The Legends of Ultimate Homes

The Manor from Unique Homes 2017 Ultimate issue.

Photo courtesy Hilton & Hyland.

As we mark the 17th “Ultimate” edition of Unique Homes, we look back at the exceptional properties and agents who have been a part of the annual celebration of the most expensive real estate in the U.S.

Over the 50 years since the first issue of Unique Homes rolled off the presses, countless estates have graced our cover. Hundreds have captured a top position on Ultimate Homes’ list of the most expensive, but only a very few are real estate legends. Trackback through record-setting sales and property listings, and a handful of properties filter to the top, including an equally select cadre of real estate agents.

What destines a property for legendary status? Rarity, provenance, architecture, land and location all play a role. “We have represented and sold many properties that are above and beyond, but what makes them legendary is the architecture and the history of the property, including notable prior owners, location, and the property amenities that set the bar for other luxury properties,” explains Judy Zeder, a member of the Jills Zeder Group (along with Jill Eber and Jill Hertzberg) with Coldwell Banker Realty in Miami.

“What truly makes an incredible luxury property is that it’s something that someone else would never have. It’s not just another house with a different material feature,” shares Shari Chase, founder of Chase International Real Estate in the Lake Tahoe/Reno region. “Rarity is huge,” she says, as is “not being bumper to bumper with a lot of mega mansions that are exactly the same.”

The 2016 sale of the Playboy Mansion cracked the $100 million benchmark in L.A. 

Photo by Jim Bartsch.

Owlwood, Pickfair, Le Belvedere, Greenacres and Chartwell: the list of legendary properties that Joyce Rey, who heads Coldwell Banker Global Luxury’s division for Southern California, has sold is only surpassed by the number of accolades she has received over her more than 40-year career. Her sales have achieved price records multiple times, sometimes for the same property. In 1976, she sold the Sonny and Cher mansion for $1.2 million, a record at the time. Two years later, she sold it again for $4.2 million, which surpassed all other prices, setting a new high in the U.S. and worldwide. “It was a really big deal,” she says. “It changed the marketplace.”

The storied history of this property, which was renamed Owlwood to honor owls living in the estate’s towering trees, continues to the present day. The acquisition of neighboring properties and additional acreage over the years enhanced the value. Last offered for sale well above $100 million, it appeared on Unique Homes’ Ultimate list last year at $115 million. It sold in December in an off-market transaction for a reported $88 million.

Once dubbed “the Crown Jewel of Beverly Hills,” Owlwood’s resume includes a number of other high-profile names and celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe.

Ultimate Manhattan? The Tommy Hilfiger penthouse at The Plaza in New York City graced the cover of Ultimate Homes in 2014.
Casa Casuarina, seen here on the Unique Homes Fall 2012 cover, was the home of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace.

Having a much-loved celebrity often adds to the cachet of a property. “Americans love celebrities,” says Jill Eber. “When a celebrity is comfortable using their name in connection with a property, it really makes a difference. Every home comes with a story and a celebrity’s story just makes it more interesting. A lot of properties are sold by very successful business people and the properties are just gorgeous, but when a home is sold by a celebrity or athlete, buyers are curious and sometimes they are attracted to that cache.”

Few celebrity homes received as much buzz as the Miami Beach mansion owned by the late Gianni Versace. “Everything about the Versace property, known as Casa Casuarina, was fun and exciting,” says Jill Hertzberg, who, along with Eber, sold the property. “It was a totally iconic property known worldwide. Every room was different with the most extraordinary mosaic tile designs throughout. The property was built for fun and entertainment and the buyers who purchased it just loved it! They all jumped into the pool on the day they got it. Standing in front of the mansion with reporters from all over the world is something I will always remember.”

Among our Ultimates, few have generated as much interest as The Manor, dubbed The Spelling Manor when it came to market in 2009 at an unprecedented price of $150 million, eventually selling for a reported $85 million in 2011. The buyer, Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, embarked on an extensive remodel, eventually bringing the estate back on the market in 2016 at $200 million. The 2019 sale price, $119.7 million, set a new, but short-lived, record for Los Angeles. Only a few months later, another legendary property, Chartwell, sold for a reported $150 million, achieving a new benchmark. 

