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A day in the life of Oheka Castle

The Oheka Castle in Huntington. (Oct. 27, 2009)

The Oheka Castle in Huntington. (Oct. 27, 2009) Credit: Newsday / Jim Peppler

Day and night, cars pull into the entry court at Oheka, the former Otto Kahn estate in Cold Spring Hills, and brake before the imposing wrought-iron gate.

Whether they are invited guests for a wedding or simply visitors curious about the enormous house -- the second largest in America when it was completed for the banker and philanthropist in 1919 -- on weekdays from 9 to 5 they get the same cheerful welcome from Laurie Bass.

"Good morning! Welcome to Oheka Castle and Hotel," the estate's "greeter and gatekeeper" chirps to a succession of drivers early on a typically hectic weekday.

Bass, who's held the job for a year and a half since her husband gave it up after surgery, is one of 75 employees, full- and part-time, who keep Oheka running seamlessly around the clock in its various roles: catering hall, hotel, historic tour site, film and TV-shoot location and restaurant. (It offers a $125 fixed price dinner the last Wednesday of the month.) 

Working in the family
When Bass took over for a relative, it was in keeping with tradition. Owner Gary Melius likes to keep his workforce in the family. Twenty-eight employees are related to Melius or members of seven other families.

Two of Melius' daughters, Nancy and Kelly, divide oversight of daily operations, Nancy as head of marketing and interior design and Kelly as director of sales. Kelly's husband, John Dipreta, is banquet manager. Rick Bellando, Kelly's ex-husband, works for her in banquet sales. Their daughter, Samantha Bellando, is a part-time sales assistant. Allen Vining, Kelly and Nancy's uncle, is a bartender. Gary's nephew, Michael Bristoll, is on the construction crew. And the hotel operation -- 32 rooms that rent from $395 to $1,095 a night -- is managed by Fabian Santibanez, who has four relatives working at the estate and is the boyfriend of Elena Melius, Gary's youngest daughter.

The interwoven workforce "happened by accident but it is my nature," said Melius, who lives in Kahn's former third-floor bedroom overlooking the garden. "I like keeping everybody around."

 The cost of elegance
Melius said he has poured about $35 million into buying and restoring the 23-acre property since he bought it in 1984 for $1.45 million, sold it for $22.5 million to a Japanese businessman and then bought it back for $6.8 million. "I handle the financing and future construction plans, and I do quality control," he said.

"It's a 24/7 business," Nancy Melius said. "We have maintenance crews that can start cleaning the rugs and floors at 2 in the morning."

Oheka, the priciest and most storied catering facility on Long Island, operates around the clock. Cleanup crews are often at work before dawn, and kitchen and servers are busy until late into the night. Here's a look at the routine on a weekday last autumn:

At 9:30 a.m., groundsman Felix Mancia is riding a mower back and forth, trimming the massive lawn on the north side of the mansion. With 14 acres of lawns around the house, "it takes two guys at least three days to cut all of the grass," grounds supervisor Kris Pienkowski explains.

Roberto Santibanez, Fabian's father, and other members of the grounds crew are into their third day of applying beige paint to cover stains on the retaining wall that supports the north lawn. The task will take two days more to finish. Pienkowski, hired nine years ago as a carpenter and now managing a staff of 10, says painting "the whole castle is a process that takes more than three years."

Inside on the second, or main, floor, day manager Hyacinth Waugh is fussing over the breakfast buffet for hotel guests. Waugh, a native of Jamaica, where she ran her own food service business before coming to the castle nine years ago, has a staff of 10 plus occasional part-timers. She makes sure the rooms are ready to be set up for events and oversees the food requirements.

"It's a lot sometimes," she says. "You have to be prepared. The best part of it for me is that I meet people from different cultures. I've met the Jonas Brothers, I've met President Clinton and his wife and daughter, and Joey Fatone, who got married here."

Next door in the Terrace Room, head houseman Phil Gardella, whose responsibility is preparing rooms for events, is working with his staff of five to set up tables for that evening's wedding reception. They work with a room layout "blueprint" that was prepared with the bride and groom.

