Les Wexner builds a house

By
From the October 2010 edition

This story appeared in the May 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly.

Legend has it that one day a few years ago Les Wexner and Jack Kessler were roughing it in the Great Outback, somewhere in the Far Northeast, somewhere near New Albany. While driving his Land Rover, Wexner saw acre upon acre of empty farmland. Virgin soil. He had this vision thing. Here is where he would build himself a home.

Then the billionaire and his buddy had another vision thing. Why not develop a little Camelot for a bunch of other really rich folks. Stately villas with a stylish name, The Villages at Rocky Fork. It would made Muirfield look like M/I Homes.

So, shadow companies were formed, land and homes bought and finally public announcements made about the development, which immediately acquired the nickname “Wexley.” Then late last year, without fanfare, the bulldozers bit into the earth. Say hello, New Albany, to your new neighbor-to-be. Les Wexner—chairman of the Limited, holdings worth an estimated $2.1 billion and among a handful of the country’s richest people—is building a house.

Call it the House Forenza Built.

Call it anything you want, except modest. For Franklin County, it’s the house of the millennium. It’s not every day that Central Ohio, which registers a 2.5 on the glitz scale, has its highest-profile rich guy, one of its few national-headline celebrities, building a spectacular mansion.

So, we wonder, exactly how big is The House? Speculation puts it at 50,000, maybe 60,000 square feet. What does that actually mean? Well, a big Muirfield house is 7,000 to 8,000 square feet, for instance. If The House is 60,000 square feet, it would be bigger than an acre, which is 43,560 square feet. The sum of its interior spaces could hold a football field, with a few extra first downs thrown in. It would be 10,000 square feet larger than the “Son of Heaven” exhibition space at Central High School.

We also noticed a recent New York Times piece fawning over a Big Apple couple building a palatial estate in Connecticut; the architect couldn’t remember how many rooms were in it. That mansion is 21,000 square feet. Ha! Wexner could store that house in a walk-in closet.

The total square footage this bachelor calls home is growing to an extraordinary figure, something akin to the size of a small Third World nation. He already owns places in Bexley, Aspen and New York. The biggest of those, his Aspen abode of glass, stucco and wood, is 35,000 square feet.

Then there’s the Palm Beach story. In 1984, Wexner bought for $10 million the 28-room Wrightsman mansion, which was an unofficial landmark on the chichi island of the social upper crust. Wexner promptly demolished the estate. He planned to build in its place a 22,750-square-foot re-creation of the Petite Trianon at Versailles to be “fashioned through the vocabulary of 18th Century France”—complete with two guest suites, a living room, dining room, library, a master bedroom suite, an exercise room, a kitchen, breakfast room, staff dining room, laundry room, wine cellar, a workshop, storage rooms galore and a loggia, which is a roofed gallery overlooking an open courtyard.

And then there were the 3,000-square-foot tennis pavilion and the 4,000-square-foot pool cabana, which itself was big enough to house a family of three with its two bedrooms, two baths and 12-foot-high ceilings. So he could see what the house would look like, Wexner built on the site a façade of the proposed offwhite marble veneer, then tore that down.

The normally civilized voices of the Palm Beach moneyed set were raised in anger. Wexner endured community opposition and zoning board hassles—until 1988, when, with the house under construction, he said the-hell-with-it and sold the property for $12.1 million to a nursing home tycoon.

Palm Beach must have taught Wexner a lesson about dealing with zoning boards and other democratic processes. In New Albany, he simply bought the town before he started building his newest dream house. Wexner’s New Albany Company, says a New Albany village official, owns 80 to 85 percent of the municipality.

Now, if Wexner were like a fellow billionaire, The Donald, he’d have invited 1,000 of his closest reporter friends to a ground breaking. No such luck, however. Glamour-starved Central Ohioans have to lap up crumbs of information where they may. Although answers are few, we have plenty of questions. How much will it cost to build? How many bedrooms? Bathrooms? Why is it so big? What will it look like? Will Wexner entertain big-time celebs there? Will the doorknobs be imported from a tiny village in northern Italy and cost the equivalent of your annual salary? Why is it so big? Will any of it be publicly visible? Will he host charity events there? What about his fabulous art collection? And, why is it so big?

