Putting A Price on Passion

Many of the most expensive homes in the U.S. are not “trophies” — they are legacies.

By Camilla McLaughlin 

The Crespi-Hicks Estate in Dallas, Texas. Image courtesy Douglas Newby

UPDATE: Soon after our print deadline, a $190 million estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, hit the market, becoming the most expensive home for sale in the U.S. and , therefore, the No. 1 position on our Ultimate list. The 50-acre waterfront estate, Copper Beech Farm, includes two offshore islands and a total of almost one mile of Long Island Sound shorefront. Named for the large copper beach trees on the property, the estate has been in the Lauder Greenway family since 1904. It is listed by David Ogilvy of David Ogilvy & Associates.

From bedrooms and bathsto trout in stocked ponds, the story of Ultimate Homes is often about numbers. Even though the passions of owners are more crucial, dollar signs grab the most attention, especially when $100 million begins to define the pinnacle of residential real estate.

This year, the numbers are clearly under the microscope. Prices are the barometer charting every bracket in every location, and nothing else illustrates just how much the ultra world has changed in a few short years.

In 2010, the sale of Le Belvédère, which originally debuted on the Ultimate list at $85 million, merited the highest price for the year, $50 million. A number of former and current Ultimate top properties also sold, including Dunellen Hall, the former Helmsley Estate in Greenwich, for $35 million and Portabello in Corona Del Mar, Calif., perhaps the most fanciful Ultimate property.

Buoyed by the recovery in wealth, the ultra high end took off in 2011, establishing new benchmarks for price. The sale of a Los Altos, Calif., property to Russian billionaire Yuri Milner for $100 million finally broke the $95 million record set by Donald Trump’s Palm Beach property in 2006. Soon after, the Spelling Manor, which at $150 million had reigned as most expensive in the U.S., sold for $85 million to the Formula One heiress Petra Ecclestone. Further setting the stage for 2012 was the fall sale of a penthouse at 15 Central Park South in Manhattan for $88 million, the full asking price, just three weeks after it went on the market, making it the highest transaction ever in New York. The buyer was the 22-year-old daughter of the purchaser of Trump’s Palm Beach property, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

The ante was raised again in 2012 when a Woodside, Calif., property changed hands for $117.5 million making it the most expensive residential sale on record in the U.S. The buyer was reportedly Japan’s second wealthiest man. These transactions also illustrate what is probably the strongest trend in the ultra arena, the tremendous draw of U.S. properties (and prices) in the global marketplace.

The jump from $50 million to $117 million in two years is more than significant, and this year’s Ultimate list reveals just how much the ultra market has changed. Most expensive is a $135 million estate in Dallas. Last year’s No. 2 property, Fleur de Lys in Holmby Hills, Calif., shares the $125 million price point with an extraordinary tri-level penthouse at The Pierre in New York.

Eight of the top 10 are priced at or above $90 million, while the lowest price, $75 million, is well above the last two years. Price reductions placed two former top properties below this threshold this year. Another, Beverly House, had a $15 million increase, which listing agent Jeff Hyland, co-founder of Hilton & Hyland in Beverly Hills, says is a response to new market realities. “There is much less product than even six months ago,” he says of the number of homes for sale. Along with an influx of foreign buyers, a surge in year-end transactions has left agents and brokers scrambling to find homes to sell, and owners who had taken their homes off the market during the recession are re-listing them at higher prices.

Still, every property among Ultimate’s top 10 presents an opportunity, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance, to acquire a legacy property. Although “trophy” might be the moniker often applied to ultra homes, the one word that best describes this year’s top group is “legacy.” Many, such as the Crespi-Hicks Estate in Dallas, “only come along once in a generation,” according to Douglas Newby, owner of Architecturally Significant Homes in Dallas, who is listing the property for $135 million. Built in the late 1930s for an Italian count, Pio Crespi, it is a wonderful example of architecture and estates of that era. Maurice Fatio, known at the time for gorgeous mansions in New York and Palm Beach, created the original residence. When the current owners purchased the property 16 years ago, they honored the original architecture, hiring architect Peter Marino to update the home. Located in an elite enclave within Preston Hollow, the most desired neighborhood in Dallas, the home is sited on 25 acres, only eight minutes from city center. Newby says it is the largest estate property in a major city anywhere in the U.S. Many consider it the most important property in Dallas, and it numbers among the most significant estates in the country.

Fleur de Lys in Holmby Hills, Calif., was recognized by Jacques Chirac and the French government for its contribution to French culture in America. Being honored as the finest example of French architecture in the U.S. creates an instant legacy.

Among Ultimate’s best of the best, few can match the legacy of The Beverly House (at right), which has a pedigree that includes names such as Hearst and Kennedy as well as notables such as L.A. architect Gordon Kaufman and landscape architect Paul Thiene. The original house was built in the 1920s, and a renovation by the current owner 15 years ago doubled the square footage. “It’s an iconic house. There is nothing like it, and of all the new estates that are built in Beverly Hills today, the big ones, you can’t compare to this house in terms of how it was designed, the quality, the space, the livability, the feeling. You just can’t build 50,000 square feet and say this is nirvana,” observes Hyland, underscoring the essence that makes legacy homes so valuable.

Another notable pedigree belongs to Casa Casuarina in Miami (at left) priced at $100 million. Although the mansion dates back to the 1930s, the legacy of the property springs from the artistry of Gianni Versace. “The building itself is interesting and historic and has integrity, but Versace turned it into a sexy, enchanting place. There is nothing quite like it,” says Jill Hertzberg, who is listing the property with her partner, Jill Eber. The two comprise The Jills, Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate’s top-ranking team worldwide. “You walk in and you feel like you are stepping back in time. You’re in your own private world,” shares Eber. The mansion is as much a luxurious villa as it is work of art with gorgeous frescoes, intricate finishes, tiles and fabrics. Especially remarkable is the 54-foot-long mosaic pool lined in 24-karat gold and surrounded by a stunning tiled private open-air courtyard, fountains, mosaic walkways and sculptures. Equally priceless is the location in the middle of South Beach, directly across from the ocean.