The 4 p.m. wedding ceremony is scheduled for the garden, but rain is predicted, and Gardella says the ceremony might have to be shifted to the ballroom. "We'll wait to the last minute" for the couple to make the call, he says.

In the library at the west end of the floor, bride-to-be Katherine Mackie of Blue Point is shopping for a wedding venue and has just wrapped up a half-hour meeting with Rick Bellando. "It's gorgeous here, and I've seen pictures online, and I've seen it on 'Royal Pains,' and my stepdad went to high school here when it was [Eastern Military Academy]," Mackie says.

In the end, though, she decides the cost is too high for her. There are on average eight appointments a day with people interested in booking an event. Nancy Melius said the castle hosts more than 200 weddings annually -- it's Long Island's most expensive venue because only one wedding is held a day -- along with corporate and charity events.

Down a level in the entrance hall, tour guide Laura Bartholomew of South Huntington is preparing to lead a group of retired friends from Queens through the house and tell them about Kahn's famous guests, including Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Each paid $25. "I never get tired of the story," she says. "It's a rise-from-the ashes story considering how badly destroyed it was" before Melius bought it.

On the fourth floor, a dozen members of a location crew are setting up two hotel rooms for a shoot of the TV comedy "Royal Pains" the next day. The set dressers consult lists and color printouts showing how the rooms should look as they remove Oheka furnishings and carry in replacement items.

Before noon, eExecutive pastry chef Daniel Andreotti and his six helpers scurry around their basement kitchen as they prepare for the afternoon wedding and the three-hour, four-course "Power Lunch" for VIPs that Melius hosts each Thursday. Guests have included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, boxer Jake LaMotta and politicians such as Gov. David A. Paterson.

The bride had brought in a photograph of her ivory wedding gown so Andreotti could match the color for the icing on a red velvet cake with cream-cheese filling; it cost about $4,000. Andreotti keeps a row of jars near the door filled with homemade cookies for the staff to nibble so they won't be tempted to filch desserts earmarked for guests.

Upstairs, housekeeping staff members Erika Herrera and Libia Moncada are cleaning hotel rooms before heading down by elevator to the basement to do laundry.

At 1 p.m. in the main kitchen, sous chef Michael Gruber and some of the cooking staff -- 15 spread over three shifts -- are preparing filet mignon and Chilean sea bass for the Power Lunch and other dishes for the wedding.

"I feel like I'm working for the rich and famous here," Gruber says. "I made an omelet for Bill Clinton once." He adds that there is a secret for coping with catered events with up to 1,500 guests: "Everything has to be organized and preplanned."

After a photo session in the entry courtyard, bride Analee Palencia, 25, a New York Institute of Technology student from Merrick, and groom Hernan Ossandon, 28, a Coast Guard petty officer third class based in San Diego, take a break for refreshments in a second-floor lounge before their 130 guests arrive.

"It's a dream-come-true kind of place for a girl," she says.

At 2 p.m., Gardella and his staff are in the garden, setting up chairs for the wedding ceremony despite the darkening sky; the wedding couple have said they want to take a chance on the weather.

In his office on the third floor, architect Roger Diller, who has worked full-time for Melius since 1999 on projects at Oheka and other properties, is reviewing plans for a restaurant off the entry courtyard; it's awaiting final approval from the Town of Huntington.

The restaurant and planned health spa in the basement would complete Melius' restoration of the mansion. "I like working in a museum that throws parties," Diller says.

At 4 p.m., valets in black suits are moving cars around the courtyard. Wedding guests are beginning to fill the entry foyer, and waiters hand them flutes of champagne.

Late-arriving guests continue to pull up by the gatehouse. Laurie Bass emerges from the duplex gatehouse and greets them with "Good afternoon. Welcome to Oheka Castle and Hotel."

The wedding ceremony gets under way in the garden. The bride and groom say their vows under a drizzle.

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