Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hidden Gem, and It’s Right Here


by Mike Crawmer

Research can be work, or it can be fun. For me, seeing how other people live is both work and fun. Pittsburgh has more than its share of neighborhood house tours, and I’ve been to most of them. But nothing beats touring a home that has been called “one of the finest private estates in America.”

If you’re thinking Fallingwater, sorry, that’s not it. This estate—which I visited last week in a rare tour—is north of Pittsburgh, on a forested hill in the small mill city of Butler (who knew?). The homes of the nouveau riche and the landed gentry feature in my WIP. Since I’m not a part of either of those two groups, I figured this tour would fill in for my lack of knowledge and imagination when it comes to describing how the wealthy live.

It did more than that. It left me awe-struck.

Consider this: The caretakers, a middle-aged couple who tend to the mansion’s dust and plumbing and such, live on the estate in their own 10,000-square-foot, pink marble “house.”

The main house—a sprawling mass of limestone, leaded glass windows, peaked roofs and lead (yes, lead!) gutters and downspouts—was built for a local oil and gas producer at the outset of the Great Depression for $1 million. Its current owner—whose other homes are in Monaco, Salzburg, and New York City—added a $20-million underground extension sometime in the ‘80s. This addition features a 24-seat theater, a library with a Gothic arched ceiling, and separate rooms for part of his vast photography and music collections. And let’s not forget the fireplace in one sitting room that the original owners salvaged from the former home (palace? castle?) of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife.

Other interesting details: A butler’s pantry as big as my living room with a walk-in silver safe. Two Tiffany stained glass windows in the photography room. One of only four exact replicas of the Eros statue from Piccadilly Circus, London, perched high atop an column at one end of the vast, impeccably manicured pool terrace. Exquisite hand-made wrought iron railings, sconces, and fire screens throughout. A wood-paneled room where a flick of a hidden switch opens the panels to reveal a secondary library. A long, narrow English oak table that can seat 44 for dinner. Immodest marble and bronze statues of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, nymphs and satyrs throughout (no fig leaves here).

And, yet, despite the exquisite workmanship, the romantic Tudor-style ceilings and the crystal (we guessed Lalique) chandeliers in the powder rooms, the mansion felt like a home, not a showplace. It was warm, welcoming, even cozy. It was a house to be lived in—even if the owner (whose personal wealth is estimated $650 million) only stops by for brief visits in the spring and fall.

I don’t aspire to a home like this (though I wouldn’t mind spending a week or two there). But I would like one of the characters in my WIP to live in one. Now that I’ve seen how the top one half of one half of one percent of the population live, I think I can describe it.


18 comments:

Tory said...

Sounds amazing, Mike!

So, who owns it? And how can we get a tour?

Annette said...

Heck, I'd settle for living in the caretaker's house!

Joyce said...

I'd settle for just visiting the caretaker's house!

I went to an estate sale on Friday at a house built in 1830. It was supposedly a stop on the underground railroad, and I always thought it would be cool to buy and make it a bed and breakfast. I was terribly disappointed.

To say it needed some repair would be a gross understatement. There was visible water damage in the ceilings--even on the first floor, wallpaper was peeling, it hadn't even been painted in years and years, and to top it off, the entire house smelled of urine. It was so sad that someone would let such a magnificent house fall into such disrepair. It would take half a million to just make it livable. Sigh.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I'll take the theater room. I hope that comes with DirectTV. I guess they didn't let you take pictures, did they, Mike?

So, in your book, what does this character do to enable him to live so hign on the hog?

Jennie Bentley said...

Wow...

I'm with Will. Pictures, please.

And Joyce, yes, it's horribly sad, isn't it? I see it all the time too, and I feel like I want to personally save every single one of them. The houses, I mean. It's always a big thrill to match a house like that with an owner who sees it the way I do, and who will do the work to restore it. (The real me is a Realtor, y'all, in case you didn't know it. And of course I write the Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries...!)

Sorry about the BSP, but with just two weeks to go until my release date, I can't let any opportunity go by to self promote. Sorry...

mike said...

The owner is Frederick Koch, of Koch Industries (largest privately owned company in US), tho he was disinherited by his father decades ago and built his own fortune (I assume thru canny investments). As for a tour...sorry, Tory, he rarely grants them, and only for special groups, apparently. Google Elm Court--not much on it--the original and current owners are rather publicity shy.

Much to everyone's regret, no interior photos were allowed. I have a bunch of the exterior and grounds but they're on my home computer.

Wil--DirectTV? Heck, the current owner wired the entire house for sound...the equipment fills one large closet. The most elaborate sound system I've ever seen. As for the theater, the controls--to operate the lights, curtains, movable 20-foot screen (!) and who knows what else--are contained in a box next to the owner's chair.