Certainly, people want to know. Especially Wexner’s new neighbors in New Albany.

Before 1987, when Kessler announced that he and Wexner, under the guise of the New Albany Company, had been gobbling chunks of land for their housing development, New Albany was just a hiccup in the northeast corner of Franklin County. A place known primarily as a speed trap. The entire population (450) could fit inside the Drexel Theatre, with room to spare. The police chief was the only full-time cop on the payroll. Earl Musgrave got 48 votes in the 1985 mayoral election . . . and won.

Then “Wexley” changed everything. Suddenly, after being ignored for so many years, New Albany became the focus of wide attention. There were debates and accusations and public hearings in Columbus, New Albany and Plain Township about messy issues: water and sewer contracts, school district boundaries, annexation into Columbus and merger talks between New Albany and the surrounding township. But by the fall of 1988, things fell neatly into place for the New Albany Company. Its land didn’t get sucked into Columbus, and New Albany’s schools didn’t get swallowed by Columbus’s urban school system. New Albany merged with part of Plain Township (ballooning the village’s population to 3,500 overnight), and Columbus agreed to provide the new New Albany with a vital water and sewer contract.

New Albanians have embraced Wexner as a neighbor; they say they like his ideas for the Villages at Rocky Fork, and probably like his money even more, considering he’s made a number of them rich by buying their property for hefty sums. Wexner and Kessler have offered Plain Local schools a gift of $750,000, and the New Albany Company already has donated approximately $50,000 to the village to buy a new police cruiser and pay the salaries of two full-time police officers for one year.

When word leaked in November that Wexner had broken ground for The House, details were sketchy. Wexner bought more than 340 acres of property Dec. 29, 1989, between Kitzmiller Road to the east, St. Rt. 605 to the west, Rt. 161 to the north and Morse Road to the south. The residence’s design is American Georgian—a Williamsburg kind of look. There will be a brick exterior and a greenish slate roof. To the north of Wexner’s place, Kessler, too, has broken ground on his large, but more modest house, though it will be, as he says, in a “similar vocabulary of materials.”

The architect for both houses is Thierry Despont, a young Frenchman who has offices in New York and Paris, a receptionist who speaks with a French accent and an assistant named Dominique. His clients include Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein and the Statue of Liberty (the 1980s restoration project).

Then there’s the list of companies that are putting the bricks, mortar, pipes, wires, trees, shrubs in their places. The general contractor is Setterlin Construction, which reportedly constructed the Limited’s Morse Road headquarters and also built Wexner’s Aspen mansion. There’s a landscape architect from Philadelphia, a structural engineer from New York, a mechanical engineer from Norwalk, Connecticut, a general construction consultant from Aspen, Colorado, and a host of Central Ohio companies with a variety of specialties, from waterproofing to reinforcing steel placement. Wexner has hired 20 companies, so far, to build his house.

We decided to ask these companies a few questions. Maybe they could provide more specific details about Wexner’s home?

Well, not really. They say that Setterlin officials told them to keep hush-hush about it— to refer questions to Setterlin spokesman Walt Betley. One contractor, mentioning Betley, says, “I’m sure he would be glad to talk with you.” Betley talks, sort of, but gives no indication of whether he is glad to. What Betley says is that he can’t talk about it. (In fact, Setterlin is so strict about disclosure of information that a secretary refused to identify Betley’s title with the company. “We were instructed to say nothing.”)

Betley says to call William Westbrook of the New Albany Company or Chan Cochran, public relations overseer for the development. Westbrook doesn’t return a call, but Cochran does, only to say that he, too, has been told not to discuss the project. “It’s been explained to me that this is a private matter.” Oh, so no chance of Mr. Wexner chatting about why The House is so Big? “It’s been explained to me. . . .”

