Robber Baron Houses Need Robber Baron Owners

There has been a lot of hand-wringing press coverage about the impending destruction of Lands End, the Long Island estate that, according to legend, was the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan’s home in “The Great Gatsby.”

If you remember only one image from reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, it probably is that of Gatsby staring at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, a beacon toward the woman who entranced and eluded him, and the wealth that drew her away. Now Lands End is to be torn down after having fallen into disrepair.

Clifford Fetner, the project’s construction manager, explained that “The cost to renovate these things is just so overwhelming that people aren’t interested in it.” The current owner has had the house on and off the market for several years, but never found a buyer. After the demolition, the site will be divided into five lots for custom homes.

According to the Daily Mail, it would take around $2 million just to make Lands End livable again. In the meantime, it costs $4,500 a day to maintain. And while the home was listed at $30 million, the five parcels of land will be set at $10 million each.

To some, the demise of Lands End is another symbol of the passing of a genteel era of household servants and mint juleps. To others, it is a symbol of greed triumphing over – well, over something we are supposed to wish it had not triumphed over. Britain’s Independent newspaper sniffed that it shows the dedication of today’s rich to “realising obscene profits from real estate.”

I think it shows only that if we want to preserve robber baron estates, we need some robber barons to live in them. Or at least some very rich descendants of robber barons. I know you are thinking of Paris Hilton. But her grandfather, Conrad Hilton, was not a true robber baron; in any case, there is not enough of her to go around.

Sure, we have billionaires and multi-billionaires, but they’re the wrong ones. Some are the salt-of-the-earth types who live in places like Omaha, drive pickup trucks and eat at fast-food joints. We can lionize their homespun wisdom, ape their investment moves or applaud when they donate their fortunes to charity. But write a romantic novel about them? Never. A billionaire who behaves like the rest of us is just as boring as the rest of us.

We’ve got several sorts of tech moguls. There are the overgrown kids like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who rents a four-bedroom home in Palo Alto and complains it is too big. Billionaires like him contribute a lot to society, but nothing to dressing up the neighbourhood. That seems to be fine with him.

Bill Gates at least has a clue what a fortune is for. His mansion in suburban Seattle is ultra modern, including rooms that automatically identify and adjust to the preferences of their occupants. That’s impressive, in a Windows Everywhere sort of way, but it is not going to inspire anyone to fantasize about putting on an evening dress or a tuxedo.

Plenty of athletes, entertainers and entrepreneurs are buying enormous waterfront homes in Miami, staggering 10,000-square-foot affairs with room to park a mega-yacht or two not far from the Bentley. This is a little closer to the mark, but still not a bull’s-eye.

These houses are at once impressive and state-of-the-art. You can house an entire posse in one wing. You can throw an A-list party. You can have teenagers and not even know it. But there is something coldly modern about these places, at least from the distance that I know them. Would their residents have a butler, a housekeeper, a cook, a chauffeur? All on the payroll at the same time? I doubt it. Judging from the police blotter, it seems to me many occupants of these homes drive their own cars, if not always very well.

The best candidate to acquire one of these old estates like Lands End probably works at a hedge fund or a Wall Street investment bank. But these people have gotten a pretty hard time in recent years for anything that sounded like conspicuous consumption. For such folks, a high-profile Gold Coast estate is liable to be more trouble than it’s worth. And let’s face it: Who wants to buy an old, drafty firetrap of a Long Island mansion that sits in what is now an upper-middle-class suburb?

Nobody, that’s who. If we really wanted to preserve these places, we would have encouraged families to put them in trust, together with a ton of money, to enable future generations to keep them up. Instead, President Franklin Roosevelt jacked up the federal estate tax from its initial 20 per cent, when he took office, to 60 per cent during the Depression and 77 per cent during World War II. Such rates made it next to impossible for the families that owned those Gold Coast estates to keep them. So the estates were sold from family to family until, eventually, nobody wanted to buy them anymore.

Sands Point Village approved the plan to raze Land’s End in January. Trustee Katharine Ullman told Newsday that though she originally opposed the demolition, “I understand the problem. It was costly to make the repairs to make it livable.”

Americans lack hereditary aristocracy. As a result, mansions that combine history and elegance the way Gold Coast houses do are rare – and they’re becoming rarer. Maybe losing Fitzgerald’s green light across the bay is an unavoidable side effect of a shifting American dream. But if we really do want to preserve robber baron properties, we are going to need some robber barons to go with them.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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