Storied Bay State Mansions
by brooke lea foster
The luxury home market in New England is showing signs of a serious turnaround. April and May saw an uptick in the number of houses over the million-dollar mark that were under agreement—493 properties, compared to 473 sales at or above $1 million in the first four months of 2011. Plus, Boston already has had three mega-sales this year. A condominium in the Mandarin Oriental sold for $10,300,000 in February, while a single-family home at 3 Louisburg Square went into contract for $11,000,000 in April. The most expensive home to sell in Massachusetts this year was 15 Commonwealth Avenue, a 15,000-square-foot mansion in Back Bay. It didn’t go quickly: The house languished for 1,000 days and sold for about 37 percent less than the original $20 million asking price. But this is the year it sailed off the market.
There’s a reason 2012 is the turning point: The stock market seems to have stabilized, and the perception of Boston’s real estate market as a wobbly one is finally catching up with the reality of its robustness, says Kevin Ahearn of Otis & Ahearn Real Estate.
His office has seen downtown’s sales numbers “sneaking up on 2007’s numbers in regards to total transactions year to date.” But, he says, “The downtown market has only three-and-a-half months’ supply, which is very tight. And with transactions up about 12 percent this year over last, my theory is that the tight market will drive up prices in the city.” He also notes that so far in 2012, 35 to 40 percent of Boston’s transactions have been cash purchases.
There are more bright spots in the high-end market. In Weston, an eightacre hilltop mansion sold for a gong-ringing $15.6 million in 2011; this was the most expensive residential property sale in the Boston area in four years. “It shows that there’s an appetite for these higher-end properties again,” says Jonathan Radford, a luxury real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.
Another sign of an increased optimism may be the high prices some sellers are setting for the most exclusive properties, says Ahearn, including a May listing of a Nantucket property for $59 million.
Which towns have homes in the $10 million to $15 million range? Think Weston, Wellesley, Osterville, Cohasset. Also interesting are the highnet- worth towns that are not on the list; the highest-priced homes in Andover and Concord top out between $4.2 million and $10.5 million.
From Nantucket to Back Bay, from country estates to 26,000-square-foot townhouses, $15 million can buy more than ultraluxe bedrooms, walk-in closets, and privacy—you’re also getting dream-home amenities and, like the two here in Cohasset and on Cape Cod, a storied past.
Frank Sinatra Slept Here
Peter Roy and his Canadian-born wife, Leah, were looking for a home in the suburbs of Boston when they came across a Cohasset house that had been serving as the corporate office for Yankee Oil & Gas. It was a sagging, ivycovered, brick 20,000-square-foot Georgian Revival mansion, and the home’s enormous second floor had been converted to a single wide-open room with rows of desks—the workers called it the “bull pen.” Still, Roy, who grew up in Newton and made his fortune as cofounder of Hingham-based Intercontinental Energy Corp., saw potential in the 1930s-era home. He and his wife paid $3 million for the property in 1989.
The Roys, who divide their time between Cohasset and Toronto, dramatically transformed the property into a 45-room manse over the last 20-plus years. The couple redecorated the first-floor reception rooms and designed a second floor with a three-room master suite, seven additional bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a laundry room. On the third floor, there’s a rec room and two more bedrooms and bathrooms. The basement includes a media room with a massive stone fireplace, a proper English-style pub, billiards room with wet bar, children’s playroom, and an exercise room with sauna.
It has a glamorous history: For more than 60 years it had been owned by the Bancroft/ Barron/Cox family, founders of Dow Jones & Company and The Wall Street Journal. Hugh Bancroft, Clarence Barron’s son-in-law, built the current estate in the 1930s, and when he passed away, Barron’s granddaughter, Jessie Bancroft Cox, inherited it. Bancroft Cox loved to throw fabulous parties, and she would often host the acts traveling through town with the South Shore Music Circus. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Liberace all slept here, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife lunched here, and Ronald Reagan visited the property before he was elected.
“It feels very ethereal when you’re on those grounds,” says Robb Silva, an agent with William Raveis in Boston, who has played tennis at the home. “There is a wrought-iron fence surrounding the property, giant old oak trees, beautiful topiary gardens—and it all opens up to the water.”
The Roys were buying more than a house. They were buying a nine-acre peninsula with 1,800 square feet of private oceanfront, a private beach, and a deepwater dock. This property allowed Roy to buy most of the land around the harbor, including the Cohasset Harbor Inn, two restaurants, and the Mill River Marina. Plus, the couple liked its proximity to Cohasset Village, and their three children could swim by the private beach, push a kayak into the water, or have ice cream parties by the pond.
