The most ambitious restoration ever attempted -- according to Gary Melius, anyway.

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When Gary Melius bought Oheka Castle on Long Island’s “Gold Coast” back in 1984, the first thing he did was replace the missing doors and windows that were allowing vandals and squatters to get in. Then, he hired laborers to haul 30 truckloads of garbage out of the 109,000-square-foot, once-grand mansion -- the second-largest residence ever built in the United States (the largest is George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina).

Now, 24 years later, with his $30 million renovation nearing completion (one Melius calls “the most ambitious restoration ever attempted”), Oheka Castle has been restored to its gilded-age glory, transformed from a onetime summer home into a boutique luxury hotel and grand, one-of-a-kind catering hall. Here’s the backstory.

A Humble Beginning
Oheka was built in 1919, when über-rich families like the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, and the Astors were dotting Long Island with estates that mimicked the world of the European aristocracy: Italian villas, English manor houses, Celtic castles. Otto Hermann Kahn, a financier who helped shape the Union Pacific Railroad and founded New York’s Metropolitan Opera, built Oheka (drawing the name from letters in his name) for his family as a grand summer retreat. All 127 rooms of it.

During the roaring ’20s, Charlie Chaplin cavorted on the sweeping marble staircase that dominates the chateau foyer. In the ballroom, Enrique Caruso sang arias and Arturo Toscanini conducted symphonies. Eleanor Roosevelt browsed in the library. The estate’s 443 acres included a world-class golf course, one of the country’s largest greenhouse complexes, reflecting pools and gardens, a working farm and dairy, an indoor pool, a tennis court, and a horse track.

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The Downfall
In 1934, at the age of 67, Kahn died of a sudden heart attack. His widow, Addie, found managing the large estate daunting, so she sold the property. Gradually, subdivisions whittled the 443 acres down to 23. The sprawling buildings endured incarnations as a retreat for New York City sanitation workers, a training school for merchant marine operators, and a military academy.

The Restoration
Developer Melius found Oheka six years after the academy had abandoned it due to bankruptcy. Drop ceilings and fluorescent lights eclipsed the grandeur. Large rooms had been subdivided and paneled walls painted. Soot streaked the walls and ceilings from fires set by vandals and squatters. School debris lay in shoulder-high drifts. It was love at first sight.

The estate’s original plans were found in a Washington, D.C., archive, and Melius began to painstakingly restore it to perfection. He tracked down the original Vermont quarry to get slate for the roof. He hired artisans to re-create the “faux bois” (fake wood) plaster finishes in the library. He hired metalworkers to spend two months cleaning, sanding, and resealing the wrought iron on the grand staircase, modeled after Fontainebleu in France. And he contracted with landscapers to dig out the eight reflecting pools and to restore the formal gardens. Not in the original layout but still planned for the near future: a spa, a private club, and a restaurant. Kahn would probably approve.

Staying There

Weddings at Oheka can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. If you’re really flush, you can spring for the $15,000 “Ultimate Evening,” complete with a string quartet, a seven-course dinner, and a “togetherness massage.” For those of less stratospheric means, overnight rates for the 32 guest rooms start in the $300s. Private tours run $25 per person.