The Big Idea: The Urban Exodus
City dwellers experienced a once-in-a-generation collective primal urge last year: escape. Like Roman aristocrats and wealthy Londoners during plague pandemics of yore, many of us chose to head for the healthful air of the countryside.
Those who lacked a well-appointed bolt-hole urged their brokers to acquire one pronto, sparking bidding wars in spacious suburbs and resort towns such as the Hamptons. Sales of South Fork homes priced at more than $2 million rose 156 percent in the last quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, while one village, Quogue, saw an increase of 388 percent, according to Corcoran. Some ex-urbanites have enrolled children in local schools and plan to stay put indefinitely. Snowbirds who used to migrate annually to Florida hot spots such as Boca Raton are now feathering permanent nests there.
As with the switch to digital working, Covid-19 accelerated a pre-existing trend. Coldwell Banker reported inventory in Los Angeles has outpaced sales for several years now, thanks to the desire for lower tax burdens offered by states such as Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Colorado. Sales in Aspen duly jumped 103 percent in 2020.
The same held true in San Francisco, where one realtor says, “The exodus is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 28 years of selling San Francisco real estate… with affluent residents just feeling it was time for a new life outside the city.” Bay Area fugitives left for low-tax states or holed up in Napa and Lake Tahoe.
And what did we buy? Compounds: sprawling estates that can house the extended family, with room for a full complement of staff, a suite of home offices, on-site learning pods and extensive leisure amenities. While a Peloton bike and a firepit might have cut it in 2019, this last year contractors installed wellness complexes, meditation chambers and infinity pools.
Extreme versions of the same impulse for sumptuous seclusion drove a spike in demand for private islands and second passports. Real-estate investment is a path to citizenship in Caribbean countries such as Dominica and Grenada and EU member states such as Malta. One immigration lawyer noted there had even been a rush on third and fourth passports, saying, “In the face of risk, families are diversifying their… nationalities, not unlike how investors diversify their portfolios.”
This new primacy of the rural retreat may reflect permanent priority shifts. According to one broker, “I don’t think anyone from this generation will want to risk finding themselves without an escape.”
New Island Community: Oil Nut Bay, British Virgin Islands
Caribbean second-home resorts have seen their occupancy patterns shift in the past year from short vacation stays to long-term residency, thanks to the WFH boom. David Johnson, the man behind Oil Nut Bay, a 400-acre development on the northeastern tip of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, has said that the island’s eight-month lockdown allowed construction to accelerate to meet pent-up demand.
Oil Nut Bay is a low-density resort accessible only by boat, seaplane or helicopter, and will eventually comprise 117 homes. Homeowners drawn to Virgin Gorda’s 10-month season and calm waters have so far invested more than $400 million, with five splashing out $35 million or more each.
The resort focuses on sailing and yachting, but amenities run the gamut: a 93-slip marina, a private beach club with three pools and a swim-up bar, a fitness center, tennis courts, a kids’ club, three fine-dining options and two helipads.
Lots range from $1.65 million to $25 million, while pre-constructed villas go for $2.95 million to $39.5 million. A 5,807-square-foot house with direct beach access listed in December for $19.5 million, with six bedrooms and an infinity pool. The most expensive home was designed by Johnson himself, a modern five-bedroom hilltop mansion stretching across 8,000 square feet, with a zero-edge pool and a separate one-bedroom guesthouse, for $39.5 million.
Mountain Retreat: 115 Francisco Way, Telluride, Colorado
As you ascend the winding 10-minute drive from Telluride airport, the firelit windows of this 11,512-square-foot ski lodge wink through silvery aspen groves beneath the white peaks of the San Juan Mountains. Basically everyone’s fantasy mountain retreat, the home was designed in the 1990s by Tom Cruise, who gradually snapped up parcels of land until he acquired the current 320 acres, which include snowmobile trails and a separate three-bedroom guest cottage.
The house is tucked beneath 13,213-foot Campbell Peak and offers panoramic views of Telluride and its encircling mountains. Inside are cedar walls, stone fireplaces, snug dens, large living spaces, four en suite bedrooms, a gym, a home office and a billiards room that once held Cruise’s movie scripts.
The latter were shown to Oprah Winfrey as part of a tour of the house during Cruise’s 2008 televised interview. But the woodsy seven-bedroom compound, which sold in May for $39.5 million with LIV Sotheby’s International Realty, is impressive regardless of celebrity sparkle.
Family Compound: Green Gables, Silicon Valley
In any ordinary year, a faded, century-old complex decorated in the style of yesteryear, with 19 structures in need of an upgrade and 74 acres of gardens to maintain, might be a hard sell. Not this year. Family compounds have been in hot demand, and Green Gables in Woodside, Silicon Valley’s costliest enclave, is a rare offering.
For a start, it’s the Bay Area’s most expensive listing, at $135 million, according to Christie’s International Real Estate. And despite its age—it was built in 1911—the same principles underlie its design and purpose as motivate the Covid-era compound dweller, namely privacy, immersion in nature and keeping family close but not too close. The estate, designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Sumner Greene, contains seven homes (32 bedrooms in all), including the main 10,000-square-foot residence, none of which are visible from the others.
