Above: Oheka Castle seen from the rear formal garden. Photo by Rafael Cruvinel.

Morning sunlight danced on the water fountains of Oheka Castle’s formal garden. The sky was free of clouds. It was the second day of spring, but it was chilly enough to wear a jacket. Tourists strolled through the garden, occasionally pausing for pictures. Some had conversations, but the sounds of the water falling into the fountain and of the shoes stepping on stones stood out.

One of the stone statues in Oheka Castle’s formal garden. Photo by Rafael Cruvinel.

The tour guide told the group that the garden, located at the rear of the castle in Cold Spring Hills, New York, was our second to last stop. She explained that we were free to wander around for a few minutes before she called us back inside. 

There wasn’t much to explore. The garden is a rectangle confined by walls of bushes decorated with more bushes, stone statues and a stone gazebo, which was covered by leafless branches at this time of year. As I stared at myself in the reflecting pools, I thought, “Nine years ago, Taylor Swift threw a phone in here.” 

But that is the most recent part of a long story that started in 1914, when Otto Kahn — a millionaire banker — bought 443 acres of land on the highest point of Long Island to build his new summer estate. The construction of the French-style chateau started in 1917 and lasted for two years. Khan hired the Olmsted brothers — whose father, Frederick Law Olmstead, designed Central Park years earlier — to create the garden that blooms at Oheka. 

From left to right: Douglas Fairbanks, Otto Kahn and Charles Chaplin. Photo courtesy of Oheka Castle’s administration. 

Kahn named the castle with an acronym of his own name — Otto Herman Kahn. He used the castle to throw Gatsby-style parties and the garden to run annual Easter egg hunts in which he would hide $1,000 in the eggs for the adults to find. It was easy to imagine these events happening, despite knowing that the Khan’s property was bigger and had different furniture. The classical music that played while we were inside helped. So did the elegance with which people naturally acted, as if the rooms imposed such behavior. It was easy to imagine those same people toasting champagne, under the lights of the original golden chandeliers, with a real pianist playing live for them to hear. It was easy to imagine them having a cocktail outside, searching for the valuable eggs.  

The library was the last stop on the tour. The walls and the floor were made of fake light brown wood. There were couches and armchairs spread all over with glass tables next to them. A piano stood in one of the corners. Light penetrated through the huge glass doors. The room was colorful, but the bookshelves were small for a castle that big. Before ending the tour, our guide pointed to a painting of Otto Kahn that hung right above the fireplace. Then, she explained that Khan might have served as an inspiration to Mr. Monopoly, one of the most iconic figures of pop culture — almost a foreshadow to the purpose that the castle would serve one century later. 

In 1939, five years after Otto Kahn’s death from a heart attack, Addie Kahn, his wife, sold the estate. In the following decades, the castle and the garden were used by different groups for different purposes.

New York City’s sanitation workers and their families swim in the pools of the formal garden. Photo courtesy of Oheka Castle’s administration. 

The first of these groups was the New York Sanitation Department, which used the property as a retirement home for New York City’s sanitation workers. The workers and their families used the garden for recreational purposes and even swam in the reflecting pools. 

Between 1942 and 1945, the castle became a radio operator’s school for the Merchant Marines, and then it was occupied by the Eastern Military Academy in 1948.

Nancy Melius, director of marketing and daughter of the current owner, Gary Melius, explained that the Academy bulldozed over the reflecting pools as it most likely used the garden for drills. She added that the whole castle went through reformations during that period. 

“They really had no regard for the castle other than it was big,” she said. 

Eastern Military Academy cadets at Oheka. Photo courtesy of Oheka Castle’s administration. 

In 1979, when the Academy left, the castle was abandoned. The ballrooms that had once hosted lively parties fell into disrepair. The property remained without an owner until Melius’s father bought it in 1984 and started to restore it. 

Melius explained that it is expensive to maintain a historic estate at the same quality that it was originally built and keep it open to the public. Because of that, her family had to create various business uses for the castle such as hotel rooms, a restaurant, space for wedding ceremonies and tours. As part of these businesses, multiple movies, TV productions and videos were filmed there. 

“The film shoots also contribute to that greatly,” she said.

In 2014, Oheka castle was the backdrop of one of the decade’s most famous music videos. Taylor Swift’s  “Blank Space” music video has more than three billion views on Youtube. It’s Swift’s second most popular video, the first being “Shake It Off.” With the announcement of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), which will feature the new version of “Blank Space,” it is fair to assume that the song’s music video will be trending from now to Oct. 27 — when the album will be released. 

