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Rennert Redux

The mansion-building scourge of L.I. strikes again in Jerusalem.

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Building a 100,000-square-foot beachside compound is hard enough even without the entire Hamptons arriviste community fighting you tooth and nail. But imagine constructing two vacation compounds at once, half a world apart.

Welcome to the life of Ira Rennert, the reclusive millionaire who radicalized sleepy Sagaponack with plans for an audacious complex. As tempers flare over that project, he's acquired -- and is busy remodeling -- one of the most expensive private homes in Jerusalem, on a crooked lane known as Ethiopia Street.

The new Rennert property is a short walk from the Old City in an area of notable nineteenth-century homes, where bougainvillaea cascades over stone walls. The street, named for its circular Ethiopian Church, is something of a Zionist landmark; near the end is a hidden house that served as a secret headquarters of the Hagannah, Israel's pre-state army.

The Rennert compound, at No. 3, was built in the late nineteenth century as rental properties by the Nashashibi family, a prominent Arab clan. Rennert bought the property in 1996 for a rumored 12 million shekels (then valued at $4 million), outbidding a famous Israeli pianist who is said to have offered "$2 million plus a Renoir and a Cezanne." Realtors say it was the highest price paid that year for a Jerusalem home.

Rennert quickly began transforming the property, hiring the noted Israeli architect Daniel Lansky. Lansky's first move was to scrap a modern-looking penthouse that a previous occupant had built. The architect replaced it with a rooftop iron-latticed veranda that gives the house, he says, "a light hat."

The construction is continuing, and on a recent sunny day, Lansky was eating lunch at an outdoor table with his workers. At first, he seemed eager to discuss his work. "The bottom is good Jerusalem stone," said Lansky, "but the top is rubbish that absorbed water. I've sealed it to last for 300 years." The house, boasted Lansky, will have the most advanced electrical, climate-control, and water-filtration systems in Israel. "Hiding all these systems within the walls is my greatest triumph," he added. Asked for a tour of the house, Lansky suddenly stiffened and ended the interview.

The secretive Rennert would no doubt have frowned on his architect's showing off the new quarters, but he hardly has the kind of worries in Jerusalem that he does in Sagaponack. In fact, around the neighborhood, no one even seems to know anything about the new mogul on the block. "He must be a very rich man," said a man selling newspapers nearby. "When I am also very rich, then I will know him."


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