There are birthday gifts -- and then there are birthday gifts of the rich and famous.
When jet-setter Baron Enrico di Portanova was unsuccessful in buying a share of New York's famed 21 Club as a birthday present for his wife, he decided to give her something a little closer to home: He enclosed the backyard of their Houston mansion, creating a 12,000-square-foot natatorium complete with a saltwater pool, massive chandeliers, and space for parties for 250 or more.
The baron and his wife hosted galas for the likes of diplomat Henry Kissinger and actor Roger Moore in the stunning air-conditioned space that sits behind their neoclassical eight-bedroom home.
Now, 15 years after the baron's death and after a major renovation done by the current homeowners, the 21,500-square-foot palatial estate in the tony River Oaks section of Houston is on the market for $17.9 million.
"It's very unique," says listing agent Moni Bohnisch. "You have to see it in person to appreciate the detail and the quality and high-end finishes that went into this property." The homeowners also upgraded the electrical and plumbing. "It's like a brand-new property," she says.
The baron, known as Ricky, was the grandson of fabled Texas oilman Hugh Roy Cullen. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Italy, Ricky came to Texas in the 1960s to fight for his inheritance and eventually bought this mansion in the early 1970s.
The natatorium became party central for the fast-living baron and his second wife, Sandra Hovas of Houston who would become known as Baroness Alessandra di Portanova.
"Friends recall one party in particular in which Sir Roger Moore, then starring as James Bond, arrived by helicopter while models in cat suits rappelled down the side of the house, klieg lights lighting up the scene," wrote Culturemap Houston.
"Late-night pasta and caviar dinners, grand soires attended by the rich and famous and extravagant fundraisers -- all held in the lavish setting of a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned, swimming pool lit by numerous chandeliers -- were all in a day's (and night's) play for the former host and owner of an opulent River Oaks mansion."
The magnificent home also includes a master suite with a balcony overlooking the natatorium; paneled library; home theater; and fitness center. Marble floors, Venetian plaster walls, and gold-accented moldings are found throughout the home.
Perhaps this time around, the entire mansion will be a birthday present for someone looking to mimic the late baron's lavish lifestyle.