In 1785, George Washington praised New York as the “Seat of the Empire” in a letter to New York City Mayor James Duane. Around a century later, the Empire State was living up to this epithet with a growing portfolio of palatial properties.
From the second half of the 19th century through the Gilded Age, industrialists and magnates poured their wealth into castles, mansions, and lodges throughout the state. Strongholds included Long Island, boasting 600-plus “Gold Coast” fantasies. Westchester County, north of NYC, was known as “Millionaire’s Colony” for its 65-plus Hudson River mansion-estates.
While most were later torched, bulldozed, or left to decay, a host of hallowed heirlooms live on. Some, including Thousand Islands’ treasures Boldt and Singer Castles, and Whitby Castle in Rye principally host tours, special events, and weddings. Other former “seats of empire” meanwhile are built for overnight stays and appetizing appointments with history.
OHEKA CASTLE HOTEL & ESTATE (Huntington)
Commanding Long Island’s highest point, Oheka remains a reigning champion of American real estate. Completed in 1919, the former 127-room home of financier and art patron Otto Hermann Kahn (Oheka is the portmanteau of his name) is the second-largest private residence ever built in the U.S. after the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
Originally set on 443 acres, the majestic French-style chateau was party central. Regularly hosting soirees for Hollywood stars, royalty, and heads of state, Kahn, whose follies included hunts for golden Easter eggs containing thousand-dollar bills, was reputedly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Jay Gatsby.
After surviving abandonment and a reported 100 arson attempts, this Gold Coast glory was rescued in 1984 by developer Gary Melius. Now set on 23 acres, the photogenic property operates today as a 34-key hotel and popular destination for weddings, events, and film shoots.
Offering indoor and alfresco seating, onsite OHK Bar & Restaurant is the atmospheric setting for Kuwait-born executive chef Raed Jallad’s Modern American menu. The Mediterranean plate and crab cake are reliable starters, with tasty greens including the burrata salad. There are also sandwiches, pasta, entrees like the French Cut Chicken, and classic American and European wines.
The bar serves well-fueled “Gatsby Hour” drinks Mondays through Thursdays. Adorned with photos and posters of Kahn’s close friend and regular guest Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin’s is an evocative space for private dining. 135 West Gate Drive, Huntington. Tel: 631-659-1400. www.oheka.com
GLENMERE MANSION (Chester)
Banking and real estate heir Robert Goelet IV was another Gilded Age playboy with a party appetite. Retaining architects Carrère & Hastings, of New York Public Library and other fame, and Beatrix Farrand, Edith Wharton’s niece and America’s first female landscape architect, he commissioned a 35-room Tuscan-style Renaissance Revival mansion in Chester, New York, an hour north of Manhattan. Completed in 1911, hilltop Glenmere Mansion, set on 3,000 acres, saw many a bacchanal before fading away.
Restored to its former glory and reborn as a Relais & Chateaux hotel in 2010 by maîtres de maison Alan Stenberg and Daniel DeSimone, this prepossessing prize, now on 150 acres, comes with 15 splendid rooms, panoramic views, formal Italian gardens, luxurious hammam-style spa, and local culinary stylings from Executive Chef Gunnar Thompson.
“Many of our guests live outside of the Hudson Valley region, so I highlight dishes and ingredients that impart a true taste and sense of place,” said Thompson. “We proudly identify the area farmers, artisans, and craftspeople that we partner with on the menu, while also harvesting from our two culinary gardens, raising our own chickens, and making our own honey.”
A lifelong gardener and forager, Thompson leads guests on educational property tours to find wild ingredients that he incorporates in his dishes. “Wild mushrooms are my favorite, along with berries, greens, and flowers,” he said. “Spring dishes will feature the first morel mushrooms, watercress and wild leeks of the season, along with desserts using syrup tapped and boiled from our maple trees.” Venues include the fine-dining Supper Room and more casual Frog’s End Tavern featuring a bar inspired by Hôtel Belles-Rives on the French Riviera. 634 Pine Hill Road, Chester. Tel: 845-469-1900. www.glenmeremansion.com
WING’S CASTLE (Millbrook)
With Dutchess County lineage dating to the arrival of his Dutch ancestors around 1632, Peter Wing was a gifted artist who produced the local children’s Shakespeare theater and popular Halloween-time Millbrook and Stanfordville Haunted Houses.
