If money were no object, how big would your house be? How many bedrooms and bathrooms would you have? In the late 1990’s billionaire Ira Rennert decided to begin construction of his own dream home, Fair Field. At 110,000 square feet (63 acres), the site for his new home ‘Fair Field’ generated some controversy as residents of the nearby town of Southampton complained about the project’s impact on their town.
Rennert carried on building anyway and moved into his new home in 2004. The building reportedly has 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, its own power plant, three swimming pools, a Synagogue, two courtyards, an orangery, a 164-seat home theater, a basketball court, and a bowling alley.
In case any readers were wondering, constructing a 62,000 square foot mansion and all these amenities wasn’t cheap, costing around US$110 million: the property as a whole was valued at around $249 million on completion. According to the Financial Times, it would be listed for around $500 million today.
Fortunately, Rennert has deep pockets. With an estimated worth of US$4 billion, he could easily have afforded to pay for the project from his own pocket. However, he was recently in court defending the funding of his Sagaponack estate. Representatives of a now-defunct mining business he used to own claimed he looted the company to realize his vision. In February 2018, Rennert was ordered to pay at least US$118 million in damages. It seems then that the sheer level of luxury available in Fair Field is matched only by the controversy behind its creation. We’re here to walk you through this giant limestone Italian renaissance home and its surrounding estate. Our thanks go out to our friend Jeff Cully at EEFAS for supplying the gorgeous aerial photos and video footage of the property.
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Who lives in a house like this?
The media may have slightly overstated the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. According to Zillow, which collects real estate data from public records, the main house has 21 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms. This makes a little more sense than building a house with more bathrooms than guests. In addition to the colossal main mansion, the Fair Field site contains a playhouse and two pool houses.
According to Crain’s and Southampton’s news site 27East, the playhouse contains a basketball court and a two-lane bowling alley. There are also billiards as well as two tennis and squash courts. As Rennert seems to have very few visitors, it’s not clear who he plays with. The number of disputes the reclusive Rennert has had with neighbors has actually helped to gather more information about his house: for instance, a complaint about the path of his private helicopter led to a large number of aerial photos being taken: these revealed that the house has 12 chimneys, which would seem to suggest 12 different fireplaces, although hopefully not twelve different chimney sweeps too.
The mansion also contains its very own 164-seat theatre, large enough to stage even a Broadway production if they wished to play to an audience of one.
Rennert’s garage for the estate can hold up to 100 cars. Try to spot the tire swing in this photo.
Love Thy Neighbor
When Rennets first announced the construction of his estate in the ’90s, neighbors said they found the plan “audacious,” according to New York Magazine, and fought the plans “tooth and nail.” They seemed particularly ticked off over Rennet’s plans to build a 10,000-square-foot private museum on his state to house his $500 million art collection. This may be because he allegedly began construction of the museum before seeking the necessary planning permission.
Rennet’s neighbors were also peeved when Rennert requested permission to add a Pilates studio and another bathroom to one of his pool houses in 2013. They were reportedly fed up with the number of zoning rules he’d already scooted around. “I don’t even object to the square footage,” one neighbor told 27East. “It’s a question of the principle.” In the end. The extension was never built.
Many of the issues surrounding the construction of this Long Island Estate were that, technically, no laws had been broken. After Fair Fields was constructed, however, the town of Southampton passed a new zoning ordinance restricting residential dwellings to a maximum of 20,000 square feet of residential space, excluding basements.
The town also passed legislation requiring anyone building a dwelling on a parcel of 15 or more acres in an agricultural district to obtain site plan approval from the town’s Planning Board.
Fair Fields follows in the tradition of others built around the turn of the last Century by tycoons such as the Pratts, Goulds and Whitneys, and Otto H. Kahn. Their ambitious forays into rural Long Island also caused dismay among neighbors, said Robert B. Mackay, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in Cold Spring Harbor.
He is one of three Editors of ‘Long Island Country Houses and their Architects 1860-1940,” published last year by the society in conjunction with Norton & Company. In the introduction, Mr. MacKay, whose co-editors were Anthony K. Baker & Carol A Traynor noted that “the reaction of native Long Islanders to the onslaught of the rich seems to have ranged from anger and resistance to bewilderment.”
The modern-day difference in Sagaponack seems to be that the massive structure and its six to seven outbuildings (depending on who is courting) have aroused intense suspicions in the community that the eventual use of the house will be for a conference center or some other institution.
No one would ever have questioned a Whitney, a Vanderbilt, or a Kahn as to what they intended to do with their enormous edifices since those houses were all built around the same time as summer homes. ‘In those days, you didn’t have income taxes.” Said Orin S. Finkle of Great Neck, who researches old estates. “These houses were a way to outdo your friends, and most were designed by well-known architects of the day.”
In fact, by the standards of Oheka, a French chateau-style castle designed by Delano & Aldrich and completed in 1917 by Kahn, the financier, on 443 acres near Cold Spring Harbor, Fair Field is no big deal.
Oheka tops Fair Field by 50,000 square feet – at 109,000 square feet of the main residence, it’s only the second-largest structure as a private residence in the United States, outranked only by the 174,000-square-foot Biltmore House built by George Vanderbilt in Asheville, In 1895.
