I grew up in a suburb of Little Rock. It was a mid-sized city, and it might have been one of many other towns in the South or Midwest — “the flyover states,” I think we’re supposed to call them now, those of us who moved away and got snotty.
One of the magical things about Little Rock is that it was easy to find the rich people. We had us some Rockefellers, and two banking brothers who kept close to politics (one would back the Republican, one the Democrat) and a couple of heart surgeons and superlawyers. They lived in houses I always thought of as rich-people houses, brick colonials with pillars and porticoes and fountains and extra wings and lots of rooms. If Agatha Christie had ever traveled down South and suddenly needed to write a country house mystery, she would have been just fine.
In other cities, too, who is top dog is fairly obvious. On a recent visit to San Francisco, a friend drove me by the Getty Estate: it’s two houses combined on top of a hill and it looks like it’s going to eat all the other houses.
But here in New York, what makes an expensive home — and by expensive I mean eight figures or pushing it — can be all sorts of different things. A pied-a-terre at the Pierre or a glass marvel by Richard Meier? A townhouse on the East Side or a condo at the Plaza? Luxury comes in all sorts of different flavors, and there’s a lot of it: there are nearly 200 $10 million listings in the database many Gotham Realtors share. About a third of those are townhouses, but nearly two-thirds aren’t: there are over 100 ways to spend 10 million bucks and still have to share walls with your neighbors. (I guess if they try to eavesdrop on you, you’ll know the glass to the wall is Baccarat).
I was thinking about this for two reasons: one, because Chris Flowers just set a new Manhattan record by dropping $53 million on a townhouse, and I was trying to remember whether I’d ever met him. I worked for two years at a newspaper that follows his breed of banking pretty intensely, and I know my reporters talked to him, but did I? I ask this because the co-broke commission alone was a million bucks, and that makes a girl kinda curious.
Two, because the Connect High Net conference is coming up, so clearly somebody knows the answers to these questions. Of course, I guess it’s about people and marketing to people, but I can’t get over the homes: Harkness House, the $53 million beauty, has interiors that are 45 feet wide (25 feet in New York is considered luxury), with an area 43 feet up to the skylight; it’s gotta be like living in the Pantheon. Seven Sutton Square, which its owner spent two years renovating and refers to affectionately as “a New York City double-wide,” has the kind of grand staircase you see in MGM movies; for a Christmas party, it was packed with carolers. Lest you think we’re just a 19th-century city, there’s the Perry Street towers, where the bathroom cabinetry is made of some kind of space-age white plastic that’ll match your iPod.
But the other thing is, frankly, once you push me up past around $10 million, I almost can’t tell the difference. (Maybe buyers can’t either, and that’s why the luxury market here is taking a breather.) I mean, I know location: if you showed me a supercallifragilistic ultra-luxury apartment on the 10th floor and a similar apartment on the 20th floor, I’d know which one was better. Still, when I think about hyper-expensive properties I’ve seen in New York, it’s not about the views, it’s about the art.
Seven Sutton, for example, isn’t so much a glamour home as a backdrop for a collection — sort of like the Met with closets. When I saw a billionaire’s pied-a-terre in the Pierre, it wasn’t even the Pierre that was striking, it was the Basquiat on the wall. And even New York magazine did a recent design issue, “Homes of the Rich and Famous,” that sort of thing. And the most notable thing about Leonard Bernstein’s old apartment on Central Park West wasn’t the treetop view — hundreds of people have that. It was the statue of Diana between you and the treetop view, set insouciantly in front of the window. Augustus Saint-Gaudens licensed the design to Tiffany, so it’s not unique; it was just so expressively placed.
It’s those little things that make a $10 million house a home.