Home Sweet Elsewhere
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WHAT is the latest status symbol of the ultra rich? A spectacular residence they purchase for millions, reconfigure with the world's leading architects and interior designers for even more millions, then elect not to live in.
Such is the fate of one of Manhattan's largest town houses, a majestic stone mansion at 9 East 71st Street. Possessing some 21,000 square feet, the house was recently the uninhabited domain of Leslie H. Wexner, the founding chairman of the Limited Inc., the retailing company.
Mr. Wexner bought the house in 1989 for $13.2 million and lavished tens of millions on renovations, art and furnishings. Those curious to see the princely accommodations Mr. Wexner abandoned need look no further than the cover of last month's Architectural Digest. When asked how long Mr. Wexner had occupied the property, Jeffrey Epstein, his protege and one of his financial advisers, replied, "Les never spent more than two months there." Thus the prorated cost of Mr. Wexner's sejours would appear to have been in excess of a million dollars a day.
Visitors described a bathroom reminiscent of James Bond movies: hidden beneath a stairway, lined with lead to provide shelter from attack and supplied with closed-circuit television screens and a telephone, both concealed in a cabinet beneath the sink. The house also has a heated sidewalk, a luxurious provision that explains why, while snow blankets the rest of the Eastern Seaboard, the Wexner house (and Bill Cosby's house across the street) remains opulently snow-free, much to the delight of neighborhood dogs.
The seven-story house was built by the society architect Horace Trumbauer in 1933 for Herbert N. Straus, an heir to the Macy's fortune, who died before it was completed. (Mr. Trumbauer also built Clarendon Court in Newport, R.I., the former home of Sunny and Claus von Bulow.) The Straus house later became a convalescent home and the Birch Wathen School, making Mr. Wexner the first private resident -- or at least, the first private nonresident.
Reached in Florida last week, Mr. Epstein said that the house was now his.
In New York, two other billionaires, David Geffen and Ronald O. Perelman -- and an almost-billionaire, Steven P. Jobs -- are also in the vanguard of this puzzling trend. And there are others.
Across the street from the Wexner house stands the balustraded neo-Renaissance house of Robert W. Miller, the duty-free-shop executive, and his wife, Chantal. Visitors describe the house as being resplendent with a collection of Old Master paintings and boulle furniture, including a Louis XIV desk whose twin is at Versailles. But the Millers choose to live on the 22d floor of the nearby Hotel Carlyle instead because Mrs. Miller prefers the view.
The magnificent Miller house, whose interior has been conjured by the Venetian designer Renzo Mongiardino, usually languishes unoccupied, though it is occasionally used by the Millers' daughter Marie-Chantal and her recent bridegroom, Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.
Mr. Geffen, the entertainment executive, is currently selling the two town houses on East 64th Street that he purchased in 1994 with the intention of tearing them down. He commissioned three sets of plans -- by the architects Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier and by the interior designer Rose Tarlow -- for a showpiece town house, but then changed his mind.
Mr. Geffen has also been playing cat-and-mouse with the famous Jack Warner house in Beverly Hills, Calif., which he bought in 1990 for $47.5 million. He at first decided not to move into it, Ms. Tarlow said, but has now decided he will use after all.
Although famously wealthy, Mr. Geffen appears content to divide his time primarily between a modest one-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue, which was overhauled by Mr. Gwathmey, and a small beach house in Malibu, Calif.
Ronald O. Perelman, the chairman of Revlon and, according to the 1995 Forbes 400 list, New York's richest self-made billionaire, lives in a town house in the East 60's but continues to own a large apartment on Park Avenue, which he bought in 1993 while separated from Claudia Cohen. (They are now divorced and she lives on a higher floor in the same building.) Mr. Perelman's apartment, which had been decorated by Mr. Mongiardino for the previous owner, was remodeled by the New York designer Peter Marino. Mr. Perelman lived there less than a year, and it is now unoccupied.
Stranger still, even in the annals of the super-rich, is the duplex penthouse apartment of Steven P. Jobs, in a skyline-defining building on Central Park West. Mr. Jobs, a founder of Apple Computer and the chairman of Next Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, engaged the New York architects Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners to renovate the apartment nearly a decade ago. A spokesman for the architectural firm conceded that reports of the job having cost $10 million were "conservative." Plans for furnishing it have not even begun. Nine years later, Mr. Jobs has yet to spend a night in his aerie.
Still, the Architectural Digest cover confirms Mr. Wexner as the leader of this rarefied pack. Inside the magazine, 10 pages are filled with pictures taken more than two years ago. The house has since undergone yet another transformation at the hands of the designer Alberto Pinto.
While the article does not mention the home's owner, its history is well known to many interior designers, who have long considered the house a plum assignment and are abuzz with speculation over why Mr. Wexner chose not to stay. Paige Rense, the editor in chief of Architectural Digest, declined to comment on the identity of the owner or on the vintage of the pictures.
John Stefanidis, the interior designer who with the architect Thierry Despont wrought all this splendor for Mr. Wexner, showed philosophical acceptance of his client's decision. "He now goes to New York very, very seldom," Mr. Stefanidis said, "and some people just don't have the time to live in all their houses."
Mr. Stefanidis also pointed out that Mr. Wexner was a bachelor when the project began and that his domestic priorities changed when he married in 1993. Friends say that his wife, Abigail, expressed greater enthusiasm for bringing up their two young children in Columbus, Ohio, where the Limited has its headquarters and where Mr. Stefanidis and Mr. Despont have built what visitors describe as a French-style chateau of pre-guillotine splendor.
Linda Stein, a New York real estate broker with movie-star clients, marveled at this fickleness. "It's amazing these guys can ever make a business decision," she said.
Edward Lee Cave, another New York real estate broker, is more philosophical. "This is the privilege of the rich," he said. "It's rather like ladies who take pleasure in buying expensive clothes, put them in the closet, then forget to wear them."
So the question nowadays isn't where you live, it's where you don't live.