Man’s dream house rises after his death | Wyoming

JACKSON — Richard Grubman dreamed of building the biggest house in Jackson, a towering, mostly windowless cinder block rectangle.

But the 8,000-square-foot single-family residence Grubman visualized would actually be something else: It would be a place where the retired hedge fund mogul’s valuable art collection would be secure, with thousands of square feet for his treasures to be displayed and admired. It would be a huge building with a small residence sitting atop a private art museum.

The “single-family home” has only a tiny part dedicated to what most would see as a residence, including two bedrooms that would seem tight in a double-wide. Because sleeping was never the point.

In one planning document the architect wrote that the “idiosyncratic spatial layout” was “designed to accommodate the owner’s art collection and defines the space where most of his time will be spent — privately viewing and rotating his art collection.”

All the expense of buying the land and building the house was to make a sanctum where Grubman could put his collection — reputed among the best in the world — keep it safe and enjoy it.

Then he died.

But Grubman’s demise hasn’t put an end to the vision. Work on the house began months after Grubman died, thanks to the death-defying powers of money, limited liability corporations and lawyers.

Though Grubman won’t see his dream realized, his family is determined to keep it alive.

Richard Grubman was a private man. His paid death notice in The New York Times, the same text released by the family to other outlets, was less than 200 words. Born in New Jersey. Graduated from Princeton with a degree in art and archaeology. Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. Became investment banker in 1984. Was one of two founders of Highfields Capital Management in Boston. Retired 2010. “Died suddenly on Thursday, November 14th [2019] while in a hospital in Austria.” He was 57. No cause of death was given by the family.

Der Standard, a major newspaper in Vienna, said in the only substantial report about his passing that he “cared about being in the public spotlight about as much as the devil likes Holy Water.”

But Grubman was briefly and weirdly famous for two incidents that live on via the internet, one financial and one criminal.

In April 2001, Grubman was on a phone conference with other investors and Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron. That firm had been a Wall Street darling, its price soaring as it traded energy and promised a windfall from using its electricity and gas distribution rights of way to install fiber optics for the booming internet.

But its share price had taken a drubbing, falling from around $90 to $60 at the time of the conference call. Some investors, Grubman foremost among them, were suspicious of Enron’s finances and how the numbers were reported, of the firm itself.

In many reports following that call, Grubman is quoted saying to Skilling “You’re the only financial institution that can’t produce a balance sheet or cash flow statement with their earnings.”

Skilling didn’t like the direction the call was taking.

As investors listened, Skilling stammered, “You … you … you,” then delivered the comment that is eternal in internet financial reporting.

“Well, uh … thank you very much,” Skilling said. “We appreciate it. A–hole.”

Being vulgarly insulted by the Enron CEO earned Grubman a place in investment history. Especially in light of subsequent events.

Skilling was gone in four months. Enron filed for bankruptcy by year’s end. Grubman short sold Enron stock and is estimated to have made $50 million.

Grubman’s other brush with infamy was more personal and painful.

In April 2010 he was leaving the Boston Ritz-Carlton and got angry and loud with a parking attendant. Gawker, the now-defunct web scandal site, said Grubman “threw an alleged hissy fit” when he lost track of his car keys.

The Boston Herald reported that Grubman accused the valet of concealing the keys for his BMW X5 after throwing them in the face of the man. The keys eventually turned up under a nearby Range Rover.

The attendant claimed he was injured; Grubman was arrested and charged with felony assault and battery. There was a scary mug shot. The incident ended with Grubman paying a settlement. It was expensive and embarrassing.

Grubman stands out in some people’s memory for other things, though not so flamboyantly.

In 2013 the quiet of his Vermont home was disturbed by the noise of a helicopter involved in work at neighboring Stowe Mountain Resort. He complained to the Stowe police, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources — vehemently enough to be remembered.

“In my eight years here I have no recollection of any complaints about Stowe Mountain Resort coming from anyone other than Mr. Grubman,” zoning officer Richard Baker told the Stowe Reporter.

Grubman moved to Jackson in 2014 and the next year built a house on West Gros Vente Butte, a place described as “glass and concrete” by one visitor. When he didn’t like his 2018 property tax bill he went himself to argue for a reduction before the Board of Equalization. When he lost he carried his appeal to the commissioners.

And at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort he caused hard feelings among ski patrollers when he had his pass lifted for skiing out of bounds and then had it quickly restored, apparently by going to the top.

But there was more to Grubman than those things. He’d been a board member for WGBH, the public broadcaster in Boston, and a Henry Crown Fellow in 2000 at the Aspen Institute. He contributed here to the Center for the Arts and St. John’s Hospital Foundation, and also, as a man who loved skiing, to the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center and Doug Coombs Foundation, which gets poor kids on skis and then on mountains.

