Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Real Estate: American Versailles

Bigger than Biltmore? Hardly.
From BusinessWeek:
David and Jackie Siegel in their dream house, which is 60 percent complete
Photograph by Martha Camarillo
David and Jackie Siegel in their dream house, which is 60 percent complete

Versailles, the Would-Be Biggest House in America

“Our house is like a convention center compared to the other houses here,” says David Siegel as he drives through The Reserve at Lake Butler Sound, a gated community in Orlando. The other houses here are not small: They average 10,000 square feet. But his home will be nine times as large. Siegel stops at the end of Kirkstone Lane, pulls into his driveway, and looks around. “Next door is a 12,000-square-foot house. That could be my maid’s quarters one day,” he says lightly. Then he catches himself and adds, “No, I shouldn’t say that, it sounds like an insult.”

David and Jackie Siegel’s dream house sits on 10 acres of lakefront property. Built on a custom-made hill, it occupies one full acre and, when finished, will be the largest home in the country. David, the founder and chief executive officer of the biggest private time-share company in the world, Westgate Resorts, designed it. He and Jackie named it Versailles.
The Siegels had to get special permission to build a house that's 67 feet tall 
Photograph by Orlando Sentinel/Polaris
The Siegels had to get special permission to build a house that's 67 feet tall
The house is made of concrete and will be covered in white marble from Italy. It is 67 feet tall. There will be French balconies and balustrades and columns. The 20-foot-high front doors are a Brazilian mahogany that is no longer exported. So are the frames on the 160 windows. They cost $4 million. “Here’s the great room,” David says as he walks in. “It’s 120 feet long by 60 feet wide with a 45-foot ceiling and a big 6-foot-high stained-glass dome. Look at it, that’s probably one of the finest domes ever made. We built the room for charity functions. We can have parties for 500 people here.” Staircases sweep down two sides of the ballroom. Jackie once said she imagined herself descending on one, David on the other. “In fairy tale land,” he says about that. Then he points to the balcony overlooking the room: “We could make speeches from there.”

The wine cellar will have room for tastings and 20,000 bottles. “It’s going to be beautiful,” says David as he walks back up the circular staircase to the main floor. “But I don’t even like wine.” Then through the chef’s kitchen, the family kitchen, and into the living room. “Here’s the part I’m going to like the best: a giant aquarium with exotic fish. Sea World is going to do it for us.”
David is 76, Jackie is 46, and they are raising eight children, including an adopted niece, ranging in age from 5 to 18. There will be 13 bedrooms, 22 bathrooms, and 9 smaller kitchens. The kids will have their own wing with a stage, a computer center, and a living room. They’ll have their own movie theater. The adults will have a movie theater, too, modeled on the Paris Opera House. Downstairs there will be a two-lane bowling alley, a video arcade, a roller-skating rink, an indoor pool, fitness center, spa, and staff quarters. Outside is a half-acre deck with three pools, a waterfall, and a rock grotto. One day there will be a boathouse and a guardhouse, a sandy beach, a formal garden, a baseball field, and two tennis courts, one with stadium seating. (The property appraiser lists the unfinished home at 67,000 square feet. Siegel plans a finished 90,000.)

For now, though, the house is secured with a chain-link fence and a padlock. The white marble from Italy is stacked in 200 crates in the 20-car garage. There is no electricity, no plumbing, no interior walls. The Siegels had to stop construction on Versailles three years ago when financing for Westgate Resorts faltered, putting the company and their personal fortune at risk. Versailles is only 60 percent complete. It’s also for sale: The price was just reduced from $75 million to $65 million. “Watch your step,” David says as we walk out the service entrance.

The Siegels are not like most Americans, but theirs is a very American story. It’s a tale of hard work and borrowed money, of idle consumption, wanton ambition, and what happens when it all comes to an abrupt halt.

David Siegel, the son of a struggling grocer and sometime gambler, was a former high school wrestling champion, college dropout, retired television repairman and newly remarried father of six when he moved from Miami to Orlando in 1970. He came because of Walt Disney (DIS). The company was buying thousands of acres of farmland, with plans to build Disney World. Siegel became a real estate broker, eventually acquiring property, including an 80-acre orange grove near Disney World, for himself. He was soon well off, and nearly content, too.

Then, in 1980, a businessman offered to buy 10 acres of the orange grove to build a time-share resort. Siegel had never heard of such a thing and was intrigued: He kept the land and the idea. “When we first started, there was a stigma about time shares. We were supposed to be swamp people with gold jewelry and chains,” he says. “The big banks didn’t want to touch us. We got the second-tier lenders.”...MUCH MORE