Find the spot in quietest backcountry Greenwich, Connecticut, where Simmons Lane branches off Lake Avenue, and you’ll pass by a flagstone gate, a NO TRESPASSING sign, and a row of green mailboxes—one for each house on the street. These identical mailboxes are the last sign of equality you will see for a while. Beyond the gate, set deep into their land parcels along the gently curving boulevard that seems designed as much for strolling as driving, sit six houses of varying sizes and architectural styles. One of them is slated for demolition, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from its perfectly manicured grounds and the gardener snipping away at the odd weed around the gazebo. This plot of land, as it happens, is the most notorious in town. For here is scheduled to rise one of the largest single-family residences in Greenwich history: the hulking, 39,000-square-foot, bepillared country seat of a secretive Russian airport mogul named Valery Kogan. When plans for the home were first announced, in early 2008, they triggered a nimby fight the likes of which staid, patrician Greenwich has rarely witnessed. The home was seen as a garish (and possibly even illegal) affront to the town’s good taste, its owner a walking nouveau riche caricature. In March, after a legal battle and a minor dialing back of the plans, construction on the home was reluctantly approved. Only now, given the current economic climate, there are questions of whether Kogan can afford to build the place after all. Where the project was once the epitome of the boom, it may well now serve as its gilded tombstone.
Valery Mikhailovich Kogan is, by competing accounts and seemingly depending on the day of the week, either the 499th or the 157th richest man in Russia. His worth, according to the Fortune-like Russian magazine Finans, fluctuates wildly—$300 million in 2006, $90 million in 2007, $600 million in 2008. In his homeland, where oligarchs tend to be heavily gossiped-about public figures with fun holdings like soccer clubs or regional governorships, even rumors about Kogan are surprisingly sparse. He had served in the navy, come up through the ranks in Soviet times, and got rich in the chaos of the privatizations that followed the collapse of the USSR; his official bio makes reference to his “vast experience in the diplomatic field,” without elaborating. Whatever it was, in 2004 Kogan found himself with one of the strangest and cushiest jobs in Russia: a principal in East Line, the private company that controlled Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport. The company’s structure had been called by analysts “complex and nontransparent.” By 2005, East Line was embroiled in scandal. Among the accusations was a jaw-dropper, widely reported in the Russian press, about faked plane-engine repairs, billed by a subsidiary of East Line. The Russian authorities had made a move to nationalize the airport—and that’s when Kogan went house-shopping in the West. As the scandal continued to unfold, it certainly looked like the tycoon wouldn’t mind relocating Stateside not just his assets but himself. Acting through another company, Kvoda Group (an anagram, one future neighbor noted, of vodka), Kogan was about to close on a $10 million duplex at 515 Park Avenue while his wife, Olga, sized up mansions in Greenwich.
A broker reportedly took her to see the Leona Helmsley estate, which would hit the market at $125 million three years later; Olga’s associate said they didn’t want the publicity brought on by the Helmsley name. The Kogans finally zeroed in on 18 Simmons Lane, a 25,400-square-foot megamansion spread out on a seven-acre lot. The house, hidden beyond a front gate that looked remarkably like the gate from the first shot of Citizen Kane, was built in a whimsical and eclectic style, with a large dome and fairy-tale turrets; the inside was paneled in historic wood the owner had flown in from Flanders. In May 2005, the Kogans bought it, in Olga’s name, for $18.5 million.
The deal itself was on the high end for Greenwich, but certainly not a major newsmaker. The town was teeming with hedge-fund wealth. Developers fell all over themselves and each other to build palaces on spec, assured that the next deal would always be just around the corner. Retail spaces on Greenwich Avenue were approaching Manhattanlike levels. Donald Trump was fighting to build a skyscraper condo nearby.
The full scope of the Kogans’ desires, however, revealed itself only gradually. By June of the next year, Olga had obtained an interior-demolition permit and began stripping the house bare. A dealer from New York bought the wood paneling; neighbors reported architectural details being taken away by truck. It was becoming clear that the Kogans were not interested in a mere gut renovation—they were going to raze and build from scratch. Exactly what the Kogans were going to erect wasn’t revealed until two years later. When the plans appeared, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Greenwich gasped.
To call the plans the Kogans had presented for approval by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission “ostentatious” would be an understatement on par with calling Leona Helmsley an extrovert. The house’s footprint would take up 54,000 square feet, doubling the existing mansion’s size. At its center would be a grand hall served by a bifurcated, lyre-shape, Titanic-style staircase and topped by a three-story-high glass dome. In inclement weather, a mechanized retractable shield would cover the dome. The basement would house a theater with a full bar, a billiards room with another bar, a Turkish bath, a Finnish bath, a massage room, a salon, a wine cellar, a game room, and two staff suites. It would be Xanadu cubed. It would be … Koganadu.
The landscaping and amenities surrounding the mansion were pitched somewhere between Versailles, a Sandals resort, and an absinthe dream of an MTV Cribs producer. There would be two swimming pools—one indoor, one outdoor—a separate hydrotherapy spa, a twelve-car garage, a pergola, a winter garden, and an intricately sculpted “parterre garden.” A carved-stone fountain would dance in the center of a “Renaissance-inspired” circular courtyard. The outdoor pool’s underwater lights would be controlled by remotes set up in multiple locations, and change hue with the turn of an “infinite spectrum color wheel for party functions.” The adjacent pool terrace would feature a pop-up in-floor misting system to cool the stone surface for bare feet on hot days. The plan even included a somewhat magical-sounding “octagon of perfect lawn; it is never off color, nor does it ever have weeds.” “Classical proportioned statuary” would explore a loosely sketched theme of Four Somethings: the architects’ working proposals were “four seasons, four elements, four senses,” and, finally, an option whose ESL phrasing whiffs of the Kogans’ own words: “four most interesting musicians, guitar gods.” Finally and most gloriously, a separate stone patio would be fashioned in the shape and colors of a Les Paul guitar. (One of the Kogans’ children is said to be a musician in New York, which would explain the thematic bent.)