Chris Dickey and his wife, Lauren, live in a 1,400-square-foot house that has sat on Kelly Avenue at the corner of Vine Street since 1934, across from Richard Grubman’s big building. They saved their house from a Texas developer who planned to scrap it, and they won the Teton County Historic Preservation Board’s Jesse O’Connor Award for their dedication. The Dickeys never met Grubman and don’t know his son, Ellis, who is continuing his father’s plan. So it’s nothing personal.

Still, that building: “People who drive and walk by can’t believe what’s going on,” Dickey said. “They literally slow down and gawk at the sheer size of the structure.”

But while Dickey knows he has an oddity rising across the street, he’s more focused on the Jackson zoning changes two years ago that opened the way for the kind of construction he thinks the Grubman house typifies.

The Grubman place — called in planning documents KV Studio — is just under 50 feet wide at its front, the Vine Street entrance. It stretches back to a hillside topped by Pitchfork townhouses, a distance of close to 150 feet. It will stand 35 feet tall.

The house is up against the 8,000-square-foot max for a single-family house in Teton County. And it will be the biggest ever built inside town limits, where a “big house” runs in the 4,000-square-foot range, and even those are rare.

But Grubman’s house is not actually a house, and as initially conceived didn’t have a bedroom or much else that people would think of as being usual in a residence.

Architect Carl Kohut, a member of the design team that created the Wells Fargo branch on Town Square, said he never met Grubman, and worked from his client’s description of what he wanted, practically and aesthetically, receiving “up-front criteria” from Grubman. That included the evolution from a strictly art museum building to one that met the town standards for a house.

“He knew the space he needed” for art display and storage, Kohut said in an interview, but learned that “the town of Jackson would not allow a strictly storage space to be built.”

Jackson Senior Planner Tyler Valentine called the house “different from what we’ve seen” in town. He used a polite “unconventional” to describe it. Valentine said that by the time he saw any plans they included a 166-square-foot bedroom with an attached 82-square-foot bathroom.

Still odd, but, he said, “It’s not the town’s job to design houses,” and with a room for a bed the proposal was within the rules.

That plan also included space labeled “gallery” that amounted to more than 4,900 square feet.

The final plan includes two bedrooms, one of 197 square feet with a 111-square-foot bath and the other of 207 square feet with a 100-square-foot bath. A 678-square-foot “study” is included, and there’s a small open-plan kitchen.

In the working plan the gallery space is labeled the “great room.” That room totals 4,256 square feet. There’s also a basement of 2,653 square feet for storage.

Jackson planners acknowledge they didn’t see a private art museum rising on the site when it was rezoned. Always hoping for some new housing in a town where housing is tight, some apartments, a four-plex maybe, at least a big house with an accessory rental unit was more what they thought might rise there.

But, Valentine said, “that’s not what we got.”

As for the private art museum aspect, no one could have anticipated it, Valentine said, but there’s nothing in the rules to prevent it.

“You can put as much art in a house as you want,” Valentine said.

Kohut wrote in one of his messages to planners that “there will be no commercial or industrial uses operating within this building and no employees” — and that’s all planners needed to know.

The Grubman house is unlikely to ever meet town standards even as a “home business,” Valentine said: The requirement includes a conditional use permit, assurance that the business owner lives in the house and that no more than 25% of the building’s space is devoted to the business.

As for the look, the house is certainly out of the ordinary for the area. Kohut called it “minimalist and composed of simple geometries,” which means its appearance, outside at least, will be of a large box. But it’s what his client ordered. Ditto the exposed cinder block exterior.

“The applicant understands that the building design may appear to be commercial or industrial on paper,” Kohut wrote, “but it is the outcome of the owner’s desire to have a home, in retirement, where his complete art collection can be housed under one roof and within one large living space.”

Valentine said town planners “don’t typically see housing this big and designed this way.”

Kohut noted that the building is pushed back on the parcel, taking about half the space. “It could last a hundred years,” he said in a phone conversation, and the intention was to leave the other half open for other use.

Four years ago the 0.69-acre lot was occupied by a 1940s house with three bedrooms and two baths, a total of 2,264 square feet, along with a small garage and two sheds. A developer proposed putting about 60 employee housing units on the site, but that plan died, to the relief of neighbor Dickey.

But what’s finally going to be there isn’t what he expected either.

“No one is going to live there,” Dickey said. “It’s kind of bizarre.”

And the size, he said, is discouraging, especially given that under new zoning “they didn’t have to ask for any allowances … they didn’t have to go in front of Town Council. They’re doing what’s fully allowed.”

“We’re getting fully boxed in here, and it’s kind of sad for my wife and I. … Everything is going sky-high around us,” he said. “It’s portending what the rest of the block is going to look like.”

Though sale of the lot was done privately, real estate people said the asking price for the land was about $2.15 million, and that it went for something in the $1.75 million to $1.9 million range.

Kelly Vine LLC, the legal entity behind the project, put the value of construction at $4 million. It paid the town a permit fee of $9,741 and another $65,765 as a housing mitigation fee.

