Monday, February 25, 2008

"It's Been in the Family for Weeks" - by Tom Connor

September 10, 1998

NOT since the 1920's has the New York region witnessed estate-building on the scale and pace of the late 1990's. These aren't the dinky 10,000-square-foot McMansions that are crowding the suburbs; they're serious turn-of-the-21st-century manor houses of 15,000, 25,000 and 40,000 square feet and more.

One problem with the new estates, however, is that they seem so, well, new. But this isn't a problem if you have lots of new money. Because as more and more well-heeled homeowners are discovering, you can simply pay architects, contractors and landscapers to make the places look as if they'd been there forever.

One popular 1990's makeover is instant ivy implants -- the equivalent of ear-level hair plugs and comb-overs for bald pates. Two years ago, Ceci Brothers, a site-management company in Greenwich, Conn., installed 100 two- to three-year-old ivy plants on the walls of a 17,000-square-foot, hand-cut granite house on 20 acres in North Greenwich for a 31-year-old investment banker and his wife.

''Masonry's a wealthy touch,'' Mike Ceci said, ''but the house looked very cold and stiff.'' Working from extension ladders, his crew hammered inch-long masonry nails into the mortar between the stone, then wrapped galvanized wire around the heads of the nails and painstakingly connected each runner or tendril. Each plant took up to three hours to install and cost about $250.

Nabel's Nurseries in White Plains supplies mature ivy to Ceci Brothers and other landscapers. To get a vigorous, estate-worthy plant, Rudy Nabel, whose father started the nursery in 1942, packs 15 strong cuttings into a seven-gallon pot. In two years' time, the ivy can grow as high as nine feet, with each cutting producing up to 30 tendrils.

''This was a nonexistent crop five years ago,'' Mr. Nabel said. ''It's because of the instant gratification that consumers want these days.''

While on the grounds of the granite house in Greenwich, Ceci Brothers also laid down a half million dollars' worth of topsoil, eight acres of sod, a truckload of old boxwood plants and hundreds of perennials -- carrying out a design by the Manhattan landscape architect Edmund Hollander.

''It's different now than in the mid-1980's,'' said Mr. Hollander, whose firm in recent months has designed some 50 gardens and exteriors for estates in Fairfield and Westchester Counties and in the Hamptons. ''This is less splash and more tradition and elegance. A lot of what's going on now is a repetition of the 1920's.''

But it's 1920's tradition at 1990's speed. ''I can't say to a client, 'This landscape's going to look great in the year 2015,' '' he said. ''That's not going to go over well.''

One tactic is to start planting vines and shrubs as soon as construction begins; another is to build the house close to really old trees. Frank Newbold, a broker with Sotheby's International Realty in East Hampton, noted an imposing Adirondack-style house on Jericho Lane there that ''is so close to a huge tree that it looks as if it'd been built at the same time the tree was planted, when in fact the house went up last week.''

''I think people are looking for roots,'' said Francis Fleetwood of the East Hampton architectural firm Fleetwood Lenahan McMullin, which over the last 18 years has designed the majority of the shingle-style mansions in Southampton and East Hampton. ''They'd all love to be born into a grand old house that had been handed down through the generations. So would I.''

Mark Finlay, an architect in Fairfield, Conn., also designs what he calls ''brand-new old buildings.'' ''It's all in the details,'' he said. ''It's custom windows and sills of four-and-a-half-inch-thick bluestone. It's the way the mortar's done. It's the color of the mortar -- sandy rather than gray.''

Mr. Finlay recently designed a fieldstone house in New Canaan, Conn., to look like an early colonial that had been added onto over the years. For a brick mansion in Greenwich, the architect ordered flat, untooled, rough-looking joints. ''If you look at old brick in Europe, it's really sloppy, because,'' he said, ''half the masons in Europe were drunk.'' Mr. Finlay recalled telling the masons on the project: '' 'Go have lunch and drink a couple of beers, then go to work.' They thought I was nuts.''

Another European look especially popular in the Hamptons is the massive chimney that stands on the horizon like the mast of a tall ship.

''Chimneys were once a focal point because that's how they heated homes,'' said Frank Dalene of Telemark Construction in Bridgehampton, which recently built a 17,000-square-foot, cast-concrete house with three 35-foot-high stacks. ''Now, they're the focal point because they've become architectural details.''

As with the new mansions themselves, homeowners want their chimneys with old details: intricate patterns in the brickwork, ornate corbeling and multiple decorative clay pots on top. Mr. Fleetwood favors ''snow washes'' -- up to 16 inches of mortar mounded over the chimney caps.

The shingled-down Hamptons are also experiencing a demand for historicity. Ben Krupinski, an East Hampton contractor specializing in big houses, is building three outsize stucco-and-limestone mansions. He adds brown pigment to the raw concrete for an old color and tone and sandblasts the limestone to make it appear weathered.

Even Mr. Fleetwood has begun using stone in the foundations and columns of his shingle houses. ''Stone implies permanence,'' he said. ''Most people like stone. We like stone.''

Of course, nothing quite gives stone an old, weathered look as much as old, weathered stone. Mr. Hollander imported several thousand square feet of ''antique'' wall and paving stones from estates being broken up in England to use in terraces around an elegant house on a private island off Long Island. And for the grounds of a new 40,000-square-foot stone house in Westchester, he took moss- and lichen-covered boulders harvested from a Connecticut field and arranged them in the middle of a 100-foot stream he's creating behind the house. ''You can't start with new rock,'' he explained.

Meanwhile, back in Greenwich, the ivy implanted last year is now 15 feet high and thickening. If left alone, the air roots will begin pulling the mortar away from the granite. Then the homeowners must either pay to have the house given a light trim three times a year, as estate owners did in the past -- or build a new mansion and start all over again.

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