Koganadu was the perfect product of the notion, typical of ultrahigh-end construction in the aughts, of a house as a kind of luxury self-sufficient Biodome—a notion that had made private theaters and personal wine cellars as ubiquitous as kitchens and closets. The plan’s creator, R. S. Granoff Architects, had allegedly accompanied the Kogans to Newport, Rhode Island, to look at some historic residences for inspiration; the couple took a special liking to the Breakers, the Gilded Age landmark built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Their new home would thus be a rock-and-roll update of the Breakers, minus the ocean and plus just about every gadget invented since 1895.
“It’s not a residence,” says one opponent. “It’s an industrial project. It’s a country club. It’s enormous.”
The objections from the neighborhood were immediate and furious. “It’s not a residence,” says T. H. Walworth III, president of a homeowners’ group called the Northeast Greenwich Association. “It’s an industrial project. It’s a country club. It’s enormous.” Granoff was “clearly gaming our building codes to construct a commercial-size building,” neighbors Richard and Jean Bergstresser wrote to town officials. Attorney Charles Lee, who lives directly across the street at 11 Simmons Lane, at 6,112 square feet the runt of the block, was alarmed most of all: “We’ve been trying to live a quiet life on a quiet road, and we get this monster dropped down on us.” Scale and aesthetics aside, the Kogans’ plan appeared to suggest that the place would be used for large gatherings. The rock-and-roll theme especially raised alarms. The design included a so-called lawn ramp stair that, to some, looked an awful lot like an outdoor amphitheater around a small stage. And there was one other red flag: The Kogans were going to connect the property’s primary septic system to the secondary one, a highly unusual move that would make the resulting system capacious enough to handle 480 people on the property at once. And, parties or not, the Kogans were clearly going to make use of that septic system: The plan called for 26 toilets.
On May 20, 2008, the project went up for discussion at a meeting of the Greenwich Planning and Zoning Commission. The hearing was standing room only. The Lees proved especially active: They had collected 175 signatures under a petition to quash the construction and came with many allies in tow. Leslie Lee, Charles’s wife, made protest stickers depicting the mansion’s façade enclosed inside a red Ghostbusters-style stop logo. On May 20, the five-member board rejected the plan by a vote of three to two.
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.”
“All in favor, say aye,” chairman Donald Heller finally said. He heard four ayes, and added his. The only new condition the members mustered the nerve to ask of the Kogans was to keep the lights over the tennis court dimmed at night.
So what changed? Why did the plan for what still sounded like Playboy Mansion East, a proposal that seemed to incense anyone familiar with it, suddenly become acceptable? The first and most obvious suspicion was that the tables had turned, and Greenwich now needed the Kogans more than the other way around. “Naturally, the prospect of increased property taxes for the cash-strapped town had no influence in the decision whatsoever,” scoffed Cityfile at the news of the project’s greenlighting. Tax revenue isn’t enough of a prize, however. Greenwich property taxes are as notoriously low as its income taxes; a resident whose mansion is roughly a quarter the size of the Kogans’ estimates, by gamely quadrupling his own figures, that even a behemoth like Koganadu would fetch the town only $80,000 a year: hardly worth the fuss.
What other explanations were there for the palace’s newfound palatability? “At least three members, including the commissioner, hated it,” says Charles Lee, “but were told they couldn’t vote no.” By whom? A neighbor in the know fingers the likeliest culprit: Given the lack of specific codes that might have prohibited construction of the project, the Kogans’ army of lawyers must have made clear that their clients would sue the town if their second application was rejected. The “no” vote would result in more money drain through legal costs and more negative publicity. Considering that the builders had already made some concessions, at a certain point public sympathy would flip. The Kogans would stop looking like ruffian arrivistes and start looking like victims of Waspy snobbery. They would become, unbelievably, underdogs.
Simmons Lane may yet get to keep its serenity anyway. It’s still not known when, or if, the stately dome of Koganadu, with its retractable cover, will rise over the flagstone fence. The Lees have filed a suit against both the commission and Olga Kogan, seeking to stop the project.
Even if the suit doesn’t succeed, the project may yet stall for a very different reason. One of the strangest things the Kogans did with their purchase was leverage the living daylights out of it. In August 2005, they took a $10 million loan from Eastern Savings Bank against the house. Less than year after that, they used the same property as collateral in a $15 million loan from the same bank to Kogan’s Kvoda Group. The house cost $18.5 million in 2005; its price, considering it has been stripped, has at best stayed level or, much more likely, hovers around $10 million to $11 million. It’s hard to say whether Valery Kogan’s oft-changing fortunes are at fault, but the would-be oligarch pleasure pad is currently leveraged two to one. Both loans mature on June 1. Much like the bubble itself, the would-be bane of Simmons Lane is now a castle in the sky, in hock to a hope for a brighter tomorrow.