The 72-room, 25-bathroom Oheka had its own 18-hole golf course, a racetrack, and an airstrip. Kahn brought in thousands of tons of earth to build the 90-foot-high hill on which the castle stands.
Even all that paled in comparison to the Castle Gould estate in Sands Point built by Howard Gould, son of Jay Gould, who made his fortune in railroads and on Wall Street. He built a 100,000-square-foot structure now called Castle Gould just to house his horses, carriages, and 200 servants. Eight years later in 1912, he built a second castle for his residence.
The 60,000 square foot, 40-room mansion was later called Hempstead House when the Gould property was purchased by Daniel Guggenheim, whose family made its fortune in silver and copper mining. Guggenheim’s son, Harry F., whose third wife Alicia Patterson founded Newsday, built his 20,000-square-foot residence called Falaise in 2913 on 90 acres that were subdivided from his father’s 262-acre estate.
In Glen Cove, Charles Pratt, one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company and the founder of the Pratt Institute, purchased 800 acres that later became a family compound encompassing 82 buildings that included 21 residences. The surviving Pratt houses include the Manor House on Dosoris Lane, built by Thomas T. Pratt in 1911. It is now known as the Harrison Conference Center, which with later additions now has 198 bathroom suites.
Oheka is being transformed over five years into a 50-suite luxury health spa. And the entire Sands Point complex, minus 36 acres, is now owned by Nassau County, which operates it as a museum and as an office for the county’s department of parks.
Opponents of the Sagaponack house say that the institutional uses of the great houses of the past, now that the mansions have outlived their viability as a private residence, bolsters their arguments that Fair Field is headed in the same direction – only in this case, right from the start.
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The Man Behind the Mansion
Ira L. Rennert, the owner of the Sagaponack property, was hardly known outside his own private circles until news of his building plans hit the East End earlier last year like a hurricane.
He is the President of a privately-held Manhattan-based holding company called Renco that, among other assets, owns a steel plant and a magnesium plant. He is also known as a generous supporter of Jewish causes.
The Sagaponack Homeowners Association and several nearby neighbors have hired John F. Shea III of the Twomey, Latham, Shea & Kelley law firm in Riverhead to represent them in arguments before Southampton’s Board of Zoning and Appeals.
The board has the power to revoke the building permit for the house, which was issued last January. Hearings before the board concluded in September, but it’s still reviewing documents.
A decision is expected in about two months. Mr. Shea said, adding that it can be appealed by either party to the State Supreme Court.
Mr. Shea said that his experts and engineers examined the filed plans and “having looked at the design and arrangement of this complex, we have determined that this is not a single-family residence.”
“Every aspect of the construction from the electrical to the steel frame to the mechanicals is commercial in nature,” he said. The 1,575 square foot main dining room could seat 105 people. According to engineers retained by the Sagaponack Homeowners Association, systems include a 5,000-gallon drinking water tank and an 8,000-gallon tank.
“Their argument is that someone can build anything they want, and you can’t do anything about that until they use it illegally,” Mr. Shea said. “We say that’s wrong. The code not only addresses illegal activity but also doesn’t allow building an illegal nonconforming structure in a particular zoning district, to begin with.”
Anthony B. Tohill of Riverhead, the lawyer representing Mr. Rennert, said the commercial nature of the construction, including the steel frame, was a way of addressing state fire codes that would otherwise have required self-closing doors and “compartmentalization” of rooms.
“My client’s architects and engineers have designed what my client wanted to have: a large house,” Mr. Tohill said. “My client has repeatedly told people who will listen that this is his private residence and that he has the right to build it.”
Mr. Rennert’s architect, Mr. Ferguson of Manhattan, refused to discuss the design of the house and its outbuildings, and its office referred calls to Ref co’s corporate attorney, Dennis A. Sadlowski of Manhattan.
A rendering shows a very long, mostly two-story structure. Plans call for a limestone exterior and tiled roof. Mr. Tohill said It reminded him of the Frick Museum in Manhattan. But Randall Parsons, a local land planner who was retained by the Sagaponack Homeowners Association to review plans for Fair Field, submitted a report to Southampton’s Zoning Board of Appeals saying that the complex is “designed and arranged in the manner of an exclusive resort, conference center or retreat.” Mr. Parsons said that it could be compared to Gurney’s Inn Resort & Spa in Montauk, which has 11 buildings totaling 53,481 square feet.
But Denis Burke O’Brien, a Sag Harbor lawyer, who is chairwoman of Southampton’s five-member Architectural Review Board, likened the house to a Mediterranean villa:
“I really think that once the house is built and is obscured by the landscaping, the surrounding residents will be happy with it,” she said. However, her board criticized the gatehouse as being reminiscent of an entrance to a military academy. This structure is also being redesigned.
And should the Sagaponack house in time become too large for residential living like so many of its early 20th Century predecessors?
“Is any community complaining about having a Bayard Cutting Arboretum, a Coe Estate, or a Harrison Conference Center in their midst?” Said Mr. Tohill, the lawyer for Mr. Rennert.
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Featured image source: BarneyFrank.net