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Lake Erie 'Mod Pod' Was Drop Ceiling Inventor’s Shangri-la

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Dobermans released every two hours to patrol the property. Underground streets lined with a restaurant, bars and a barber shop. A private beach and marina sculpted into the shores of Lake Erie. Helicopter pad. Rotating garage floor made of marble so no one had to back out that rare Ducati.

These are just a few of the unique features found in the Waterwood Estate, a fascinating Ohio property owned by the late Don Brown, an inventor who gave the world the drop ceiling.

“It takes four-and-a-half hours to show this property,” said Scott Street of Sotheby’s, the listing agent for the Waterwood Estate, which is now listed on the Vermilion real estate market for $19.5 million.

The property sits on 160 acres, boasts three-quarter miles of frontage on Lake Erie and contains a series of “pods” connected by glass corridors that were navigated by scooters and golf carts.When Brown and his wife, Shirley, were killed in a plane crash in 2010, their two living sons (their third son, Kevin, died in a speed boat race in 1989) decided to sell the sensationally unique property. But to who?

So far, Street said the listing has attracted a ministry group and a group of Colorado helicopter pilots have expressed interest in turning the property into a fly-in, fly-out resort (Waterwood comes with an FAA-approved helicopter pad). Then there’s a couple who, perhaps like the octogenarian Browns, wants to grow old in an amenity-laden house.

“This was a very forward-thinking house when it was built in 1990 in terms of systems and functionality,” said Randal Darwin, vice president of CB Richard Ellis, the firm brought in to help market Waterwood.

“It was 20 years ahead of its time because its features and unique characteristics. Mr. Brown literally broke the mold on this house. I know he had the white brick specially fabricated for this project and when it was done, he had the molds destroyed so no one else would ever use them,” Darwin said.

These few details only begin to tell the story of Brown’s Waterwood Estate. One other important fact? The listed size of Brown’s dream house is off — by about 30,000 square feet.

The Inventor and the Architect

“They’ve got the square-footage listed wrong,” said architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. “It’s not 38,000 square feet. It’s 60,000 square feet. The underground floor is the same size as the main floor. They forgot to count that.”

Jacobsen would know about the true size and intricacy of the Brown estate. The world-acclaimed architect was hired by Brown to deliver the visionary design, just as Jacobsen has done for more than 400 private homes for clients that included Jackie Onassis, Meryl Streep and members of the Mellon family. But the collaboration ended when the secretive Brown fired Jacobsen.

“We were a year-and-a-half into the project and he sacked me. I’ve never been fired before,” Jacobsen said from his Washington D.C. office, still bemused about the turn of events.

“He kept a secret of his life. He thought everyone wanted him. He’d say, ‘Hugh, jealousy is a terrible thing.’ I asked him, ‘Don, do you think I’m jealous of you?’ I think he was offended,” Jacobsen said.

At 81, Jacobsen has been at the forefront of American architecture for sixty years, ever since he attended Yale and apprenticed with Philip Johnson. The rich and famous are Jacobsen’s clients. He delivers uniquely landscaped structures that reference the Quaker-simple lines of the American barn, smokehouses and farmhouses. He has won many awards and published three books cataloging his work, but his first look at the Waterwood Estate came when he saw listing photos after the property was put up for sale.

“About two months before he died, after 20 years since I’d heard from him, he called and said,  ‘I guess you’d like to see the place.’ I said, yes, I’d like to see it. My homes are like my children. But then he died in the crash,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen used his trademark “pod” style design to give the design more flexibility and allow it to evolve as Brown wanted other things added. The entire home is a series of 20 castle-like concrete buildings connected by glass corridors and each structure is topped with a slate pyramid.

Marble, Glass, Polar Bears and Dobermans

On the lower level of the house, there are a series of streets built to scale and named after streets in cities like Georgetown, Paris and Savannah.

“There were five bars in the house, one with a full-mounted polar bear. There’s a barber shop with a pole where Don would go every morning for a shave. At one end of the house, he had cages that would open every hour on the hour and two Dobermans trained to run the perimeter of the property would run out. The next hour, another pair would take off,” Jacobsen.

He also used tons of sand and dirt from the lake shoreline, where cliffs were graded to build a beach and the harbor, to shape hills into the flat, Midwestern terrain. From the road, the house is not visible behind those hills. But from the lake, boaters can see the modernist white castle.

If it sounds wild, Jacobsen disagrees.

“No, it’s not wild. It’s your dream. This house is the house of an inventor. It has a space where, inside eight white columns, there are chairs and a couch. This floor lifts up through the ceiling to a pergola so guests can look out over the lake. The floor also goes down to the ground floor, where there’s a piano so the family can sing Christmas carols,” Jacobsen said.

“Near the main entrance, there is a 10-by-10-foot room behind the closet. You slide the door, remove the clothes’ pole and there’s a fully decorated Christmas tree. The room had its own air filter and air conditioner to keep the dust off the ornaments. He was so embarrassed about having a fake tree he had it sprayed so that it smelled like pine needles,” he said.

What amuses Jacobsen is that despite being fired, his plans were fully executed. Brown brought in another renowned and innovative architect, the late Hideo Sasaki.

“Don told Sasaki, ‘Don’t change Jacobsen’s plan.’ And they didn’t change a thing. Sasaki would call and tell me,” Jacobsen said.

During his lifetime, Don Brown never allowed the property to be photographed. It was a sanctuary for his family, lacking for nothing. Now, with the house listed for sale and photographs to prove its splendid fruition, the architect who designed Don Brown’s house is curious.

“He was building his dream, he had money and he hired me. We bought the furniture, the art, we did the landscape, then I was fired. I’d like to see it, but I’ve  never paid my own airfare to see a home I built for a client,” Jacobsen said.

And if you’re wondering whether the home has a drop ceiling, it does — in a workshop.

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