However, we did learn a few things. A glimpse of the list of contractors shows Wexner has hired firms to remove and to plant trees. Lots of them, no doubt. Another name on the list of contractors is Jeffrey Runtz of Dover Elevator Company—which means there will be an elevator in The House. No, Runtz says. “Elevators.” Then he adds, “Sorry, that’s all I should say.”

Perhaps Jack Kessler wouldn’t mind leaking a few tidbits. The real estate developer /OSU trustee/downtown civic type is speaking on a car phone, seemingly in a chipper mood, talking about the glorious weather. He sounds like a man who still pinches himself about having a big bankroll and really rich friends. Kessler is driving to the prospective New Albany homestead at this very moment.

Why is The House so Big? “I guess he likes big houses.” OK. Any other explanation? “I do know that he likes large proportions to his rooms. He wants to do business entertaining and civic entertaining there.” So, maybe there will be the hotshot celebs being limoed through New Albany, after all.

Kessler says that Wexner’s place will have a country gentleman motif, particularly heavy on the equestrian feel. Lots of white fences. Wexner will have horses, even. Real ones, not bronzed. “Les doesn’t ride, but there will be horses,” Kessler says.

Any other animals? A 1985 New York magazine profile of Wexner had a picture of him—in a tie and expensive dress shoes—romping in the backyard of his Bexley manse with what appeared to be a German shepherd. The story mentioned he had “dogs” and referred to them as the “Wexner kids.” One of his kids was named Max. Will Max be joining Les in the country? “I know Les had two dogs at one point, but I’m not sure what happened to Max,” says Kessler. “I’m sure he’ll have dogs out there. Les likes animals.”

We were just curious about the interior decorating, so how about a glimpse inside the Wexner house? Word on Wexner is that he prefers a contemporary, eclectic style. As one interior decorator who has worked with Wexner says, “He is a world traveler.” But would a contemporary décor clash with an American Georgian style? Instead, will Wexner have his minions searching the Virginia countryside and the finest auction houses to find, say, the vintage Chippendale chairs to complement the William and Mary gateleg table? Kessler says Wexner will sell his Bexley home—with a property tax market value of $500,000, but worth considerably more, no doubt. Will he move his stuff from there into his New Albany estate?

And will he be actively consulting with the interior designer? One can imagine Wexner on the line to Hong Kong checking on a million-dollar deal for sweaters while somebody slides carpet samples onto his desk for approval. Kessler says only that Wexner “hasn’t picked an interior decorator yet.”

Then, through the fuzz of the car phone, Kessler says, “Perfect timing. Just pulled up to the site now—got a meeting with the architect.” One last question. When will the homes be complete? “We’ll be in by spring of 1991. Les a little later. OK, I hope I was of some help. If you need anything else just call.”

The next place to turn for information is the village of New Albany. Ann Marcum is the pleasant and helpful police clerk who answers the phone. When asked if any village officials are working in the office, she says, “No,” with a you’re-not-from-around-these-parts tone in her voice. Most people are part-time. She offers to help. Are the blueprints and building permit available? “I got them in the closet here somewhere. I’ll have to call Earl.”

Earl is Earl Musgrave, the part-time mayor of New Albany for the past four years who earns $1,800 a year for his troubles. He gets testy when reporters call. Musgrave says he’s been burned in the past, misquoted and all, and besides, he has a small construction company to run and time is money. Marcum later says that “the zoning guy” is the one to see about the blueprints and building permit. “He works Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 9 am to noon—ho, ho, ho,” she says, meaning he works considerably more hours for his $1,200 salary. A recording answers at his number, asking callers to leave a message. “Thank you and have a nice day.”

We thought we could learn something by visiting the site. So we drive through “downtown” New Albany, east on Rt. 161, and turn south onto Kitzmiller, past the single-family homes that edge the road and the empty farmlands beyond them. Then we see a white sign on the west side of the street announcing a Setterlin Construction project. It’s near the entrance to the private, very private golf course named, logically enough, The Golf Club.

