Real (Amazing) Estates
Only we’re not referring to the man of the house. We’re talking about his dog.
The owner, developer Scott Wolstein, declined to be interviewed for this story. But he did allow Cleveland Magazine an exclusive look into his new 36,000-square-foot mansion, including canine quarters, just completed in Hunting Valley.
Because the home is brand new, county auditors have not appraised it yet. Once they do, it’s a good bet that Wolstein’s estate will be the most expensive home in Northeast Ohio. The land alone, 150 acres in Hunting Valley, was appraised at more than
$2.7 million. So, even if he’d just thrown a tent on it, the place would have earned spot No. 29 on our list.
Instead, he hired architect Tony Paskevich, who designs homes for wealthy clients locally and throughout the world, and high-end builder Pistone and Tesauro, which has established a reputation as the Hunting Valley builder of choice. Together, they created Ravencrest, an estate that looks like it belongs in the English countryside; its exterior is made of huge old barn stones, stucco, brick and limestone.
The first thing you notice is that it's huge. The pass-through fireplace is nearly 13 feet long and open to the living room and dining room. The second thing you notice is the copper fireplace hood.
There are other homes on our list designed by Paskevich, other homes evocative of the Old Country, other homes with delights that most of us find only at rec centers or resorts.
It took four months at an average of six hours per day to carve. “You start going blind,” says wood carver Jim Stadtlander, who made this finial, which tops the newel post on the staircase in Scott Wolstein’s home.
Though he also created four huge panels out of walnut to hang above the doorways in Wolstein’s house, Stadtlander says the finial was the biggest challenge. The four-sided design has a pagoda roof, windows and archways, birds, dogs, eagles and floral decorations. It’s unforgiving work. If Stadtlander makes even the tiniest mistake, he says he spends “hours and hours” trying to save the project.
Stadtlander, who is self-taught, works with mostly hand tools out of his Portage County studio. Though he does work for clients throughout the world, he says Wolstein’s home is unique. “I’ve done some very intricate work,” he says. “But not in this quantity.”
At 36,000 square feet, the home is the biggest in Northeast Ohio. It’s also the nicest — a statement we’re willing to make with the caveat that Norma
Lerner has declined our requests to let us see her home (currently No. 2 on the list).
Plenty of folks put nice trim in their house and spend a fortune on flooring. Few import salvaged stone from the streets of Jerusalem and hire artisans who use ancient wood-shaping tools like the adz to make things look just the right kind of old.
We’ll get to those details later. First, a word about the list. We printed our first ranking of Northeast Ohio’s most expensive homes in 2002, and update the list every three years, using appraised home values from eight county auditors.
This year, along with touring the Wolstein home, we’ll also take a look inside the former No. 1 house, currently for sale, and the house plans for LeBron James’ new castle. Then there’s the question of the housing market. Everyone knows it’s awful in general. But what has the slump done to the Top 250?
Lastly, we’ll tell you a little bit about the current No. 1, owned by businessman Andrew Rayburn, and why we think Wolstein’s estate will hold that honor next time around.
Sometimes, luxury isn’t reserved for humans. Frank Finelli, owner of Finelli Ornamental Iron in Solon, created this custom cats-only iron stairwell by using space and imagination wisely.
Along, winding drive leads to Scott Wolstein’s new Hunting Valley estate. On the day we visit, there are landscapers busy planting trees, flowers and shrubs. Along with the outdoor infinity pool, these are the last details on a project that began more than four years ago.
The house is huge. But when you walk in, the foyer isn’t oversized or ostentatious. Rather, the details and materials work together to feel warm — and welcoming. Walnut trusses have been hand-distressed with an adz. The floor, irregular and rough, was salvaged from Jerusalem. The stairway ends in a work of art.
To the right of the foyer is the master retreat. To the left are the living room, hearth room, dining room, music room and kitchen. Behind these gathering areas is a multilevel terrace, which overlooks the Chagrin River Valley. The outdoor kitchen includes a pizza oven, with an owl’s nesting nook tucked in the chimney.
With the exception of the music room, which has polished floors and white woodwork, the house has the feel of an old manor — dark wood, heavy trim, copper accents. But, for all its dark tones, the house never feels imposing. When asked where he gets his ideas, Paskevich responds: “Have you ever seenAlice in Wonderland?” His vision just comes to him — and it includes enough whimsy to offset the Old World richness that permeates the house. An example: Near the entry to his kitchen, there is a small hand-held shower attached to the wall and a small drain in the floor. It’s a mini-shower for the pet parrot.
While the lower level of the house contains all of the fun areas, the quality of materials never changes. The “spa” — steam room, sauna, massage room and dressing rooms — has walls that are covered in thousands of river pebbles all grouted into place by hand. The basketball court is made of shiny balsam wood; it was the one area of the house we were asked not to walk on wearing shoes.
Even the dog’s room had character. It was wallpapered with a border in a dog motif. It should also be noted that it’s about as far away as possible from the cat’s staircase — just another example of the home’s sensible design.
You don’t have to take a plane to set foot on the Holy Land. Almost the entire first floor of Scott Wolstein’s home is tiled with remnants from Jerusalem’s city streets.
Now, six years later, the house holding the top slot (the Rayburn home) is worth nearly double that, and a reappraisal has reduced the value of the Aveni home to $3.87 million. It’s fallen to slot No. 8 on our list.