Joyce--I've been in a number of houses like the one you describe. Very sad.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

"Wil--DirectTV? Heck, the current owner wired the entire house for sound...the equipment fills one large closet. The most elaborate sound system I've ever seen. As for the theater, the controls--to operate the lights, curtains, movable 20-foot screen (!) and who knows what else--are contained in a box next to the owner's chair."

Sounds just like my house - except fot he closet full of audio equipment, 20' screen, lights and curtains. I have a box right next to my recliner for controlling my system too. I call it my remote control. :D Actually I have eight of them.

Gina said...

Mike -
Dare we ask what special group you belong to that gave you entre?

jnantz said...

"Now that I’ve seen how the top one half of one half of one percent of the population live, I think I can describe it."

Actually, I think you just did. And you did a wonderful job. Sounds like a cool place to tour (and then stowaway for a week!)

mike said...

Gina--The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation ran the tour. Someone there last spring suggested they should send a letter to the owner asking if a small group could tour the place and, much to their surprise, he responded immediately in the affirmative. According to the caretakers, they've hosted other tours, but only one or two a year.

kathie said...

Fantastic description! I adore house tours...I don't know what fascinates me about other people's houses, but I'm a sucker for them.

kathie said...

Joyce, I know that house!!! I grew up on Scott Ave. and spent my entire childhood staring at that house, imagining the rooms behind walls, as I'd heard there were. ARE there????

Anonymous said...

The present owner was not disinherited, and has had nothing to do with Koch Industries since selling his shares in the early 1980s to his brothers, Charles and David, who still run the company and own controlling interest.

Anonymous said...

Frederick R. Koch is the oldest son of Fred (not Frederick) C. Koch, Sr. The senior Koch was founder of the company that became Koch Industries, currently the largest privately held company in the United States, with revenues in excess of $100 billion. Koch Industries, a large diversified energy company, is currently controlled by two of Frederick’s younger brothers, Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch. There also is a third brother, David's twin, named William I. Koch, who presently is the founder, owner and president of the Oxbow Group, a large diversified holding group of industrial companies.

Three of Frederick's brothers followed similar educational, and later professional careers. The three younger brothers decided to follow in their father’s footsteps, and became chemical engineers, educated and trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two of the three even earned advance degrees in chemical engineering.

The only one who decided to follow a different career path was the oldest of the four sons, Frederick, who chose a career in liberal arts and graduated from Harvard with a liberal arts degree and then, following several years in the Navy, received an MFAD from Yale University's drama school where he studied dramatic script writing. Little is publicized about Frederick’s professional career during his younger years. Later, following the death of his father, Frederick became a collector and expert in rare materials such as rare books, manuscripts, and American drawings, which he subsequently bequeathed to libraries at several well known universities.

The two best known collections of Frederick Koch's collection efforts are located at Yale University and Harvard University. The Frederick R. Koch Collection of rare books and manuscripts takes up a prominent place in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. And at Harvard University, the Frederick R. Koch Collection of American Drawings takes up a similar prominent place in the Houghton Library. There may also be other collections at other universities or colleges, but none were known to the author at the time this biographical profile was prepared.

Public records indicate property ownership: in Manhattan at 825 Fifth Avenue and 6 East 80th Street, a grand townhouse commissioned by Frank W. Woolworth as a wedding gift to his daughter, Jessie Woolworth Donohue, and designed by C.P.H. Gilbert; a sprawling mansion in Butler, Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh, called "Elm Court"; the stunning "Villa Torre Clementina" facing the French riviera just outside Monaco; and, "Schloss Bluhnbach", a 70,000 square foot castle near Salzburg which was the summer residence of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand until his death at Sarajevo which triggered the start of WWI. Koch's most famous property, recently sold, was Sutton Place in Surrey, England which is the reported meeting place of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Unlike his three brothers, who are fairly well known for their business, philanthropic, political and sports endeavors, little is known about the apparently more reticent older Koch brother, Frederick R. Koch, Jr., who was named after his father, Fred C. Koch. In addition to his various collections of houses, art, photography, books and manuscripts, Koch is known as an avid theater and opera lover who is spotted regularly in front rows of New York and London theaters, frequently with long-time companion, John Olsen, a former advertising executive for Ralph Lauren.

sallieparker said...

@Anonymous who is so knowledgeable about Fred Koch: Have you perchance been to Bl├╝hnbach?

Anonymous said...

I'm a pianist/music teacher who lives not 10 miles from the grand house. I've always wondered what musical treasures it holds and have always wished to visit there. My parents talk of attending parties at the mansion... After studying music in London, Elm Court serves as a little bit of England right here in Butler!

Catie said...

I'm a pianist/music teacher who lives not 10 miles from the grand house. I've always wondered what musical treasures it holds and have always wished to visit there. My parents talk of attending parties at the mansion... After studying music in London, Elm Court serves as a little bit of England right here in Butler!

Anonymous said...

So many people think they know the owner and this properties.... They don't ! ... Copy & paste etc etc