For the Baron of Yonkers, a Gothic Revival
For the Baron of Yonkers, a Gothic Revival
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
December 23, 2004
DRESSED in ripped jeans, a black leather jacket and a bandanna wrapped around his unruly mop of black hair, Kohle Yohannan seems an improbable lord of the manor. But there was no mistaking his proprietorial glee on a recent windswept afternoon as he led a tour of his home, a gray granite 18-room castle in Yonkers that he recently renamed Greystone Court.
Built in 1883, the mansion evokes the gilded age of Yonkers portrayed in "Hello, Dolly!" But like Yonkers itself, its glory has faded over the years. Once the center of a grand estate, the house now sits on a single acre surrounded by crumbling Victorians and modest tract houses.
Since acquiring the pile for $469,000 in 2001, just a few weeks after Sept. 11 ("I told myself, `If the world gets blown up, at least I'll get blown up in a castle,' " he said), Mr. Yohannan, a 37-year-old writer and confessed maverick, has been busy restoring the 13,400-square-foot mansion to its former magnificence.
It was a mammoth task, and early visitors thought Mr. Yohannan had taken leave of his senses. The late John Galliher, a New York socialite and his close friend, described the baronial fixer-upper — a maze of cobwebs that resembled the haunted house at Disney World — as "poverty deluxe."
But after three years of intense labor, Mr. Yohannan threw a rollicking housewarming lunch this fall to show off his domain. Eighty guests showed up, including John Loring, the design director of Tiffany & Company, and Cathy Hardwick, the fashion designer.
For many of the revelers it was their first foray to Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx that is only 23 minutes by train from Grand Central Terminal.
"When I tell people I live in Yonkers, they usually give me a look of quiet, dull pity," Mr. Yohannan said.
The guests quaffed Champagne and admired Mr. Yohannan's handiwork. Antique chandeliers gleamed brightly in the banquet-size dining room; the Gothic chapel was illuminated by sunlight streaming through restored Tiffany glass; and the octagonal ballroom, with its sweeping views of the Hudson River, was crammed with bohemian clutter: a lamp made from three deer legs, a stuffed peacock, and a pair of carved rococo doors thought to be from the Villa Diodati, Lord Byron's home. Upstairs, dainty cornflower-blue draperies worthy of a French chateau festooned what he referred to as the "Marie Antoinette bedroom." And the Turkish sitting room was piled with cushions in exotic blues, oranges and reds that clashed amiably with the dark green silk on the walls.
Mr. Yohannan is no less colorful. He tools around Yonkers on a Ducati motorcycle or in a secondhand Bentley. Born in San Francisco to parents of Iranian and French extraction, he grew up in a rambling Beaux-Arts house that his family had restored on a shoestring budget. "My dad was a mechanic, but my mom had really great taste," he said. "Our neighbors were doctors and lawyers who drove Mercedes, and we were the grease monkeys who fixed their cars."
At 16 he abandoned a fledgling career cleaning spark plugs for 25 cents apiece to become a fashion model, strutting his stuff down the catwalks of Barcelona and New York, where he also enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology and learned to make dresses. When he was 22 — during his sophomore year at Columbia University — he became the fourth husband of Mary McFadden, the fashion designer, who was 51; the relationship ended 22 months later in well-publicized recriminations. (In court papers, Mr. Yohannan described Ms. McFadden as an "older, selfish, willful" woman who demanded "rough sexual treatment" and "group sex sessions." She called him a "toy boy" and a "flake." He left the marriage with a settlement of $110,000 and the couple's pet cockatoo, Socrates Zinzar Big Bux.)
Over the past five years he has written three books on fashion and earned a master's degree in design history from the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in cultural history at Bard College.
He has financed the renovation, which he says has cost $750,000 so far, largely with savings accumulated through real estate deals, for which he has a Midas touch. In 1993 he bought a derelict church in Hudson, N.Y., for $48,000 and transformed it into a comfortable country house, which he sold for a 250 percent profit, a selling-high pattern that he has repeated with every apartment and house he has owned. He has, however, turned down an offer of $6 million for Greystone Court.
He stumbled on the castle in 1997 while driving around Yonkers, where he had purchased a rundown garage for $100,000, transforming it into a recording studio. (For several years he moonlighted as a music producer, another item on his crowded résumé.) He sold it in 2001 for nearly $400,000.
