How to Save a Castle

The Ballroom: The seventeenth-century English carved-oak ceiling was covered in layers of shellac and dirt when Kohle Yohannan bought the castle, in 2001. He enlisted a stained-glass expert to restore the original Tiffany windows (not shown). The elaborately carved wood doors leaning against the back wall were part of the collection at Newstead Abbey, Lord Byron’s ancestral home. House documents say that Francis Sisson, the second owner, acquired them.Photo: Jason Schmidt

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 (, 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.”

The Turkish Room (left): Originally this was the library, opposite, but Yohannan gave it an Occidental theme and covered the walls in embroidered green silk.

The Four-Poster (right): This French nineteenth-century Baroque-style bed is in the ballroom; Yohannan put it there because it reminds him of the public-private aspect of historic great rooms, where courtiers would visit royalty in their bedrooms. 
Photo: Jason Schmidt
The House: Yohannan knocked on the door for months before the owner let him in.Photo: Jason Schmidt
The “Liaisons Dangereuses” Room (left): The alcove bed had been neon pink; Yohannan restored its Louis XV– style glory. The wall hangings and curtains were achieved with “a staple gun,” he says. “You can change the world with a staple gun and a hot-glue gun.”

The Kitchen (left): “This was a gut. A total fabrication. I did everything,” says Yohannan. The two Renaissance Revival cabinets are from Italy, bought upstate. An old piano became an island work station. There’s a Garland stove and Sub-Zero fridge.
Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Eighteenth-Century Room (left): The previous owner had painted over the delicate boiserie walls with bright-blue paint. The huge chandelier is late-twenties French. The wall sconces are late-nineteenth-century French and signed “Mottheau (Paris).”

The Observatory (right): “Pigeons,” Yohannan answers, when asked what was in the tower room when he bought the castle. “The windows were all knocked out, and there was plastic blowing in the breeze.” He wanted to create a room that might have been in Around the World in Eighty Days; the idea for the wall treatment came from a trunk he saw in Paris that was finished with nail heads and copper. He found the nails and rivets in Morocco and covered the walls in copper, mica, and nail heads.
Photo: Jason Schmidt
How to Save a Castle