Empty since Aveni’s death, the home is now for sale for $6.5 million and listed by Barbara Reynolds, current CEO of Real Living Realty One and a close friend of the Aveni family. That price is less than the house cost to build, she points out. But he didn’t build with resale in mind. He built it to indulge his passion — music.
“He loved this house. He loved entertaining, and it shows,” Reynolds says.
The “family” portion of the 27,000-square-foot house is lovely and has all the perks you can imagine — wide-plank walnut floors, outdoor kitchen,marble countertops, grand circular staircase, cathedral ceilings.
But it’s nothing compared to the entertaining portion of the home — a massive three-story “music room” that serves as an open space for parties and as home to Aveni’s famous collection of player instruments, including organs and calliopes. “He loved to sing,” says Reynolds. “He loved to play the piano.”
Whoever buys the property must enjoy hosting benefits and entertaining. That person is also likely to be a collector. “I can imagine antique cars parked down here,” Reynolds says. The basement has a service entrance that accommodated the biggest pieces from Aveni’s collection.
That buyer might also be interested in finishing the neighborhood. The house sits on 30 acres in Gates Mills and contains three additional lots.
Of course, they may decide to keep the seclusion of the current setup. You won’t see a soul driving up to his house. But you’re likely to see the six deer we did.
LeBron James’ house in Bath Township used to occupy slot No. 136 on our list, with an appraised value of about $1.6 million. Then he tore it down.
As everyone knows by now, the king is building a new castle. Because it’s not done yet, he’s off the list — temporarily.
Once complete, supposedly by fall, the house will place pretty high. At 33,162 square feet, it would be smaller only than the Lerner and Wolstein estates — but just by a closet or two.
To get ideas for his home, James toured No. 9 on our list, a very traditional lakefront home in Avon Lake with gorgeous, thick moldings and detailed millwork.
James is using the same contractor, Valore Builders, but the tone of the house will be completely different. “Architecturally, it’s sort of like a Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Pat Shane of the Summit County Building Department. “There are not a lot of extravagant gestures.
“Maybe that’s in keeping with LeBron’s Midwest sensibilities,” Shane jokes.
The first-floor plans call for the front door opening onto a double staircase and grand room with a massive skylight.
To the left, the side wing of the home contains the master bedroom and bath. For the stylish James, the closet space appears minimal — only one walk-in. Then you notice the private staircase, which leads to an “upper dressing room” as big as a very large bedroom.
In the lower level, you’ll find a home theater and a sports bar, but there’s also a casino, arcade, recording studio, barbershop and bowling alley. A portion of the basement is called “walk of fame” on the plans, which, unfortunately, offer no clues as to who James plans to admit.
In 2007, more people bought million-dollar homes in Northeast Ohio than in any other year this decade. Fifty-three homes sold last year for more than $1 million, including a Bay Village lakefront home that sold for $2 million, the highest sale price of the year.
Homes are still selling for more than their appraised values, but that’s more an indication of the classic appraiser-home owner battle than a sign of the economy. Appraisers rely largely on neighborhood sale values to fairly value homes and homeowners want to pay less in taxes.
This year, the bubble broke. In the first half of 2008, only 15 million-dollar homes sold.
But is the story really that simple in the high-end market? Although sales are certainly lower than in 2007, we are roughly keeping pace with 2006, when 36 million-dollar homes sold.
“I think high-end homes actually have a better opportunity [in this economy] because this kind of money is discretionary,” says Barbara Reynolds, of Realty One. “In the last two to three years, they’ve done better than the rest of the market.”
And once you get to a certain price point, resale value is just not an issue for the homeowner. When you build a house like the Aveni, Lerner, Wolstein or James estates, you can be fairly certain you won’t get your money back.
We speculated that the next time this list appears there’ll be a new No. 1 — the Wolstein estate.
It’s almost certainly a title nobody wants — unless they happen to love paying taxes. Rayburn, owner ofour No. 1, pays just more than $166,000 a year in property taxes.
In 2005, the home ranked only No. 10 on our list, with an appraised value of $3,965,500. Then, in June of that year, Rayburn bought it. For auditors, appraising a home involves some element of guesswork. They look at the home and compare it to sale prices in the neighborhood. Prior to Rayburn’s purchase, no home had ever sold for that much in Northeast Ohio. There were simply no comparables to boost the value.
But when Rayburn paid $8.5 million for the home, it gave auditors a concrete reason to raise the appraised value — right up to $8.5 million.
The houseis amazing. It sits on a majestic piece of Hunting Valley land, and the interior has a polished, formal look. But far and away the most impressive thing about the house is the gym. It is a full-blown 12,000-square-foot recreation center with basketball, tennis and volleyball courts, huge swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and his-and-her locker rooms. Best of all, you’re indoors the entire time: Just follow the tunnel that leads from the house to the rec center.
So what makes us say Wolstein’s house will beat it? While it doesn’t have a separate gym, it does have a pretty decked-out workout and relaxation area — just on a slightly smaller scale.
But it’s the craftsmanship and materials that went into the Wolstein estate that make it stand out — the old barn stones, custom ironwork, hand-carved wood. The result was that every corner of the home feels warm and interesting.
“It’s hard to make a house this big feel cozy,” says Paskevich, the architect.
Of course, the James estate in Bath, once completed, is likely to be a competitor for No. 1 as well. And it’s also possible that Rayburn’s house will stay on top.
The funny thing is that, according to the plans at least, LeBron’s house is the only one of the three without a basketball court.