“Blank Space” is a satirical approach to how the media in the 2010s painted Swift as a “crazy ex” with “a long list of ex-lovers.” The music video tells the story of a woman who has affairs with multiple men and who always ends these men and these relationships in chaos and insanity. Although some of the scenes were filmed in Winfield Hall, which is located in Glen Cove, also on Long Island, Oheka provides the backdrop for all the moments of the story narrated from the first encounter, to the breakdown, to the escape of the current affair and then the arrival of the next one. 

Fans who take the castle tour may recognize the patio outside the main entrance, where a car parks in the beginning of the video. They may also recognize the main entrance itself and the stairs that Swift goes down to meet her lover. They may recognize the road to the castle, used by Swift and the lover for riding horses. They may recognize the balcony from which Swift throws the lover’s clothes in a moment of rage. And, of course, they may recognize the reflecting pools, where the lover’s phone sank. 

It is undeniable that the castle’s visuals remained forever associated with “Blank Space,” but the video had a big impact on the castle as well. Even though it was released eight years ago, it still is one of the main reasons visitors come all the way to Cold Spring Hills to visit the estate. 

“I often encounter at least two or three people a week who visit the property for the first time and are excited about the fact that she filmed a video here,” John Montiel, Oheka Castle’s front desk supervisor, said of Swift. 

Melius described the music video as “spectacular” and offered that Swift was “fun.” 

“They really made Oheka look even better,” she said. 

Montiel said that there’s an “extensive amount of planning” that goes into having a production like this at the castle. He explained that a team comes to scout the property and map out what the vision will be for the production. Moreover, he mentioned that the restaurant and the hotel were closed down for the production of “Blank Space.”

“For this particular music video, it did take quite a large proportion of the castle,” he added. 

Despite not being listed in Oheka’s website, one of the films that left a big mark on the castle is “The Week Of,” featuring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. The movie revolves around two fathers who don’t get along but are trying to live through the week of their children’s wedding. The castle’s ballroom was used by the production team that had to remove all the mirrors in the room, so that they wouldn’t interfere with the camera work. The mirrors were replaced by paintings that were donated to the castle at the end of filming and still hang on the ballroom walls. 

“It fit so well with the room that we decided to keep it there,” Montiel explained.

Oheka Castle’s ballroom. Photo Courtesy of the Oheka Castle Administration. 

The paintings are huge and have golden frames. Shades of blue, white, brown and dark green predominate in the portrayal of nature landscapes. Some of the paintings also show people, bridges, castles and other architecture. 

The production that Melius believed to be the most prominent in the history of the castle is “Royal Pains.” Oheka serves as the home of the character Boris Kuester. Because the show aired from 2009 to 2016,  it was necessary for the production team to come back to the castle every year. These periodic encounters nurtured a good relationship between some of the team members and the Melius family. 

“We’re still very close to the location scout,” Melius said. 

The first time Oheka was featured in a motion picture was in 1941, when an aerial shot of the castle was used in the opening credits of “Citizen Kane.” Since then, the estate has appeared in more than 30 productions, which also include “Succession” and “The Great Gatsby Documentary.” 

One of the rooms of the estate attempts to summarize the castle’s relationship to pop culture. Located by the restaurant’s entrance, the walls of the small bar room are filled with magazine covers in which Oheka was featured. Covered from floor to ceiling, the walls might look overwhelming at first sight, but each individual board reveals itself to be more than just an exaggerated decoration — it’s an historical archive. 

“It’s a big showcase of what Oheka has been known for over the years,” Montiel said. 

Inside one of the biggest frames is the cover of the January 2010 issue of People Magazine, showcasing the wedding of Kevin and Danielle Jonas. The headline reads “Kevin Jonas Wedding Album” in a yellow all-caps font over a picture of the couple. The wedding took place in December of 2009 and the story, published early in the following year, is one of Oheka’s most important print features. 

Frame of the People Magazine story about Kevin Jonas’ wedding. Photo by Rafael Cruvinel. 

Montiel says the Jonas brother isn’t the only celebrity who sought Oheka out to host a private event and that the castle prides itself on being trusted with such moments.

“It’s very exciting, especially if you are a fan of whoever tends to come out here, but the one thing that you realize right away is that, regardless of who they are, they value the privacy,” he explained.

For Melius, the uniqueness of Oheka castle lies in the fact that, at the same time that Otto Khan’s legacy is kept alive by the celebrities who frequent the property and by the productions that are filmed there, the estate also welcomes the general public. 

“[It is] on the North Shore of Long Island where there’s a significant amount of wealth, but we are also accessible to the everyman,” she explained. 

For instance, meeting Taylor Swift in person might be hard, but a fan who buys a ticket to the tour might breathe the same air she once breathed and stare at the pool where she threw a phone nine years ago.

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