Others in Ultimate’s top 10 boast ownership by multiple generations of the same family. Offered for sale for the first time in 150 years, the estate and lands of de Guigné in Hillsborough, Calif., priced at $100 million, has been home to four generations of the de Guigné family. The almost 100-year-old, 16,000-square-foot main residence was designed by renowned San Francisco turn-of-the-century architects Bliss & Faville, and is one of California’s few remaining period mansions surrounded by a substantial amount of land. The 47-acre estate is one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land in the peninsula and is only 20 minutes from the center of San Francisco. Decorated by celebrated interior designer Anthony Hall, the interiors of the mansion evoke the sophistication and grandeur of a bygone era. The architecture might be grand and bold, but like almost all the Ultimate properties, the home is extremely livable. “Clearly the house was built for another era, but still resonates today,” says Gregg Lynn with Sotheby’s International Realty, who is listing the property with Bernadette Lamothe.

“Private paradise” is another phrase often used to describe ultra properties, and few others in the U.S. offer as much of a refuge, financially and personally, as a number of our top 10 do. Four Peaks Ranch is a $75 million Rocky Mountain paradise situated on 870 acres, a spectacular setting only 15 minutes from downtown Aspen. Huge expanses of glass capture stunning views of the Roaring Fork Valley and the current owners went to every expense to create the ultimate family getaway. It was even featured on MTV’s “Teen Cribs.” Few on our list over the years have been as captivating or have offered as many ways to play. Amenities include a labyrinth, miles of trails, an outdoor putting green and three ponds with waterfalls and a sandy beach. Indulgent features include a spa and a unique indoor-outdoor pool topped with a lighted starscape. A stage with a set up for performing is a venue that is only excelled by the art deco nightclub at Beverly House.

Tranquility (at right) is the largest privately owned piece of land in Lake Tahoe, and includes its own lake, art studio, boat house, guesthouse and two over-the-water golf holes. Another major asset, according to Jean Merkelback with Sotheby’s International Realty, who is listing the property for $75 million, is that it is zoned for equestrian use. “There are only four other residential properties on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe that have such capabilities, and this is the only horse property with direct access to the Tahoe Rim Trail,” she explains. Inside, each room offers its own magical setting, but the real amenity is the sense of peace one immediately feels when they enter the property.

To her point, although architecture, size, finishes and amenities add to the worth of ultimate properties, nothing establishes value more than land and location. Newby points out that it is land, rather than houses, that really appreciates, which makes Crespi-Hicks especially valuable.

In cities such as Manhattan, prized geography can be found on top floors of the most desirable white glove buildings. Three on this year’s list are the plums of New York real estate — gorgeous penthouses in premiere buildings. The crème de la crème easily is the 16-room penthouse that occupies three full floors at The Pierre Hotel, offered by Sotheby’s International Real Estate for $125 million. Four terraces capture 360-degree views. The second-floor living room, the hotel’s original ballroom, is considered the most magnificent privately owned room in the world, according to Sotheby’s. In addition to five master suites, the residence includes separate accommodates for guests as well as staff.

A second iconic Manhattan co-op is also among the top 10 at $95 million. This 15-room penthouse occupies the 18th floor of The Sherry-Netherland Hotel. The views here extend in all directions and are incomparable.

There are few comparables to our last Manhattan star — a dramatic $115 million two-level penthouse at One Beacon Court. Noted architect Charles Gwathmey transformed the 9,000-square-foot space into one of the most sophisticated apartments in New York City. A magnificent double-height living room with a 24-foot ceiling and two walls of windows captures views that seem to never end. The combination of dramatic light, glorious views and the perfection of the design make this home exceptional.

Most of these homes are almost impossible to replace, which makes arriving at an optimum list price a challenge. “Until a property is truly marketed in a global and targeted manner toward the most affluent potential buyers, one cannot truly know its real-world value,” explains Bob Hurwitz, founder of the Hurwitz James Company, who is no stranger properties at the top of the market.

And while it would seem that Ultimate properties are about investment and prices, what it all goes back to is passion. It took a great deal of passion on the part of owners, architects and designers to create these properties, and it will take an equal amount of passion for them to sell. In the end, each one is waiting for that one buyer who will fall in love with the property and share in the legacy.

Ranch Legacies

Last year, Montana’s Broken O Ranch, one of the most expensive ranch properties ever to hit the market, sold. This year, another legendary ranch is on the market for the first time in over 30 years. One of the largest remaining ranches along Santa Barbara’s spectacular Gaviota Coast, Dos Pueblos Ranch’s 2,190 acres stretch from the Santa Ynez Mountains down to a sandy beach on the Pacific Ocean. With agriculture, specimen plantings and orchards, the land might be extensive, but Kerry Mormann, who is listing the ranch, says: “It’s not a development property. It’s a lifestyle property, and, even at $79 million, it’s a bit of a fixer-upper. I can say that in a good way because the bones are incredible. And it sits on one of the nicest beaches on the Santa Barbara coast.” There are over 13 homes, including Casa Grande, a stately five-bedroom, seven-bath mansion.

“At one time, owners used to have grand dinners here and all the food came from the ranch,” shares Mormann. Nothing speaks to the provenance of this property more than the roster of celebrities, even presidents, who has visited, even dined, here.

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