There’s a muddy gravel road that runs two-tenths of a mile to a chain-link fence and an enclosed cubicle. The fence bears No Trespassing signs. A man in a uniform sits in the cubicle. Just beyond the fence a brick tower rises 20 to 30 feet in the air. It’s not a part of The House, though, but a mock-up to test the concrete, or so the informed speculation goes. Workers are busy in the distance.

A man steps out of the cubicle wearing a wary look. His badge reads R. Anderson—officer, New Albany police force. He says he and the other four full-time New Albany policemen have been hired by Setterlin during their off-duty hours to stand guard. He’s not sure what exactly is being built, “tourists” stop by occasionally and he’s seen Wexner drive in a few times. “He’s all right,” Anderson says. “He says things.”

Clumped around the gravel drive are four houses—Wexner’s next-door neighbors. One is James Celedonia. He moved here about five years ago to escape urban congestion. “How was I to know that Les Wexner was going to build a house right behind me?”

His back yard abuts the chain-link fence, but he says he can’t see much. “The house is farther back, seems to be in a valley of sorts,” he says. What isn’t hard to see are the helicopters. “They fly over the property all the time. We heard that Wexner bought six helicopters that would be ready to take him up at any time. That’s one of the fun things we’ve heard.” He also believes he saw Wexner once. “I was mowing the grass [last year] and I think I saw him pull up in his car, but I wasn’t sure.”

So, how does it feel to live next to a billionaire? “I’m a friendly guy,” says Celedonia; “If he wanted us to drop over, then I’m sure we would. We were wondering if he would invite us over for a barbecue.” Actually, Wexner might have another idea on how to be a good neighbor. By buying Celedonia out. “We get a call every three or four months from a representative,” Celedonia says. “The phone conversation always ends with the same question: ‘By the way, if you’re interested in selling. . . .’ They pay premium prices and I guess everybody has their price.” Celedonia laughs the laugh of a lucky man.

Wexner has another neighbor. That’s WCVO, a Christian radio station. Located on St. Rt. 605, it is just northwest of Wexner’s house. Leading to the station’s driveway are Burma Shave-like sighs that read, “Don’t depend/on the weather/for a good day/depend on Jesus/all the way.” A transmitting tower, with a cross near the top, stands behind the station, casting a shadow on Wexner’s property.

Pat Patterson is the station’s general manager. He, too, had a vision thing. Last spring he reportedly said God told him to build a Sea of Galilee and a church center to resemble Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Practically in Wexner’s back yard. The New Albany Company has been negotiating with WCVO’s board to squelch his plans.

Quoting Bible passages, Patterson says he has grand “aspirations” for WCVO. Then he drops a hint that those aspirations don’t necessarily have to happen behind the radio station. “We could change locations,” he says. Anyway, he’s in no mood to chit-chat about his new neighbor; the skies are threatening rain and he’s in a hurry. Patterson has a bulldozer stuck in the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. “We’re digging the [sea] out now. If I don’t get out there soon, I will have the world’s first submarine bulldozer.”

The best place to get the latest gossip in New Albany, though, is at Gene Williams’s place, the New Albany Barber Shop in the heart of the village. Gene’s been here for 21 years, talking as long as you want about anything you want while he’s finishing up one of his $7 haircuts. The latest buzz among the boys at the barbershop is, of course, Wexner’s new house. Rumors fly as fast as Gene can take a little off the side. A favorite one among the boys there now is that the Wexner house will have 27 bathrooms. “It’s just talk, that’s all it is,” Williams says. “But that’s what we hear.”

Later, the zoning guy calls. He’s Bob Brandner, village of New Albany zoning officer. Brandner is a retired military man and Department of Defense administrator who’s been active for years in Plain Township commissions and associations; now, after the merger, he lives in New Albany. At the end of January, council asked him to serve as its zoning officer. There’s a small problem, though. “I don’t have much experience in zoning,” he says. “But I’m learning. And, being an ex-military man, I will run the office by the book.”