Final approval of the plan was given Nov. 19, 2019, five days after Grubman died in Austria. Ground was broken this spring.

If Richard Grubman is seen by some as a hard-driving businessman — or just a rich jerk — there are others who had another view.

People who shared his love of the art of the Viennese Secession say he was an ardent collector and patron, a great friend to them and to public institutions.

“He was an exceptionally empathetic and kind person,” said Susanne Bauer, owner of Gallerie Susanne Bauer in Vienna. She once furnished an apartment for him in the Austrian capital. “Richard Grubman was a very close friend of mine.”

Ernst Ploil, a Vienna lawyer who shared Grubman’s taste in art, said the American “had the same disease as I had — collecting things.”

“He had good eyes for quality and for deciding if something was important or not,” Ploil said in a phone interview. “Richard was keen on real important things. It was not important for him to have as many pictures as possible, but as many good things, and things that were expensive.”

The art in question is what’s called Vienna Secession, art produced in Austria and southern Germany around 1900 but extending to the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. The style was a type of Art Nouveau, a rejection of older, conservative styles for Austria’s first modernism.

At the time the movement began Austria was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which “covered half of Europe,” Ploil said, and Vienna and Paris were rivals as the cultural center of the world.

One of the leaders of the movement was Gustav Klimt, a painter whose works today bring $150 million or more. Other painters involved were Oskar Kokoschka, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser.

But it wasn’t just paintings and drawings. The Secession was also a movement of architects and sculptors, and the kind of designers who melded useful with artful, makers of furniture, ceramics, glassware, silver, book bindings.

Grubman and Ploil shared a taste for the art of bookbinding and for a 2017 show loaned important parts of their collections to Vienna’s Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, the Museum of Applied Arts, known as MAK. But his friend’s interests extended to every kind of object from the Secession, Ploil said. Acknowledgments in museum catalogs show loans from Grubman not just of books but also jewelry, paintings and silver.

Another Vienna friend was Patrick Kovacs, himself a collector and dealer, who shared Grubman’s love of skiing. He recalled meeting Grubman through a common friend close to 20 years ago.

“The first object he bought was an armchair designed by Gustav Siegel from the World Exhibition in Paris 1900,” Kovacs said. “Skiing and collecting Secession items in Vienna was his mission.”

Kovacs called Grubman a “generous buyer” who was always determined “to be the winner in an auction when he was interested in a piece.”

But Grubman didn’t want to spend big if he could avoid it, and was a friendly competitor, Ploil said.

“We were close friends, which meant I might say, ‘Hey, Richard, there’s this object in this auction house, do you want it? Then I will stay quiet,’” Ploil said. “It was ‘you take that, then next time it’s my turn,’ and so on.”

His taste and learning and curiosity, not just his spending, was appreciated: Gallery owner Bauer said people “admired his incredible knowledge and enthusiasm for artworks about Viennese Secessionism.” Kovacs said, “He valued the opinion of experts, whom he gladly consulted on his purchases.” The article in Der Standard quoted Kovacs saying that Grubman “was subtle, unpretentious, loyal and had winning ways.”

Besides frequently loaning pieces from his collection for shows at MAK and the Leopold Museum, Grubman also supported them with cash. He gave the MAK 260,000 Euros for maintenance and to digitize its collection. He served on the board of the International Friends of the MAK Vienna.

Ploil estimated Grubman’s collection at hundreds of pieces. Bauer said it was thought to be the second biggest of its kind in the United States, behind only that of Ronald Lauder of the Estee Lauder fortune, the multimillionaire who built his own museum in New York City, The Neus Museum, to show it.

Grubman left no clue in public records about his art. The will filed with the Teton County District Court has a list of assets, including bank and investment accounts and two 2015 Subaru Outbacks. Under “tangible personal property” the first line says merely “artwork,” and to the right, in the column headed “estimated value,” it says “unknown.”

Richard Grubman’s survivors — wife Caroline Mortimer and son Ellis Grubman — initially said through Jackson attorney Matt Confer that Kelly Vine LLC “does not wish to discuss the project.”

A subsequent inquiry elicited this reply:

“Richard Grubman collected art for many years and had begun the process of building a single-family residence with storage space and display areas for the family’s private enjoyment and private administration of the collection. The family will carry out the project as he envisioned it.”

Tim Glick, of Dynamic Custom Homes, is the general contractor for the art museum-house. Glick lamented Grubman’s death and said he was glad to be part of the family’s commitment.

“He was a great friend,” Glick said. “And I’m happy and fortunate to continue his vision of what he wanted for his art and his home.”

Ploil, the Austrian friend, said he had spoken to Grubman about a museum in Vienna. When that didn’t happen, they talked about Grubman’s new plan for a showplace in Wyoming.

“I’m very happy that his idea is going on,” Ploil said.

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