Designed by Sumner Spaulding in 1933, Chartwell, like several other legends, including the Manor, was inspired by French chateaus. Located on 10 acres in Bel Air and surrounded by pristine gardens, it ticks off all the attributes of a legendary estate. Although it is notable for the highest list price, $350 million, in 2017, few other mansions are as familiar to so many. Featured on the 1960s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, it was home to the Clampetts.

It’s worth noting the estate is actually in Bel Air. The Bel Air Hillbillies might not have been as catchy a title as the Beverly Hillbillies, says Gary Gold, with Hilton & Hyland, one of the agents listing the property. Using a home at one address, but identifying it as being in another location in films and television is not unusual, according to Gold. 

Chartwell was listed by a team of agents including Rey and Jade Mills with Coldwell Banker Realty, and Gold and Jeff Hyland with Hilton & Hyland. When prices breach $100 million, it’s not uncommon to have multiple brokerages marketing the property.

“These big sales have many layers of complexity. It can be a trust, a bankruptcy or a probate, and everyone at this level is well represented. And at $100 million, no one is flexible,” explains Gold. Often the team of agents and brokers will divide the tasks depending on their expertise. Gold says he is always 100-percent committed to getting the deal done.

Having brokered the sale of the Playboy Mansion, Gold jokingly refers to himself as the “Roger Bannister of luxury real estate.” Like Bannister’s one-minute mile, the Playboy Mansion smashed the $100 million ceiling in L.A. and opened the door to a number of legendary estates trading at or over $100 million, including Chartwell and The Manor.

“These types of mansions usually come on the market once in a blue moon, once a decade, but recently a number have traded in the last couple of years,” Gold shares.

When it came on the market, the Playboy Mansion received lots of media coverage. Still, when Jade Mills, who represented the buyer, initially saw the property, she wasn’t expecting to find a zoo. The property had “been talked about, but not really the zoo and the peacocks and everything that was there,” she says.

“When I first went there, there were all of the animals, monkeys, peacocks were all over the property — I just thought that it was so amazing that right in the middle of Holmby Hills, you had all those fabulous animals. So, it was just fun to see, and to see the grotto.”

Gold says the number of birds increased over time as local avians decided it was a great place to call home and joined the menagerie.

Another interesting tidbit was an abundance of pushbuttons in this home, sort of a smart home before the era of home tech. For example, push a button and the bed would turn around. The grotto had an array of buttons, all glowing red, and a phone from which you could dial up whatever music you wanted

Foundation of Value

But for legends, it is the amount of land or an impossible-to-replicate location that usually sets them apart. A majority occupy sizable parcels, whether it’s hundreds of acres like Tranquility in Tahoe, or a dozen or less in Bel Air or Holmby Hills. The exception are places such as Malibu, where a setting on the beach is more prized and rarer than acreage.

“Regardless of the condition — like new, falling down or anything in between — each owner puts their heart and soul into these homes,” shares Robert Kinlin, co-owner of Robert Paul Properties, who works with some of the most expensive in Boston and on the Cape. “But a lot of times, people are buying the land and the feeling it evokes when they’re outside walking the property, because you can’t change the land, but you can change the house.”

“The biggest thing you can have with a beautiful estate is Mother Nature,” adds Shari Chase.

When Chase founded her brokerage in 1986, the word “luxury” really wasn’t part of the vocabulary. Instead, she says, “we talked about estates and extraordinary estates, and her tagline was Exceptional Properties for Exceptional People. “I wasn’t going to bother with just any kind of real estate. I only wanted the best, and whether I had one or two or three sales a year, it didn’t matter. I mean, as long as they were fantastic. I think the very first sale was lakefront.” Early on, Chase was involved in what she describes as “the most extraordinary sale we ever had at Tahoe,” the Thunderbird Lodge at a record $50 million. “It held the price record in the entire nation for over 8 years.”

