an instant VIP upon immediate arrival to Oheka Castle. Instantaneously, uniformed staff begin radioing of one’s arrival to each other. I was surprised to have my car door opened for me and my luggage immediately taken off my hands and transported to my quarters.
I teetered unsteadily in a smart pair of pumps across the gray cobble stones and took a moment to look at the many windows and chateau style peaks which top the castle. The style of roof of Oheka Castle helps give the castle a fairy tale look. When undergoing renovation, Melius and his team used the exact company that Khan’s crew had used when building the roof. After marveling at the exterior architecture, prepare to step inside. The magnitude of grandeur of the foyer is so lavish, that one nearly feels a small level of paralyzing chagrin. I was met with a grand horseshoe shaped marble staircase. It swept out from both sides of a large door adorned on either side by statues of women doing their best to hold a large candelabra over their heads. From the door, both sides of the staircase sweep down toward a landing where a marble bench is placed. Past the landing, the sweeping staircase continues onto the main floor. The artistic railing which lines the stairs are entirely wrought iron.
The inspiration for this staircase came from the famed Fontainebleu of France. The entrance door swung shut behind us sending a rippling echo of sound up to the church like high ceilings which hold some impressive pieces of artwork, two windows the size of mattresses on either side of the staircase, and an ornate and prodigious chandelier over the staircase, which looks like it would be able to crush an entire group of guests, should it fall. If there is any traveler who has wanted to step into the 1920’s or an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel – this is the place.
Our chateau category room at Oheka Castle came equipped with the most comfortable bed known to humankind. The ceilings were gold plated, and the fireplace gave an aesthetically rustic and historic feel to the room. Our son slept in bed with us all night (go ahead – judge me.) The next morning, I came to regret that decision.
Allow me to briefly jump ahead to the following morning. Henry, my infant son, lay playing on the floor with my husband early in the morning. As I lay in bed, I got the feeling that I was not alone – that something had gone terribly amiss. I was terrified, I knew there was something in my bed and it took a ton of courage to finally look. And then – I had a real life Godfella’s moment.
I lifted up the comforter and screamed bloody murder. Not a horse’s head, something worse. Baby poop. Everywhere. No idea how it happened. I can still smell it as I write this. I had to scrub every single inch of it out of the sheets and the mattress topper. Honestly, my biggest fear was that the hotel would see the stains and assume it was my grown husband and I who committed the crime. That is something that I simply could not allow to happen, and, I can’t believe I’m writing all of this for people to read. But, it’s the truth, and I must share it. I am forever traumatized. I’m like Lady Macbeth…but with baby crap.
Later that day, for dinner ,we were seated in the quirky “Chaplin room.” An upscale room where intimate conversations took place among couples and a families celebrating an anniversary. The room is painted entirely in red and has no less than dozens of photographs and posters of Charlie Chaplin from all around the world. Khan was a fan of the silent picture star and even visited the mansion. Thus, when the chateau was resurrected, it was decided that one of the dining rooms would be named after the 1920s star.
I ordered the Long Island specialty of duck breast in fig and port wine sauce with a side of the creamiest wild mushroom risotto. It was well worth the price tag and then some. A side of a few glasses of rose didn’t hurt either. When dining at the castle, everyone is treated to bread with a side of the gorgonzola cheese sauce for dipping. Move over fondue, you have met a far more decadent and elevated match!
After dinner, we moved onto cocktails in the library. The library features one of the three remaining original fireplaces in the mansion and all of the remaining details are authentic to original plans. Having had a prior residence destroyed by fire, Khan sought to have his entire mansion made as fireproof as possible. The “wooden” walls are actually not wooden at all – but drawn to look like wood with a fire safe material underneath.
The morning after we indulged in a feast. Oheka offers the best continental breakfast that I’ve ever seen included at a hotel stay. Pastries, fruit, Greek yogurt, and bagels were all up for the taking. The tea bar offered a dizzying array of tea! It is beyond my creative limits to try and imagine what it might be like to eat breakfast in such a regal setting. I’m sure however that I could get used to every day being waited on hand and foot.
The part of the trip which makes my soul burst with joy – I found the hidden indoor pool. The pool is hidden in the basement behind a heavy black door and would not have been easy to find.
Paranormal investigators did a stake out in the room a few weeks prior to our visit, and it’s no wonder why. I still feel chills looking at these photographs. Despite being the only person in the room, I truly could feel as though the spirits of Gatsby’s roaring 20s party guests were all around me, and one might accidentally push me in. It was the eeriest, most awe inspiring moment of my life.
Guests visiting the Long Island mansion have the option for doing a tour without staying over, however, staying overnight at the hotel gives guests the option of a free guided tour the next morning. We were able to learn an extensive amount of history about both the original owner, the new owner, and all of the history in between.
What is perhaps most surprising about Oheka, is that given its vastness and sprawling design, it feels cozy and intimate. It is not too difficult to get the feel of one’s (albeit extraordinarily large) home rather than a frigid, marble slabbed mausoleum. I think it is entirely possible that Gatsby felt totally fine living in his mansion alone before Daisy.
The staff are professional, but approachable. By Sunday morning, we already knew many of the workers. Many who would call my son,by name, play with him, and even offer to rock him to sleep. In his mission statement, Gary Melius says he hopes to impart a familial and welcoming feeling to each of his guests and has undoubtedly succeeded. So often a luxury setting can be anything but relaxing as one constantly has to consider if they are behaving, speaking, and eating in a way that exudes class and convey a sense of deserving to be staying at a five star establishment. Oheka combines old world luxury with the added benefit of genuinely allowing visitors to let their shoulders down.
The 2020s will very certainly not be anything like the 1920s – sorry to disappoint. My 30s will more than likely not be anything like my 20s. Change is inevitable and we should welcome it as warmly as Gary and his staff welcome their travelers. Afterall, we do not want to be entirely like Gatsby, retreating ceaselessly into the past, clinging to dreams that have long since fled and be unable to move forward. There is much to look forward to. In the words of Nick Carraway, “…tomorrow we will run faster [and] stretch our arms out farther…”
Stephanie is a high school English educator for students in grades 11 and 12. She hold sa BSED in special and English education as well as an MSED in literacy. Stephanie is an avid reader, creative writer, and enthusiastic traveler, visitinf 24 countries and countless states. She holds a BSED in special and English education as well as an MSED in literacy.