In 1970, Wing returned from service in Vietnam to their 1888 family farm in Millbrook and along with his bride Toni Ann, began building a hilltop castle from salvaged materials acquired around the region. Before passing in 2014, Wing had made great progress on bringing their hand-sketched fantasy of towers, turrets, and tunnels to life, including adding overnight options.
My stay in the subterranean Dungeon Room was memorably arresting. Over-looking protected wetlands, the standalone Cottage is a Tolkienesque fantasy with two queen beds and kitchen. There’s also the Chamber Room and private two-level Annex suite, also with kitchen.
Toni Ann still runs this later-generation fantasy with son Charles. While continental breakfast is the only onsite offering, the property, with spellbinding views of the Hudson River Valley and distant Catskill Mountains, directly overlooks Millbrook Vineyards and Winery (www.millbrookwine.com).
Situated on former Wing farmland, this acclaimed producer offers year-round tours and wine tastings. About 19 miles due west, the flagship campus of the Culinary Institute of America offers dining at legendary Bocuse Restaurant and other concepts, plus diverse hands-on cooking classes. 717 Bangall Road, Millbrook. Tel: 845-677-9085. www.wingscastle.com
BANNERMAN CASTLE (Beacon)
Enterprising Scottish émigré Frank Bannerman VI was so successful in building his NYC-based surplus military equipment and munitions company that the city forced him to seek storage elsewhere. After discovering rocky Pollepel Island, which sits in the Hudson River offshore from Beacon some 50 miles of NYC, he built a Scottish style arsenal to house his extraordinary stock of rifles, cannons, and exotica including Bronze Age and Zulu weapons.
Following Bannerman’s ingenious design without blueprints, architects, or engineers, day laborers erected the fortress and accompanying summer residence and landscaped gardens between 1901 and 1918. Closed in 1959, the ornamental citadel has weathered an artillery shell explosion in 1920, three-day fire in 1969, and storm damage in 2009.
Since 1994, the Bannerman Castle Trust, led by Executive Director Neil Caplan, has worked tirelessly to stabilize and restore the landmark. With boat access from Beacon, fund-raising public programs include tours, movie nights, theatrical events, and two exceptional culinary events led by renowned chef and food advocate Noah Sheetz.
Launched in May 2022, “Titanic First Class Dinner” recreates the dinner served aboard the Titanic three days before its fateful sinking. Sheetz and other notable Hudson Valley chefs prepare the 11-course meal based on an original menu recovered from the ship. The 30-capacity experience includes Millbrook Vineyards wines; piano music played aboard the ship; souvenir reproduction china; and an after-dinner play.
This September, Sheetz leads the five course Chefs Farm Fresh Dinner, boat ride, guided tour and live music included. Both events sell out fast—reserve well in advance. Tel: 845-831-1001. bannermancastle.org
MOHONK MOUNTAIN HOUSE (New Paltz)
Once, the Catskill region was flush with fabled mountain lodges and resorts. Only the Mohonk Mountain House remains, and she’s a dream. Established in 1869 as a place of peace and repose by twin Quaker brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley, this 259-room Victorian fantasy on the edge of glacial Lake Mohonk is a feast for the senses. Surrounded by 40,000 acres of protected forest, the resort’s 85-plus miles of hiking paths include the legendary Labyrinth Trail, a seasonal milelong scramble culminating in the “Lemon Squeeze” ladder climb up a crevice.
With a full complement of outdoor activities, mindfulness programs, and nationally acclaimed spa, the Smiley family’s fairytale escape is primed for building an appetite.