The property is being sold by the descendants of Mortimer Fleishhacker, a San Francisco banking and hydroelectric-power magnate who commissioned it as a summer retreat for his family. Greene even hand-carved some of the furniture and wood paneling.
But the chief beauty of the estate is its spectacular gardens and woodlands, including a 300-foot stone swimming pool set within classical arcades, and the views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the grounds are two other pools, a teahouse, a tennis court, an artist’s studio and a private reservoir.
Beach House: L’île d’Anges, The Exumas, Bahamas
The pandemic sparked a rush of interest in private islands, which morphed from fantasy getaway to realistic WFH isolation investment overnight. Island brokers describe 2020 as a market like no other in terms of inquiries. Actual purchases have remained somewhat more elusive, as the infrastructure and maintenance workload can be off-putting. Buyers wanted “turnkey” islands, and few are as hassle-free and idyllic as L’île d’Anges, a four-bedroom, 20-acre escape in the Exumas developed by the country musicians Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
The island, also known as Goat Cay, is for sale via Knight Frank for $35 million. Hill and McGraw purchased it in 2003 as a “raw, uninhabited island, full of potential,” according to the agent, and built the current sprawling residence. The 6,517-square-foot main house and bell tower stand in the center of the island, commanding 360-degree ocean views. A central open-plan living area with retractable glass walls connects to four large bedroom suites via a nearly 5,000-square-foot network of covered walkways and verandas. The whitewashed beachside residence is ready to move into, as are two large yurts on the white-sand beach, which can withstand hurricanes and extra guests.
The undulating island, an 80-minute flight from Miami, has almost 1.3 miles of palm-fringed waterfront and a private dock, as well as 6,000 square feet of outbuildings, including three two-bedroom villas, engineering facilities and mechanical storage. Installing these necessities is the unglamorous side of island life, but here you can relax on the beach knowing that work has already been done for you.
New Urban Development: Chicago Tribune Tower Residences
If you’ve ever dreamt of living among the pinnacles and decorative tracery of Notre Dame, except with a jaw-dropping pool, spa and private dog park, the new residences at the Chicago Tribune Tower are the answer to your rather specific prayers. Built to great fanfare in 1925 after a global competition won by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, the neo-Gothic tower modeled on Rouen Cathedral was home to the eponymous newspaper until 2018.
During the building’s construction in the 1920s, foreign correspondents were dispatched to collect chunks of historic monuments and send them home to be embedded in the new tower, so residents will sleep close to entombed off-cuts of the Taj Mahal, Edinburgh Castle and the Great Wall of China. The tower, with its 1964 “Chicago Tribune” sign—which will stay suspended and visible from the glass-walled pool—is adorned with flourishes such as flying buttresses and gargoyles.
Developers CIM Group (famed for New York’s supertall at 432 Park Ave.) and Golub & Co. began sales in 2019, and residents will begin to move in this year. Pricing for the 162 Art Deco units ranges from $900,000 to north of $7 million. The loveliest apartments feature quirky window shapes and skyline views filtered through ornate stone carvings.
The grand Michigan Avenue lobby, with its solemn quotes carved into marble, has been preserved, and owners will have access to a 25th-floor roof deck inside the octagonal “crown” of the tower—complete with herb garden, a firepit and views, through the flying buttresses, of Lake Michigan.
Castle: Chilham Castle, Kent, England
This estate may be a grand manor house masquerading as a castle, ornamental crenellations and all, but in every other way it’s the real deal. Built in 1612 on the site of a keep dating from 709, it has all the essential components of an English country house: mullioned windows, linenfold wood paneling, massive stone fireplaces, molded plaster ceilings, wine cellars, a library, several pantries, a room just for storing cutlery, staff quarters and a liberal distribution of antlers. The coral-colored brick house stands in 300 acres of terraced lawns, herbaceous borders and parkland, enclosing a kitchen garden, a lake with boathouse, two tennis courts, a vineyard, two gate lodges and extensive stables and paddocks.
With 11 reception rooms, 14 bedrooms in the main house (plus five in the gate lodges) and 12 bathrooms, the estate has 33,734 square feet of historic living space to get lost in. It wouldn’t be an English manor house without a few eccentricities, and here these come in the form of the layout, which is a hexagon missing one side, and a 1920s indoor marble pool.
The current owners, who open the gardens to the public, have completed a full restoration. Previous proprietors include several kings of England, not least Henry VIII. The castle sits on the edge of the picture-perfect village of Chilham, 57 miles from Central London. What more could you want for your $21 million?
Penthouse: 555 West End Avenue, New York City
In 1907, the New York Protestant Episcopal School Corporation opened a school on the corner of West End Avenue and West 87th St. Designed by William Alciphron Boring, the ornate brick-and-limestone “Collegiate Gothic” edifice, as described by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), is anything but boring. Today, the building, most recently St. Agnes Boys High School, houses luxury condos, the work of developer Cary Tamarkin, who bought the building from the Archdiocese of New York in 2014.
