Arts philanthropy earned his nickname 'Otto the Magnificent'

Facing 1900s New York anti-Semitism, a banker built this castle; you can visit

On Long Island’s ‘Gold Coast,’ 100 years of grandeur and scandal echo at Otto Hermann Kahn’s Oheka. America’s 2nd-largest private residence, it’s now a luxury hotel and restaurants

  • The Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, in 2014. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
    The Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, in 2014. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
  • Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, November 3, 2020. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, November 3, 2020. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Otto Hermann Kahn's estate from the air (public domain)
    Otto Hermann Kahn's estate from the air (public domain)
  • Otto Hermann Kahn at the Morristown Field Club on September 25, 1913 (public domain via wikipedia)
    Otto Hermann Kahn at the Morristown Field Club on September 25, 1913 (public domain via wikipedia)
  • Oheka Castle before restoration in the 1980s (courtesy)
    Oheka Castle before restoration in the 1980s (courtesy)

HUNTINGTON, New York — Social clubs in New Jersey rejected Otto Hermann Kahn from membership for being Jewish in the early 1900s. So the financier decided to build his own castle and golf course atop the highest point of Long Island’s Gold Coast.

Completed in time for the wedding of Kahn’s daughter Maud in 1920, Oheka — an acronym for Otto Hermann Kahn — is the second largest private residence in the country. Today a top venue for celebrity weddings and music video shoots, the castle was added to the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Whether as the venue for disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s nuptials or the scene of a highly publicized assassination attempt in 2014, Oheka — now home to a luxury hotel — has managed to stay in the news. The castle benefitted from the most expensive private residential restoration process in US history, saving it from the fate of dozens of demolished Gold Coast mansions.

Born in 1867 and raised in Mannheim, Germany, Kahn’s initial fame came from “reorganizing” the finances of US railway systems. The first celebrity banker, his analyses and plans earned him the admiration of Big Business and government.

Otto Hermann Kahn and Charlie Chaplin (public domain)

Although it would have been easier for Kahn to succeed in finance by suppressing his Jewish background, those roots were a point of pride. When people asked Kahn if he was Catholic or Episcopalian, the so-called “King of New York” had a standard response: “My parents were not practicing Jews and did not bring me up to be a practicing Jew,” said Kahn. “But I have never left Judaism and have no idea of doing so.”

After marrying socialite Addie Wolff, Kahn became frustrated with the social scene in Morristown, New Jersey, where Jews were not allowed to join as members of social clubs or golf courses. To remedy the situation — and because his home “Cedar Court” was ruined by fire in 1905 — Kahn purchased a 441-acre plot of land on Long Island.

Initially, workers spent two years constructing a platform-like hill so the castle would have views of Cold Spring Harbor and other estates, including that of the Vanderbilt family. Large greenhouses and a working farm were built, while an 18-hole golf course replicated the best British links.

In its heyday, inside the 127-room castle, more than 100 staff members organized parties attended by as many as 600 guests. Workers used a network of secret passageways and tunnels to keep out of sight, while some guests — including royalty — arrived via Oheka’s private airstrip.

‘That which unites us’

One of the great philanthropists of his day, Kahn co-founded New York’s Jewish Federation and funded prizes for Black artists.

When Kahn was a boy in Germany, he and his father discussed Otto’s future in banking instead of music, to which the younger Kahn was inclined after having learned to play several instruments prior to graduating high school. They agreed that profits should be used to fund the arts. For his lifelong philanthropy in the arts, Kahn earned the nickname, “Otto the Magnificent.” (Otto’s son Roger Wolff Kahn would go on to become a popular American jazz musician and composer.)

The Metropolitan Opera was particularly important to Kahn and his wife. As chair of the board, Kahn regularly covered the opera’s deficits, although it scandalously took many years before the board allowed Kahn — a Jew! — to buy his own box of seats.

Otto Hermann Kahn’s estate from the air (public domain)

Kahn was a prolific author of speeches and essays about the arts, taxation, and the question of American imperialism. Like many Jewish Americans with family roots in Germany, after war broke out in 1914, he was cut off from relatives.

“I do not apologize for, nor am I ashamed of, my German birth,” wrote Kahn in an essay called “Right Above Race, in which he denounced German militarism. Throughout Oheka there were images of the linden tree, the symbol of his native Mannheim.

