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

Posted on: July 2nd, 2013 by Aria Danaparamita 5 Comments

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. "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. “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.

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. “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. “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. “‘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.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is a contributor to the PreservationNation blog and recent graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories. Follow her odd adventures on Twitter at @mitatweets.

Architecture, Pop Culture

5 Responses

  1. Aili

    July 3, 2013

    The flower marguerite is also called daisy. However fictional the storyline, who can say if more than the Phipps’ house inspired the Buchanan home and characters?

  2. anneelise

    July 3, 2013

    LOVE this. Read the Great Gatsby when I lived overseas and found it one of the most evocative and soul-moving books I have ever read. I could so easily imagine the Long Island of the roaring 20s, the nervous energy of Gatsby and his crowd, and I could identify with both Gatsby’s deception and yearning to re-make himself, and with the tender-heartedness of the narrator. Seeing these photos and reading your descriptions is wonderful. Thanks so much for this.

  3. Chris Drake

    July 23, 2013

    Old Westbury was featured in that Hitchcock film with Cary Grant…can’t remember the title. His character, a NYC adman, was kidnapped from Manhattan, taken to Old Westbury, and forced to become intoxicated. It’s the only movie I’ve seen with Old Westbury in it.

  4. James Steward

    July 23, 2013

    The Cary Grant film you’re thinking of is Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Is that Old Westbury? I always wondered.

  5. Mary Sanchez

    July 24, 2013

    Those are two very beautiful homes! It’s kind of hard for me to picture them as the two mansions in the “Great Gatsby”, because they’re not on the water! But, I can understand their splendor and opulence being the same as the homes in the novel and movies! I’ve never read the book. But, I’ve seen both movies and I like them very much! Great casts and visualizations of the story! I’m glad that the homes featured in this story have been preserved and are on the national register of historic places!