There’s also another problem. “We don’t have anybody who can do zoning inspections. We are working with Franklin County on contracting with them for inspectors. Of course, the only building going on now is Wexner and Kessler. They are doing their own inspections, sending the reports to us and we send them to an engineering company we have hired to check them out. That will change, though, when we get a deal with Franklin County.”

At least Brandner has an office now. A few weeks earlier, all he had was a corner in village council chambers in the too-small municipal building. Brandner works in a rented room, with a desk, a donated electric typewriter and a couple of filing cabinets. There are piles of records and maps and books to be researched and organized. “I’m working 50 hours a week, but you don’t have to mention that,” he says.

Brandner pulls out a collection of blueprints marked “A residence for Mr. Leslie H. Wexner.” He also has building permits and inspection files. “You know, I called over to the New Albany Company and asked if someone from there could come over and explain the plans for you,” Brandner says. “I thought it might be helpful.” Nobody came. Brandner has another thought. “You really ought to go on the site and see what it’s like. I’ve been out there. I haven’t seen a whole lot, but I think it would help.” He then calls Setterlin, goes through a channel or two, leaves a message, gets a return call from Walt Betley and explains his idea. “Absolutely not,” says Betley.

Brandner gives a worth-a-try shrug and hands over the building permits. The speculation was right about the size of The House. It officially checks in at 60,112 square feet. The estimated cost is $5 million. No, there won’t be 27 bathrooms. Try, four full baths and six-half baths. (The boys at the barbershop will be disappointed.) There are four bedrooms, which seems surprisingly low; perhaps overnight guests will be held to a handful. The frame is structural steel. Wexner will have a private sewage system and well or cistern.

Brandner lays the blueprints on the carpeted floor. “Let me tell you, it’s something else,” he says, flipping through the Wexner plans. “It’s going to be some pad. When I was over there, I heard that the basement was going to be 16 feet deep.” The blueprints, however, are vague.

A few days later Brandner says another set of blueprints had been filed. “These are a lot better,” he says. This time, the 53-page package reveals considerable information.

It appears as if the driveway entrance—blocked by a gate—will be south of the residence, off of Kitzmiller. The drive winds north past a canal, a rotunda and pyramid. (A pyramid? That’s what the plans say. Will Wexner’s abode double as a New Age retreat?) It connects into an east-west roadway. Heading west, the road runs into what seems to be a circular drive surrounded by landscaping. This circular drive is north of The House, which will face the same direction.

The House is sectioned into three connected parts: a central portion and east and west wings. The shape of the central house is fashioned in the vocabulary of capital letters. From above, the central house looks like a fat capital “I” resting on its side. The wings resemble upside-down capital “Ts,” with the legs of the “Ts” extending northward. It seems as if there will be seven outbuildings attached to the wings. There also appear to be outdoor courtyards. Separated from the wings by a roadway are two other structures— perhaps stables. One has another outbuilding as an anchor.

The “south terrace” layout includes brick edging, stone steps, a sod path, evergreen hedges, brick pavers in herringbone pattern and a “small flowering tree in terra-cotta pot.”

The central house and the wings each have two floors and a basement. The central house also has an attic.

Inside the central house are two large rectangular rooms (an entry hall and a sitting room) connected by three doorways. On either side of these two spaces are several more rooms, including a bar, dining room, breakfast room, library and gallery, presumably where Wexner will hang his artwork. The second floor of the central house has two large master bedrooms, an exercise room, steam shower, a big sitting room and something called a “hideaway.”

The east wing contains several spaces marked for staff or security, among many other rooms. It also has a large orangery—which the dictionary says is “a hothouse for growing orange trees in cooler climates.” The east wing basement has a catering kitchen. The west wing has five rooms designated for guests, again, among many other rooms. It also has a media room, which most likely will be used to show movies, and not as a reception hall for reporters.

There seem to be at least 100 rooms in The House.

After all, a man needs a little breathing room at the end of a busy day.

Ray Paprocki is a staff writer for Columbus Monthly.