Tamarkin persuaded the LPC to let him build a new penthouse layer (hidden from the street) above the existing top floor, creating a sun-filled, 8,429-square-foot duplex. In March, it listed for $42 million with Sotheby’s International Realty and Compass.
Boring, who also co-designed the Ellis Island Immigration Station, was a founder of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, and 555 West End Ave. is commensurably grand. From the open-plan dining area, the view is of the Manhattan skyline framed by crenellated parapets, which flank one of several terraces.
Downstairs are six en suite bedrooms with arched windows, alongside a living room, converted from the former school gymnasium, with a 22-foot, barrel-vaulted ceiling crowned by a skylight and a dramatic glass wall that opens to a patio. The modern millwork by Christopher Peacock is muted and chic. This is a rare conversion that preserves and heightens the beauty of the original building.
Amenities: Monitor’s Rest, Park City, Utah
“Amenities” became a significant buzzword when our worlds shrank to the perimeter of our homes. If you had a pool, garden, study and room for the nanny, you could comfortably hunker in your bunker. But there is no bunker quite like Monitor’s Rest, a 17,567-square-foot ski retreat being completed in Park City, Utah.
In the Amenity Wars of 2021, it is not enough to have a humidor and a porte cochere. To live out the end times in true comfort, you’ll need a dog door, dog walk and dog wash station, a prep kitchen with a gift-wrap area, a fitness studio filled with TechnoGym equipment and then a separate stretching room, hammam, infrared sauna, plunge pool, ice fountain and Himalayan salt room.
Perhaps also a bowling lane, shuffleboard, pinball, golf simulator and sunken lounge with climate-controlled wine storage? Definitely a sports court for pickleball, volleyball, basketball and racquetball, with a spectator lounge and 27-foot rock-climbing wall. Not to mention a ski-tuning room with hydration bar and—go on, then—an “adventure garage” for your bikes and ATVs.
Monitor’s Rest—a $38 million ski-in, ski-out compound in the Colony, a gated community in White Pine Canyon—will have all of these, along with a living room that converts to a theater via motorized partition panels and a drop-down 200-inch 4K screen. Plus more: a Darwin home wellness system, a library, a heated driveway, a guesthouse, parking for 20 cars, a hot tub and a 60-foot pool. Oh, and a few mundane necessities such as a nice kitchen and seven bedrooms.
Historic Home: Cherry Hill, Surrey, England
The Wentworth Estate, a collection of multimillion-dollar homes surrounding a clutch of golf courses in Surrey, is known for its famous residents, including sports stars, Russian businessmen and, briefly, Augusto Pinochet. Amid the neo-Georgian mansions stands a jewel of modernist design and historical significance, Cherry Hill, the former home of John Hay Whitney during his time as President Eisenhower’s ambassador to the UK.
Just off the fourth fairway lie four immaculately landscaped acres surrounding 14,500 square feet of 1930s modernism—all white curved walls and geometric chrome, marble and glass. Designed by Oliver Hill for coal heiress Katherine Hannah Newton, it was bought by Whitney in 1958 and used as his summer home annually until his death in 1982.
As ambassador, Whitney used his vast personal wealth to dazzle the English establishment, who, in the austere post-war period, were very receptive to being dazzled. He became close friends with the royal family through his love of Thoroughbred racing and displayed part of his famous art collection at Cherry Hill.
After his death, the house fell into decline but has been painstakingly restored using materials favored by Hill’s contemporary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as Macassar-ebony veneers and Verde Tinos marble. A new wing contains a double-height reception room, two bedrooms (there are six in total) and an underground pool. This is Cherry Hill’s second recent foray on the market, having been listed for just over $40 million in 2017. Savills has coyly listed it as “price on application.”
One to Watch: Paul Scialla
Paul Scialla has quietly been developing Delos, his real-estate wellness company, for eight years, but it’s only now that we are beginning to pay attention. His creed, that our health can be ameliorated by improving building design, has been powered by the pandemic, going from, in his words, “a nice-to-have to a must-have” in just one year.
Pre-Covid, Scialla tells Robb Report, “one out of 100 people in the world had an awareness of indoor-air-quality issues.” Now that we’re all suddenly fluent in the patois of particulate matter, HEPA filters and respiratory aerosols, “that number is 99 out of 100 people.” Scialla, 47, left Goldman Sachs in 2013 to set
up Delos, convinced sustainable building could apply as much to the well- being of its occupants as to the green credentials of its construction. The company now offers high-tech, smart health features that are increasingly incorporated into new builds, such as a $20 million home in Corona del Mar, Calif., and luxury Florida condo developments such as Villa Valencia in Coral Gables. In the past year, demand has shot “through the roof,” he says.
Delos’s Darwin system monitors a range of metrics, including indoor and outdoor air quality, indoor temperature and the weather, via a network of sensors and third-party data, recalibrating as needed. It also remediates water quality and adjusts the lighting and acoustics. The system automatically mitigates toxins from your hair spray or burning toast and wakes you gently by impersonating the sunrise.
Scialla plans to level up the healthy home by integrating its technology with wearables, to allow, for example, lighting systems to synchronize with sleeping patterns. The aim, he says, is to merge “the quantified space and the quantified self.”