Hamptons excess meets its match

Estate: Fair Field, with its planned 29 bedrooms and 100-car garage, has drawn a lawsuit and stirred up the cocktail set.

September 23, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAGAPONACK, N.Y. -- Hamptons estate. Oceanvu. 29 BRs, 29 Baths. 100-car garage. 2 bwling alleys, 2 libraries. Mult livg, dining rms. Tns, bsktbl, squash cts. Greenhs, bch pavln, gate hs. Own pwr plant. Btfl gardens, unhappy nghbrs.

No, multimillionaire industrialist Ira Rennert isn't selling his house -- and in fact, construction is just under way -- but this could be the real estate ad if he ever decides to unload Fair Field, a particularly ostentatious mansion even by the standards of the property-mad Hamptons.

Rennert, who is as secretive as his planned house is showy, is building what may be the country's largest private residence -- and certainly one of the most controversial among its suddenly dwarfed neighbors.

At 66,000 square feet, it will be bigger than the White House (55,000 square feet) or Bill Gates' house (40,000). To find a private house larger than Fair Field, you have to consider those that now charge admission -- the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., (175,000) and the Hearst castle in San Simeon, Calif., (90,080).

While vanity houses are not uncommon in the Hamptons, the cluster of precious and pricey towns on the eastern end of Long Island's South Fork, the sheer size of Rennert's home has outraged neighbors.

"It's palace envy," said Hamptons-based writer Steven Gaines, whose 1998 book, "Philistines at the Hedgerow," traces the area's long history of real estate excess even before Rennert's arrival. "This is a competition. The Hamptons is all conspicuous consumption and showing off your wealth, and the most visual sign of your success is your house. The egos out here are tremendous, and Rennert's ego is the biggest of them all."

Already, the house has drawn a lawsuit, a change in local building codes, a satirical novel, a Michael Moore video assault and countless cocktail party denunciations -- the price of crossing neighbors who are as articulate, deep-pocketed and litigious as the moneyed and media-savvy Hamptonites.

"The Rape of Sagaponack," blared the headline on an ad that residents placed in a local newspaper to call their neighbors to arms, or at least to a zoning meeting at which the house would be discussed. "An obscene example of the wretched excess that seems to have the South Fork in a stranglehold," editorialized the weekly East Hampton Star. "The House That Ate the Hamptons" is what Parade magazine writer and author James Brady titled his recent novel, in which a similarly outsized house triggers scandal and intrigue.

Neighbors have sued to halt construction, claiming that nothing this huge can be considered a single-family home, which is the only kind of building allowed in the residential neighborhood in which Rennert's 63-acre parcel is located.

But even as the lawsuit against Rennert wends its way through the courts, crews are continuing to transform the former farmland into a megamansion. The construction of the house and various outbuildings -- which will bring the total area of structures on the property to 100,000 square feet -- is expected to take several more years.

For many, the bloated house is emblematic of all that ails the Hamptons, straining as it is under the weight of its own popularity. Fueled by the latest Wall Street boom, both building and tourism have intensified in recent years as day trippers, weekend renters, summer-long seasonals and year-rounders flock to breathe the same rarefied air as Steven Spielberg, Puff Daddy, Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein.

One of the quieter hamlets

But while many celebrities and those who would gawk at them have largely clustered in East Hampton, the glitziest of the Hamptons towns, Sagaponack has traditionally been one of the quieter hamlets. While it has its share of names that merit boldface in the gossip columns -- Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Kurt Vonnegut have homes here -- Sagaponack has generally been more subdued. Until, that is, Rennert came along, and the sound and the fury commenced.

Rennert himself has been the least heard voice in the ruckus he created. Generally, his lawyers speak for him at town meetings and in court, and he never gives interviews -- perhaps befitting his standing as head of one of the country's largest privately owned companies, the Renco Group.

Rennert was largely unknown in the Hamptons before deciding to build a home here. Residents say they don't believe he ever summered here, nor was he a part of the charity circuit that dominates the local social scene. (In a move that the more cynical here view as an attempt to get into the community's good graces, Rennert did make a donation this summer to a Southampton College benefit.)

But Rennert's philanthropic efforts are largely concentrated elsewhere. He is a major supporter of Orthodox Jewish causes and of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has led many to suspect that Fair Field will not just be his home but some sort of religious retreat or meeting facility.

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