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Xanadu, CT


Valery Kogan  

Ostensibly, the objection was simple. The building was out of scale; it appeared to be designed to accommodate public gatherings; it was somehow un-Greenwich. The trouble with these judgments was that the commission lacked any concrete guidelines to back them: Scale was in the eye of the beholder, the purpose was debatable, and as for Greenwichness, well. Despite its reputation as a moneyed Arcadia of thoughtfully maintained traditional manses, Greenwich is as susceptible to aggressive development as Manhattan. Even a building’s historic designation is no guarantee of survival. According to local preservationists, at least thirteen historic Greenwich houses have been torn down since 2004, mostly by new buyers looking for something with more oomph. Chief among the victims was Greyledge, the gorgeous English-style manor designed by the same architects who built the New York Public Library that was demolished in 2007. And the town has surely seen its share of outsize home-building extravagances: Helmsley’s 1918 manor is far more ridiculous in its Jacobean pretensions than anything Granoff ever cooked up. Hedge-fund mogul Steven Cohen’s house includes a 6,734-square-foot ice-skating rink.

The initial burst of aversion to Koganadu seemed to hide a darker set of emotions as well, one in which the populist dislike of the project blended with haughty disgust for the new owner. “All human waste isn’t ordinary, and the waste of Russians is no exception,” best-selling author and Bloomberg News columnist Michael Lewis was soon riffing. “The richer the Russian the more likely he is to have failed to fully digest something or someone of serious value … I can imagine Valery saying to himself, late on one cold Russian night, ‘I will buy more toilets than any man on Earth and the American people will speak of me with wonder.’ ”

The Kogans wouldn’t be the first wealthy Muscovites in Greenwich—Vladimir Gusinsky, the exiled former owner of the NTV network, frolicked in a Tuscan-themed villa here as early as 2001, and many of the newer-model buyers were Russian as well—but a nativist current now appeared to be coursing through some of the opposition rhetoric. “It looks like they want to duplicate the Winter Palace here in Greenwich,” scoffed neighbor Leslie McElwreath to Bloomberg News. “Greenwich is a different place than when my grandparents were born there,” says Walworth, sighing. “If you’re coming to the area and you don’t respect the sense of what makes this town what it is—that’s when it’s not appreciated.”

Valery Kogan voiced no public reaction to the hubbub, either Stateside or in the Russian press, where the 26-toilet-house story was generating a wave of giggly coverage. Instead, he was thinking even bigger. He had recently bought up five adjacent oceanfront villas in Caesarea, Israel (Kogan is Jewish). On February 21, 2008, the astonished locals watched as a team of bulldozers razed five luxury houses (one recently renovated), crushing marble and exotic wood into so much rubble. According to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the freed space would now be taken by a $50 million, 64,580-square-foot villa, the largest in Israel and inspired, a contractor blabbed, by Versailles.

Back in Greenwich, Granoff Architects began working on a downsized plan to appease the Planning and Zoning Commission. Koganadu Redux shed a bit of its bulk. The restrooms now numbered a more reasonable fifteen. The basement went from 33,000 square feet to 20,000. The garage would fit just eight cars, not twelve. Also sacrificed were the service elevator connecting the basement to the kitchen and two out of four bars. Still, even in its chastened form, the Kogan mansion would dwarf any single-family residence on Simmons Lane by at least a factor of two. With the basement, its volume came to 733,870 cubic feet; the volume of its largest neighbor in the area, 26 Simmons, is 294,950—and that house sits on a larger plot.

At the same time, a crucial slimming down was happening in the larger world. On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers went under, triggering a Wall Street panic and ushering in the worldwide economic crisis. Greenwich, its prosperity firmly tethered to financial-sector wealth, felt the effects of the bust almost immediately. Its real-estate prices suffered the worst drop in three decades, and home sales shrank by a third. In a town filled with unsold husks of spec mansions, the Kogans now looked like visitors from Opposite Land. Not only did they want to build, they wanted to build now and build bigger than anyone.

The new round of commission hearings was scheduled for March 10, 2009. It was an unseasonably freezing night; about 25 activists filed into the room to observe the deliberations. One by one, commission members lodged grave complaints about the building. Frank Farricker was the bluntest in his objections: “I have to say at the outset that I am very uncomfortable with this application,” he said. “There is something intangibly wrong with [it].” He went on to say that the house might cause “potentially irreparable harmful impacts during construction,” and the result would be “a sore thumb for the neighborhood, albeit a platinum-plated one.” Another member, Raymond Heimbuch, said that the possibility that the house would be used for massive parties “concerned me terribly.” He also added that there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. As it became increasingly obvious that the project was going to sail through, the mood among the observers, remembers Walworth, changed from hope to disbelief: “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”


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