In 2010, the Roys put The Oaks, as they called it, on the market for $44.9 million, which includes the restored 20,000-square-foot mansion, plus the portfolio of properties described above. (You can buy the home separately for $22.2 million.) While they were careful to preserve the architectural details of the estate’s formal spaces—think acanthus-leaf crown molding, double-paneled mahogany doors—the Roys wanted to modernize the house and provide casual spaces for their children to enjoy. In 2006 they added a family room wing extension including an expansive 17-by-35-foot family kitchen with antique white maple base custom cabinetry and a large maple center island with seating. The cooking space opens onto a gymnasium- size 24-by-34-foot family room with a cross-beamed wood ceiling and spectacular views of the harbor and the ocean beyond from vertical picture windows; it’s where the new owner might spend as much time watching sports as surveying the vast property and the nearby sea.
Jonathan Radford, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, 617-335-1010
Where Time Stands Still
Imagine forking over $30 million for a house—and then having to renovate the kitchen. It’s what buyers need to consider when touring Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon’s $28.7-million, eight-bedroom, nine-bathroom waterfront compound in the gated Cape Cod community of Oyster Harbors. While the wealthy philanthropist knew her way around the home’s overflowing gardens—she redesigned the Rose Garden at The White House for Jacqueline Kennedy—you can guess she didn’t spend much time in the kitchen; it is designed for a staff of cooks with commercial-grade appliances, a separate pastry room, and functional cabinetry.
But if you focus on the kitchen you’re missing the point, says listing agent Jack Cotton of Sotheby’s International Realty in Osterville on Cape Cod. “The house is like a work of art,” he says. “Most features of the home are built by hand, and no matter what room you’re in, you feel like you’re in a painting. Time stands still.”
From the moment you pull into the 6,893-square-foot home’s gravel and sand driveway, you’ll feel like you’re returning to a bygone-era Cape Cod. The simple white-painted shingle house with white shutters is low-slung and blends in with its surroundings. You’ll drive past an orchard of perfectly trimmed apple trees; then a wall of rose hedges enclose Mellon’s bountiful edible garden, where fruits, vegetables, and flowers grow all summer long. (It currently is being kept up by an on-staff gardener.) While Mellon, who turns 102 in August, spends most of her time at her 4,000-acre Virginia farm, she was known to grab a basket from her Cape home’s “basket room” to take outside.
Famously private, Mellon grew up in a wealthy East Coast family. (Her grandfather invented Listerine.) As the second wife of the financier Paul Mellon, she spurned publicity while entertaining two generations of British royalty and becoming one of Jacqueline Kennedy’s closest friends. The couple also amassed a priceless art collection—paintings by Cézanne, Rothko, and van Gogh. They collected homes with as much passion, building the 21-room Cape Cod estate in 1954. In spite of her aversion to publicity, Mellon made the news in 2010 when she lost $5.75 million in a ponzi scheme run by her longtime investment adviser Kenneth Starr; she also donated a large sum to former presidential candidate John Edwards. In recent years she has unloaded several of her homes: her two Paris flats in 2011, and two Manhattan townhouses, one in ’05 and the other in ’09. In March, Mellon’s 27-acre estate in Antigua went on the market for $14.5 million. The Cape Cod mansion has been on the market since January.
The home’s most spectacular feature may be what lies beyond it: The property’s 26 acres converge on nearly 1,000 feet of undeveloped shorefront along the Seapuit River. There are wide-open views of Martha’s Vineyard, Sampsons Island, and beyond to Nantucket Sound from inside the house and out. “What’s so genius about this property is the privacy,” says Cotton. Even though there are incredible views from every room, boaters passing by can’t see anything but the roof. Even though the house sits on a slight hill, the home’s landscaping as well as its low profile keep it protected from prying eyes.
There is no air conditioning. Mellon never thought it necessary on the Cape. But there is a beach house with two decks, a fireplace overlooking the water, and a walkway to the beach shaded by a canopy of oak trees.
Says Cotton, “It’s best for someone who values privacy. There really are no neighbors—she owns the whole point.”
Jack Cotton, Sotheby’s International Realty, 508-957-5500
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF COLDWELL BANKER RESIDENTIAL BROKERAGE (45 WALTHAM ): CRAIG ANDERSON (MELLON ESTATE ); BOSTON VIRTUAL IMAGING (74 BEACON EXTERIOR); ASHLEE COOPER (the oaks); PATRICK WISEMAN (986 SEAVIEW); BOSTON VIRTUAL IMAGING (74 BEACON POOL); DIANE ANTON (63 WINSOR)