The castle was not for sale, but Mr. Yohannan spent years dropping by to admire the romantic exterior until the owner of the house, a Haitian woman in her 80's, finally answered the doorbell, succumbed to his persuasive charm, and eventually accepted his cash offer of $469,000. "She said, `You're like me. You're crazy enough to think you can fix it,' " he recalled.
Mr. Yohannan's first night in the house — on Halloween 2001 — was a constant battle to stay warm. Wind rattled through broken windows, and squirrels scampered over his mattress, which he had dragged into the ballroom in order to admire the romantic view of the Hudson River.
Lying there, Mr. Yohannan was mesmerized by the room's carved oak ceiling, with its elaborate garlands, swags and figural carvings. According to historical documents that came with the house, the two-ton ceiling, built around 1690, had once graced a manor house in Nottinghamshire, England.
"I talked to that ceiling all night long, imagining all the people who have danced beneath it," Mr. Yohannan said. "I thought, `I can't believe I own this house.' "
Elation turned to anxiety the following morning when he made a list of urgently needed repairs. The slate roof leaked, and a broken boiler pipe was gushing water. And something had to be done about the three-foot gap between the front door and the first floorboard, an inhospitable arrangement to say the least.
To help with the restoration Mr. Yohannan hired George Nienstedt, a wisecracking local craftsman who became the project manager.
"The first step was to seal up the house, which was heating Yonkers," Mr. Nienstedt said. They installed storm windows, partly to discourage youths from what had become a neighborhood sport: throwing rocks through the Tiffany windows. And they set up a carpentry workshop in an anteroom of the chapel, equipping it with every conceivable power tool to fix rotten joists and damaged moldings. Mr. Yohannan participated in every aspect of the work. "I apprenticed myself to George," he said.
He also assisted Nellie Misch, a stained-glass artist who lives nearby in Dobbs Ferry, whom he hired to restore the windows. Her most delicate task was the restoration of a stained-glass window that Mr. Yohannan discovered in the attic. Called "Allegory of Music," it was designed by John LaFarge for the Fifth Avenue mansion of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, which was demolished in 1927 to make way for Bergdorf Goodman. The 4-by-9-foot window now illuminates Mr. Yohannan's palatial powder room.
Mr. Yohannan trawled antiques shops and flea markets across the country, returning with eccentric items like molting animal heads for the ballroom: an ibex from Louisiana, a wild boar from Texas and a giant elk from the 26th Street flea market in New York, which stared out of the trunk of his Bentley when he drove it to Yonkers. "There was lots of honking and laughter," he said. (The Bentley was another bargain: "I found it in The PennySaver," Mr. Yohannan explained.)
With a sharp eye for unlikely objects, he bought an old-fashioned piano in Beacon, N.Y., gutted it, topped the stately rosewood frame with a marble top and sink to transform it into a kitchen island. (Pots and pans hang around the perimeter to conceal the plumbing.)
Mr. Yohannan had a head start with decorating: the house was full of architectural fragments from Europe, installed by previous owners. In the dining room he discovered 18th-century paneling with gold leaf detailing that lay beneath three coats of turquoise paint, which he painstakingly scraped away. "I was seeing that color in my nightmares," he said.
To help pay for further renovations — and for college tuition — Mr. Yohannan now rents out his castle for fashion and movie shoots. Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst spent seven days at the house in 2002 filming scenes for "Mona Lisa Smile." (Inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.) He expects to spend another year, and another million dollars, on improvements, he said. Several rooms stand empty except for piles of wallboard, waiting to be transformed into something suitably baronial.
Snobbish New Yorkers may turn their noses up at Yonkers, but Mr. Yohannan's investment appears to have been prescient. Low city taxes and a stock of fine but run-down houses awaiting renovation have been luring some New Yorkers north. A tiny ranch-style house on Mr. Yohannan's street recently sold for more than $500,000 to a young couple who work in Manhattan.
Mr. Yohannan, meanwhile, has indulged in some snobbery of his own, renaming his castle Greystone Court because "I couldn't bear its former name," Chateau Fleur-de-Lys. That name, he thought, "was better suited for a brothel or a bad French restaurant in a strip mall — in someplace like Yonkers."