Not often are newly constructed homes destined to become legendary, but Le Belvedere, sited on over 2 acres in Bel Air overlooking the city with a romantic landscape that includes a swan pond, rose gardens and a 280-degree panorama of city lights, is the exception. Over-the-top features such as opulent materials, a ballroom seating 200, a media room seating 50, and a 500-bottle wine cellar, were exceptional when it came on the market in 2009, but the way every detail is executed, the stateliness of the architecture and the sense of harmony from all facets working in perfect sync pushes it from a “stellar property” to a legendary estate.

Le Belvedere, like Tranquility, is also exceptional for its amenities. At that time, shares Rey, “people weren’t building so many of those major theaters. Before that, only those in the industry had large screening rooms.

Rey was involved in the sale of Le Belvedere for $50 million — the highest in the U.S. in 2010 –— and again in 2018 for $56 million.

Amenity Wars

In recent years, there have been a number of newly built for-sale trophy homes, some with list prices stretching current benchmarks. What sets these properties apart is the number of over-the-top features, including curated art installations, stocked wine bars, car collections, an onsite staff and even a helipad. The objective — to include everything someone might want in a home — is aligned with the motives behind the inclusion of extensive amenities in classic estates.

Legendary Redos

No matter how exquisite a property, new owners have a penchant to put their own stamp on it. “I just think that it’s amusing that people must make even, you know, the most expensive, beautiful home — they must make it their own. So sometimes it’s just been remodeled, and then torn completely apart. And they start over,” shares Mills, who brokered the 2019 sale of The Manor. And this practice is not limited to prime estates. Instead, it reaches across the entire price spectrum, whether a house is $1 million or a $100 million.

Few other homes on our annual list have received as much attention as this estate. “The Manor was sort of like no other,” recalls Mills. With 123 rooms and more square footage than the White House, it is one of the largest in Los Angeles. Size and prices generated publicity, but it was the extensive amenities, including gift-wrapping rooms, vast closets, a barber shop, hair salon, bowling alley and nightclub that captured the public’s fancy. There aren’t as many closets as large as the one in the master,” Mills ventures, estimating it to be in the 2,500-square-foot range.”

This story originally appeared in Unique Homes Ultimate ’21. Click here to see the digital version.

After designing the pieces Let it Be and Come Together in 2017 and 2018, designers Ludovica and Roberta Palomba at Poltrona Frau have fortified their third installment that further pays homage to the Beatles. Get Back and the other two pieces inspired by the musical legends are welcoming, tailor-made pieces that offer a return to comfortable spaces, where one can really feel at home.

Get Back

Inspired by the refrain, “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged,” the Get Back sofa was designed a product of “in-depth research into comfort,” according to the brand when the piece was introduced at this year’s Salone del Mobile.

With generous, spacious and open lines, reclined backrests that encourage relaxation, and numerous modular elements to combine freely in lots of different compositions, it’s difficult not to find a sense of inner peace when sitting on this sofa.

On top, soft cushions and chaise elements offer unexpected depth, as well as an alluring invitation to “Get back home” and enjoy the relaxing and convivial atmosphere of your living room.

Let it Be

Rejecting convention and formalism, Let it Be was the first of the Beatles-inspired modular furniture systems designed by Ludovica and Roberto Palomba for Poltrona Frau.

Channelling the popular Beatles song, this seating solution embraces and reinterprets the notion of the Roman triclinium where individuals lay down, ate, talked and lazed about in earlier times.

As a refuge for relaxation, the sofa’s infinite configurations afford individuals the opportunity to curate different arrangements to fit their space and lifestyle.

The purity of the design is accentuated with beautiful details including leather and saddle leather stitching as well as refined plush cushions.

Come Together

Keeping comfort and sociability in mind throughout the creative process, Come Together was born out of a desire to offer people a place for sharing even moreso, an invitation to rediscover the dimension of physical and concrete proximity of exchanging ideas and emotions.

Each facet of the design encourages people to come together and enjoy the company of others. With limitless compositional possibilities, this system features a series of accessories that are versatile and functional.

Differing elements were designed to connect seating compositions to ultimately create more livable, shareable and convenient arrangements.

All photos courtesy Poltrona Frau.

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