July 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby Mansions: Real-Life Homes That Inspired the Book and Film

Oheka Castle lights at night

photo by: Elliott Kaufman

Oheka Castle. “Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water...”

You either love or hate Baz Luhrmann’s recent and unabashedly lavish film adaptation. But one thing’s for sure: few works capture the American imagination more than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

It was the Roaring Twenties, an era when flapper dresses and fireworks set to brass jazz bands sent nights spiraling into debauched infamy. It was a world we now can only imagine, but once, long ago in the glimmering past, it did exist. And though Luhrmann's set designer Catherine Martin built Jay Gatsby's mansion on soundstages for the film, all that jazz was based on Long Island's real architectural flare.

Trailer for The Great Gatsby (2013) Warner Bros.

The North Shore "Gold Coast" on the Long Island Sound boasts a history of affluence, with private estates of Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, and others of Gilded Age fortune built there at the turn of the 20th century. The parties soon followed. Fitzgerald was invited.

Myths abound on which mansions inspired the Gatsby castle and the Buchanan home. Is it the legendary Beacon Towers? The fabled Land's End?

Let’s start, as the novel's Nick Carraway did, with Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

Old Westbury Gardens front view

photo by: Vince Kish

Old Westbury Gardens. "Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay."

If there was such a home for the Buchanans, it likely looked something like the Old Westbury Gardens, ten miles from Sands Point bay.

In 1903, John Shaffer Phipps, heir to U.S. Steel fortune, sought to woo his British fiancée, Margarita, promising to build her a home in likeness of her own family home in Battle Abbey.

Old Westbury Gardens pond

photo by: Jack Ryan, Flickr

Old Westbury Gardens. “The front was broken by a line of french windows, glowing now with reflected gold.”

Phipps, known coincidentally by his friends as "Jay," enlisted the English designer, George A. Crawley, and furnished the chambers with the finest English antiques.

The Charles II-style mansion nests among 200 acres of prim gardens, woodlands, and ponds. It was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The now commercial property welcomes visitors for tours, exhibits, and events.

Lawn leading to Old Westbury Gardens

photo by: Vince Kish

Old Westbury Gardens. “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door … jumping over sundials and brick walls and burning gardens.”

But the main event was -- fictiously, at least -- across the bay: the legendary mansion of the great Gatsby himself.

In contrast to the “old money” demure of the East Egg estates, Gatsby’s abode as Fitzgerald painted it was the expression of extravagance.

Oheka Castle aerial view

photo by: Oheka Castle

Oheka Castle. “A colossal affair by any standard -- it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin bead of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion.”

The Oheka Castle was one such colossal affair. The name is an abbreviation of its owner's, financier Otto Hermann Kahn. Kahn, born in 1867 in Mannheim, Germany, rose in the ranks of the Deutsche Bank before moving to New York and marrying Addie Wolff.

One day, the couple set off to build themselves a summer home -- and the second-largest private residence ever built in America.

Oheka Castle front view

photo by: Brett Matthews Photography

Oheka Castle. “By midnight the hilarity had increased … happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky.”

Finished in 1919, the main building's 127 rooms sit amidst a 443-acre plot. The house, designed by Delano & Aldrich, was built on an artificial hill, giving it a splendid view of the Cold Spring Harbor.

Nothing was too great for Kahn. For the grounds, he commissioned none other than the Olmsted Brothers whose illustrious landscape resume is too long to list. The centerpiece was a French-mannered, axial sunken garden, with water terraces, hedges, and parterres leading to the grand entrance.

The complex, like Gatsby’s, was completed by a swimming pool. That, and an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, orchards, greenhouses, stables, and a landing strip.

Oheka Castle Stairway

photo by: Elliott Kaufman Photography

Oheka Castle.“‘Anyhow, he gives large parties,’ said Jordan … ‘And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.’”

Kahn became a renowned patron of the arts, supporting musicians and artists of the Jazz Era. After his death in 1934, Oheka was sold. Abandoned for a while, the mansion was restored in the 1980s, then added to the National Register in 2004. It's now a member of Historic Hotels of America.

Not all tales, however, end happily. When the Roaring Twenties fell to the Great Depression, many Gilded Age mansions were sold, neglected, or demolished.

We'll explore some of these lost treasures tomorrow. But in the meantime, we leave you with Fitzgerald's famous lines, perhaps speaking to Long Island's history itself: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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