Even before he bought a decrepit nineteenth-century castle in Yonkers and began to single-handedly renovate it, Kohle Yohannan’s life seemed to be following a pretty interesting script. Tall and cheekboned, Yohannan made a social splash when he arrived in New York from San Francisco in the mid-eighties. True to the script, he knew no one, and had no money, but a few days later, thanks to his friend John Galliher, he went to a lunch where other guests included Bobby Short, Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, John Loring, and the designer Mary McFadden. He ended up working for, then briefly marrying, McFadden, who was 29 years older.
But they divorced and Yohannan dropped out of the party pages. He studied fashion design at F.I.T., got a B.A. in art history from Columbia University, then a master’s in decorative-arts history from the Cooper-Hewitt. He began writing books, three so far: monographs on John Rawlings and Claire McCardell and a forthcoming one on the designer Valentina. Then one day he was riding his motorcycle through Yonkers and passed what appeared to be a castle. Moreover, it was a castle he recognized from a class at the Cooper-Hewitt. “There were these houses in Yonkers that the rich—not the superrich, like the Vanderbilts, but the rich—had built.” He circled around, found his way to the property, and began trying to get in. For months, he knocked on the door and left notes. Finally, one day, “the creaky door opens and the cats are flying and a little old lady comes out. I told her some of the history I knew, but it still took me a long time to get in.” He ended up offering the owner slightly under half a million dollars. “She told me that she sold it to me because I was stupid enough to think I could fix it!” Yohannan says, laughing.
He moved in seven years ago; since then, it’s been one long, painstaking restoration project, but the delight of unearthing treasures far exceeds the tedium of scraping paint. Take the ballroom: It has a seventeenth-century carved-oak ceiling and Tiffany-glass windows. Ballet Russes choreographer Michel Fokine and his wife gave classes there when they owned the castle in the late thirties—and they left behind trunks of Diaghilev-era costumes that Yohannan stumbled on in the attic.
Yohannan now rents the house for films and photo shoots (firstname.lastname@example.org, for the interested). Often people who arrive at the house are surprised by his combat boots and fatigue outfit. “What do they expect? Me to be wearing a cravat and smoking jacket, with silver hair?” he asks. “To try to wear a house like this is hilarious. You never own a house like this; it owns you.”