Expanding from one to three kitchens as part of 150th anniversary renovation in 2019, Mohonk’s culinary draws include the VIP style Chef’s Table. Offered on Friday and Saturday evenings to overnight and day guests, the three-hour experience starts with a guided tour of the main kitchen. Guests then watch Executive Chef Jim Palmeri and his team in action before sitting down for a changing nine-course tasting menu and hand-selected wine pairings. Highlighting the bounty of the Hudson Valley and beyond, savory bites include smoked king salmon, grilled Japanese Wagyu, wild Alaskan halibut, and local cheeses.
Featuring panoramic mountain views and 1893 woodwork, the Main Dining Room is a historic setting for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other options include breakfast on the lake-facing porch; seasonal cocktails on the Sunset Porch; and seasonal outdoor picnics at The Granary. 1000 Mountain Rest Road. New Paltz. Tel: 844-207-8478. www.mohonk.com
Following the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s, the village of Griffin Corners in the Catskills’ Delaware County flourished with tourism and Victorian hotels. Devotees included Cincinnati yeast magnate Charles Louis Fleischmann who built a hilltop estate here in 1883, which served as the family home until 1915. By the 1960’s, the village, was renamed in Fleischmanns’ honor, but the estate was in decline and lapsed into ruin and vacancy.
Wind forward to 2014, and Pennsylvanians Leigh Melander and Mark Somerfield, with immersive backgrounds in psychology, scenic design, and the creative arts, relaunched the three-story Fleischmanns mansion as Spillian, Old English for “to play, jest, or revel.” Such was the way of the original owners, who famously welcomed luminaries from Gotham’s creative set for Belle Époque-style salons. In reviving the enchanting Shick Style (the transitional style from Victorian/Queen Ann to Arts and Crafts) manse, featuring time-capsule interiors and eight whimsical guest rooms, the couple have harnessed that heyday spirit to the fullest.
“Focused exclusively on weddings and themed public pop-up events, Spillian is our stage and canvas for unlocking the imagination,” said Melander. “That includes incorporating the culinary arts into event design. We focus on discovering what food means to them and then working together to get that on the table.”
Together with Executive Chef Christian Van Etten, the couple has “gone all over the map” in creating or reinterpreting cultural, family, and other recipes, from traditional Buhkarian (Central Asia) and Cuban dinners to Korean-Ukrainian fusion and Robert Burns Night celebrations. “We are willing to try anything,” Melander said. ‘It’s all about creating fun and adventure.” 50 Todd Mountain Road. Fleischmanns. Tel.: 800-811-3351. spillian.com
INNS OF AURORA RESORT & SPA (Aurora)
Dating to 1789, the village of Aurora is a Finger Lakes charmer on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. Notable citizens include Colonel E.B. Morgan, an original investor in Wells Fargo, American Express, and the New York Times. In 1833, Morgan built the Aurora House, followed in 1858 by his namesake stone mansion, which served as the Morgan family home before being gifted to Wells College in 1961.
In 2001, Wells’ graduate and American Girl doll company founder Pleasant Rowland created the Aurora Foundation to preserve properties in the National Historic Landmark village, including relaunching the Morgan estate as the five-property Inns of Aurora.
The Aurora House, now the Aurora Inn, and seven-bedroom E.B. Morgan House anchor the resort-like campus. Completing the historic quintet are the 1903 Rowland House, 1904 Zabriskie House, and 1909 Wallcourt Hall.
Amenities include a luxurious spa and comprehensive culinary program. Executive Chef Eric Lamphere, a CIA graduate, showcases area farms on the menu at the historic 1833 Kitchen & Bar. Locally sourced surprises include the first course Baked Cambozola. Often served as a dessert, this version of the soft-ripened cheese dish, with spiced hazelnuts, apple, saffron-infused honey, and Syracuse salt, is a revelation. Other happy bites include the seared scallops and Heirloom Squash Risotto. Libations include playful cocktails and global wines, with the Finger Lakes well represented.
Chef Lou Ruscitto-Donato heads up the colorful Aurora Cooks! demonstration kitchen, offering Chef’s Table dinners, and diverse skills workshops and cooking, tasting, and cocktail experiences. Complimentary shuttle service takes guests to neighboring wineries and breweries. innsofaurora.com.