Fast and Furious

  • Jorge S. Arango

Judith Sheindlin, known to fans of her popular courtroom TV show as Judge Judy, removes a cream-colored envelope from her desk drawer and points to the Cartier logo on it, then to the engraved name: Cindy Adams. In 2008, Sheindlin explains, the well-known New York Post gossip—a good friend of hers—stopped by the site of the Greenwich, Conn., house that Sheindlin and her husband Jerry (a former New York Supreme Court judge who also presided over TV cases on The People’s Court) were having built. To Adams’ eye, the project appeared far from complete.

"I had a $10,000 bet with her that we would be in here by May," Sheindlin recalls. "Cindy said ‘No way.’ " Yet, enclosed with a note is a check for $10,000 made out to Sheindlin, as well as a photocopy of the agreement she and Adams signed at a local restaurant that night. The check attests to the power of determination. The compound—the 18,000-square-foot main house; a guesthouse, guardhouse, and poolhouse that combine for 6,000 square feet; and a pool and formal gardens—was built in just 80 working days. In her column, Adams called the estate "a stone castle maybe two bidets smaller than Buckingham Palace."

When asked about the fast and furious pace, Sheindlin points to a bunch of ripe bananas on her kitchen island and says, "I know I look very well preserved for my age, but look at those bananas. I don’t buy green bananas." (Sheindlin is 66.)

Like Sheindlin, Mark Mariani does not tarry. Mariani, the genial yet driven mastermind behind the project, is arguably Greenwich’s most prominent developer and landscaper. He is also the owner of Mariani Gardens, a nursery and home-decor store in Armonk, New York. He prides himself on erecting 20,000-square-foot homes within six months—Herculean tasks made possible, he says, only through intricate planning and dedication. "No one in my company accepts the words ‘I can’t.’ We think through each phase of a project and how every tradesperson will be working on the home. So if someone comes back to us and says ‘I can’t do it,’ we know how to make it work for them."

In her column, Adams wrote that Mariani’s thoughts are organized so effectively that "all windows, tiles, outlets, trims, plumbing, trusses, moldings, and beams were in hand before he even broke ground." Mariani explains, "We preorder everything. Then we lay out a production schedule, and everybody keeps to that schedule."

To say that Mariani runs a tight ship is an understatement. He forbids workers to smoke on job sites. "It takes seven minutes to smoke a cigarette," he says. "It’s also dangerous. When workers smoke, they use one hand instead of two, and the way they dispose of it creates a fire hazard." Talking on the job? "I don’t encourage it," he says flatly. And if a worker parks his car on the construction site without leaving the keys in it so that it can be moved if necessary, Mariani says, "there’s a good chance the car won’t be there when he goes back to it that evening." Though he may sound like a taskmaster, Mariani achieves levels of productivity that play well with subcontractors (who, he says, appreciate the cost-effectiveness) and suppliers (who are often willing to open on a Sunday if he asks them to).

Mariani had workers on the Sheindlins’ homesite six days a week, sometimes as many as 500 at once. In the finishing stages of the build, there were two shifts working around the clock. Yet, says Bruce Tilley, director and vice president of Mariani Gardens, even with this much activity, "Mark got thank-you letters from the neighbors for keeping the streets immaculate by figuring out the mechanics of parking and traffic control."

All of this effort delivered the highest levels of craftsmanship: French-polished oak millwork, walnut floors, custom-designed plaster moldings, marble countertops, mahogany decks, graduated slate roofs with leaded-copper accents, custom hardware, radiant-heat floors, and Dynamic custom windows, which Mariani says are "as close to bulletproof as you can get."

Such craftsmanship extends outside as well, to the grading and landscaping of the 12.5-acre property. Mariani razed the previous house on the site and then blasted 60 feet into the ground to create a basement and grade the land more gracefully. He also designed an 880-foot-long stone wall (built in four days by approximately 100 men using 12 machines), and he crushed the stone from the basement dig into three different products, which he used throughout the site. He planted mature trees to create gardens that look as if they have been there for years; the grounds feature more than 10,000 trees and plants, including hedges of copper beech and hornbeam, wisteria vines as thick as a python, and 4,000 boxwoods in the lower garden alone.

The project team also included local architect Bryan Brown, as well as Martin and Nicole Kuckly, father-and-daughter interior decorators who have outfitted other homes for the Sheindlins. "When the project came to us, we knew we would have to call all our other clients and tell them we wouldn’t be speaking to them for a few months," Nicole jokes.

"We used almost every piece of furniture from their old house," Martin says, "but we restained, reupholstered, and refinished everything." Given the short time frame, the Kucklys advised the Sheindlins to be flexible. "If a fabric was out of stock or had a long lead time, we switched to something else," Nicole says. "We had three people in our office dedicated to the project who were on the phones 10 hours each day tracking down what we needed."

To maximize the Sheindlins’ limited time (they shuttle regularly between their permanent home in Florida and Los Angeles, where the Judge Judy show—now in its 13th season—is taped), the Kucklys lined up appointments at showrooms and presented their clients with photos of additional items that each room needed. "We measured for rugs before the rooms were finished, when they were just a plywood platform," Martin says. The Kucklys also had the paint mixed the night before the rooms were painted, so that everything continued like clockwork.

The Kucklys’ organizational skills complemented Mariani’s; in the end, the Sheindlins’ dream home was completed on schedule (and cost Cindy Adams that $10,000). For her part, television’s most famously irascible judge is delighted with her contractor’s performance. "The cadence of a job depends on the person at the top," Sheindlin says. "I’m the first one on the set of my TV show—I come in with the coffee cart. Mark gets up at four in the morning, so if someone comes in late, he knows it because he’s already sitting on a bulldozer and has moved a ton of something."

Bryan Brown, 203.594.1652; Kuckly Associates, 914.479.1700; Mariani Gardens, 914.273.3083, www.marianigardens.com

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