Oheka Castle was a crumbling mess when Gary Melius bought it in 1984, so neglected that vandals regularly set bonfires inside the Huntington mansion that was used in the opening aerial shot of the classic movie "Citizen Kane."
"Everybody said it was a white elephant, that it can't be maintained," said Paul Mateyunas of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty and a Gold Coast historian.
But today, Oheka is not only saved but thriving as a historic hotel, restaurant and events location that frequently attracts the rich and famous, its owners said. Preservation groups say it is a model for what could happen at another threatened Gold Coast mansion -- "Inisfada," or the St. Ignatius Retreat House in North Hills.
Inisfada -- "long island" in Gaelic -- "is so extraordinary it would be a shame to lose all that craftsmanship that went into creating it," said Alexandra Parsons Wolfe of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities. "It would be smarter to do something that is celebrated rather than reviled."
Much potential seen
Inisfada, completed in 1927 and one of Long Island's grandest mansions, was sold in late July by the Jesuit order of Roman Catholic priests for $36.5 million.
The new owners, the Manhasset Bay Group Inc., have not made any public statements about what they plan to do with the 72,000-square-foot building where a future pope once stayed. But North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss has said the developers most likely plan an upscale housing complex on the 33-acre site.
Local civic, business and preservation groups are lobbying for the buyers to save the mansion from the wrecking ball and use it for a new purpose. That could include anything from condos to offices to a clubhouse to an events location like Oheka.
Inisfada, which is in relatively good shape, "is a one thousand times more easier project" than Oheka, Mateyunas said. "It really has the potential to be something wonderful."
Still, preserving Inisfada or any historic building for a new use is not easy, according to some real estate experts. Installing modern heating, air conditioning and electricity systems, along with repairing the aging structures, can be expensive, said Shawn Elliot, a real estate agent who specializes in luxury homes on the North Shore.
And if a historic building is saved instead of demolished, it will mean less space for new houses on the land, he said. Finally, taxes on the building would be high for a private developer, he said.
Elliot called Inisfada "absolutely spectacular," and Mateyunas and others said Long Island abounds with examples of historic buildings repurposed for an alternative use.
A taste of the Old World
About the same time Melius bought Oheka, Banfi Vintners in Farmingdale was looking for a new location for their wine importing business headquarters -- today the largest in the United States with 6.8 million cases brought in per year.
They bought a 60-room Cotswold Elizabethan Manor House in Old Brookville that was built by a British knight in 1927. Robert Whiting, a company manager, said the estate, known as Rynwood, was in disrepair and slated to be torn down.
The company spent two years and more than a million dollars repairing and renovating the building. Today, they are glad they made the move.
Whiting's uncle, who was running the business, "was looking for that Old World feel and ambience. He wanted to transport Europe" here, Whiting said. "You just come up" to the building "and it is like 'wow.' "
Wolfe said another example of repurposing a historic building is the Watchcase project in Sag Harbor, where an 1881 Bulova watch factory is being resurrected as a five-story, 2.3-acre resort-style luxury community.
The project's 64 units, expected to open next summer, will include lofts and town houses selling for close to $1 million to $10 million each.
The development "allows this historic building to continue to tell its story," Wolfe said. "It isn't obliterated. It isn't knocked down."
Nancy Melius, the daughter of Gary Melius, said it took millions of dollars to revive Oheka. The family has more than made their money back. They do about $12 million a year in business, attracting 500,000 guests for everything from weddings to fundraisers, she said.
Saving Inisfada, Nancy Melius said, would be much easier, since it "is already immaculate."
Historic buildings on Long Island repurposed for new uses:
Oheka Castle, Huntington
The castle was in a decayed state when bought in 1984 by developer Gary Melius. Today, it's a thriving historic hotel, restaurant and event location that attracts the rich and famous.
Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville
The largest wine importer in the U.S. turned the decaying 60-room Cotswold Elizabethan Manor House, which was built by a British knight, into its corporate headquarters in early 1980s.
Watchcase Project, Sag Harbor
An abandoned 1881 Bulova watch factory is being resurrected as a five-story, resort-style luxury community. The project's 64 units will include lofts and town houses, each expected to sell for $1 million to $10 million.
The mansion at the former J.P. Grace estate was turned into clubhouse for new, high-end gated development in the 1990s. Clustered, detached houses were built on surrounding land.