“But I am ashamed — bitterly and grievously ashamed — of … the revolting deeds committed in Belgium and northern France, of the infamy of the Lusitania murders, of innumerable violations of The Hague convention and the law of nations, … of crime heaped upon crime in hideous defiance of the laws of God and men,” wrote Kahn.

Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, November 3, 2020. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

World War I ended just as Kahn was putting the finishing touches on Oheka. The financier was opposed to the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, believing the countries of Europe should be absolved of war debt in exchange for ending militarism.

Throughout the heady 1920s, summers at Oheka Castle featured what wife Addie called “the zoo” — Hollywood stars, politicians, and industry tycoons. On several occasions, Kahn held circuses with elephants. Guests could swim in the indoor pool or rub elbows with Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx, while Kahn’s son Roger filmed home movies starring his elegantly dressed sisters.

By the early 1930s, Kahn was a vocal opponent of Germany’s Nazi party and he invoked his Jewish identity in expressing outrage over the party’s anti-Semitic platform. In 1933, the Nazis responded by closing down a library in Mannheim that was funded by Kahn. Established in 1927, the facility had been named for Kahn’s father, Bernhard.

Margaret and Maud Kahn (public domain)

In addition to their Long Island Castle, Kahn and his wife maintained a Mar-a-Lago-like home, also named Oheka, in Palm Beach, Florida. In the family’s 80-room, Italian palazzo-inspired Manhattan residence, George Gershwin sometimes entertained guests on the piano.

Known for his “suave” advocacy, Kahn was the director or trustee of numerous organizations. He brought people together in the name of diverse causes, from the first listing of American securities in Paris to his funding of the Allies during World War I.

“We ought to seek and emphasize, far more than we are doing, that which unites us instead of searching out and accentuating and indeed exaggerating that which separates us,” Kahn wrote in his essay, “Art and People.”

‘Worse than a tenement house’

Fifteen years after completing Oheka Castle, Kahn died of a massive heart attack. The 67-year old was buried in a cemetery close to the castle, where part of the funeral services were held.

After being sold by the Kahn family in 1939, Oheka passed hands several times. By 1979, the castle was abandoned and taken over by squatters. After no fewer than 100 arson attempts in five years, a lobbyist called the castle, “worse than a tenement house in the South Bronx that had been burnt out in the 60s.”

Oheka Castle before restoration in the 1980s (courtesy)

Because Kahn had insisted on fireproofing the castle, the structure managed to survive the arson attempts. However, the frequent use of dousing water led to a black mold explosion.

In 1984, property developer Gary Melius rescued Oheka by purchasing the estate for $1.5 million. Before anything could be fixed, some 300 tractor-trailers of garbage were hauled off-site over a six-month period.

Otto Hermann Kahn on cover of Time Magazine in 1925 (public domain)

Soon, the most expensive private renovation project in US history was taking place at Oheka, including the sourcing of 4,000 slate roof tiles from the same Vermont quarry employed by Kahn. Thousands of trees were planted to revive the Olmstead Brothers-designed French garden.

An admirer of Kahn and self-professed man of excess himself, Melius — called a “street tough” by Long Island’s Newsday — refurbished the castle’s “dungeon room man-cave.” He also had the underground tunnels cleared and extended, supposedly as far as Cold Spring Harbor.

The restoration of Oheka hit a snag in 1988, when Melius could no longer fund the massive repair job. After new owners were similarly unable to cope with the castle, Melius stepped in again to acquire the property under a long-term lease.

This photo from February 2014 shows Gary Melius, the owner of Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York. (AP Photo/Paul Prince)

As if adhering to the Kahn family motto — “Ever Restlessly Forward” — Melius managed to repurchase the property, opening the current luxury hotel and restaurants.

In 2014, Melius was shot in the head three times while in a car outside the castle. Miraculously, he survived and slowly recovered. Although the assassination attempt took place in broad daylight and was videotaped, there have been no arrests.

Since Maud Kahn’s wedding was filmed for the newsreels in 1920, most of the grand estates built on Long Island’s Gold Coast have been demolished. The core of what Kahn built at Oheka, however, remains intact and open to the public — with a nightly pandemic rate of under $300.

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