In all, there were maybe two dozen of them. Mostly men who, on the glorious Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day had put down their golf clubs, tennis racquets and basketballs and gathered at the Sagaponack, L.I., home of real estate developer Al Bialek to hash over the pressing matter. Retired advertising mogul Jay Chiat was there, as were fund manager Mario Gabelli, stockbroker Joseph Dilworth and restaurateur Alan Stillman.
These captains of finance, media and New York night life called themselves the Sagaponack Homeowners Association, and they had amassed on this afternoon to make a decision about something big that was going down in their backyards. There, on a 64-acre plot of oceanfront property on Daniel’s Lane, a multimillionaire named Ira Rennert–a man whom no one could recall ever seeing in the Hamptons before–was beginning construction on an Italian villa-like compound called Fair Field that would eat up 100,000 square feet of space. Inside its 66,000-square-foot main house would be 29 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms; its garage would accommodate more than 100 cars–and still, somehow, over the winter the place had managed to get a construction permit as a single-family home.
The Hamptons are littered with big houses, huge, architecturally retarded monuments to the misshapen egos of the people who live in them. But in the space of a few months, Mr. Rennert, a man who, according to his office, does not give interviews and who has flown beneath the radar of the media elite who populate the Hamptons, has emerged as the Godzilla of the East End. He is building not only the biggest house in the Hamptons, but one of the largest in the country. A house bigger than Ronald Perelman’s the Creeks (a 12,000-square-foot house on 68 acres) or, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, bigger than the Medina, Wash., complex of Microsoft Corporation’s chief executive, Bill Gates.
Fair Field is more than just a symbol of Hamptons excess. As the local debate has raged over the size of Mr. Rennert’s house, there has also been much discussion and speculation about his plans for such a large estate. The stories that keep popping up are that Mr. Rennert has plans to devote some of the ample space to an Orthodox synagogue or even a yeshiva. Mr. Rennert is an Orthodox Jew, a member of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue, who, according to an article by Nancy Hass in the June issue of Hamptons Country magazine, is said to be close to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. His holding company, Renco, which owns, among other businesses, the group that makes the Humvee and Hummer, grosses a reported $2.5 billion a year. Behind the facade of Mr. Rennert’s monstrous home, say some, lurk potential issues of that ages-old Hamptons problem: anti-Semitism.
Those who attended the meeting and who spoke to The Transom (and they did so reluctantly) said that they are horrified at the size and makeup of Mr. Rennert’s planned villa (and its ramifications on the environment) and skeptical of his assertion that the home is intended solely for his family. The Sagaponack Homeowners Association is determined to halt the construction of Fair Field, using a state law, Article 78, that enables a town’s citizens to challenge their local government when they contend their best interests are not being served. Apparently, at least one conservation group, the Group for the South Fork, is joining in the effort to stop Fair Field.
But a person who received some of the calls to help charter the homeowners’ association said that the fear was expressed on more than one occasion that Mr. Rennert was “going to turn this into some sort of Orthodox Jewish refuge. They were talking about Jews in black trench coats going to the Sagaponack General Store.”
Mr. Bialek, who is a spokesman of the homeowners’ group, would only say that the association’s counsel “is reviewing” bringing an Article 78 proceeding against the town of Southampton, of which Sagaponack is a part. He also said that the association “is giving thought” to collecting a petition “to get Sagaponack declared a village.” This would allow the hamlet to set up its own architectural review board that would operate independently of Southampton. Southampton has its own village area, too, and as Mr. Bialek said, “This would never happen in Southampton Village.”
Members of the home association told The Transom that Mr. Rennert’s plans for Fair Field (estimated construction cost $100 million) were submitted to the Southampton Town Architectural Review Board in early January when many of the area’s residents were not around. Over the course of the spring. Mr. Rennert’s plans were approved.
In April, however, an attorney hired by the association wrote to Southampton Town supervisor Vincent Cannuscio to protest. “It is difficult to imagine how one family (even with guests) could ‘occupy’ the main dwelling, containing approximately 25 bedrooms, each with its own attached full bathroom, three dining rooms, 11 sitting rooms, two libraries, an art gallery and a variety of other living spaces. The size and design of Mr. Rennert’s complex make it unlike any other single family dwelling within the town.”
Indeed, according to Mr. Bialek, the houses that surround Mr. Rennert’s land (which he purchased for $11 million) are typically cedar-shingle homes between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet in size. Fair Field will not only be massive, it will be constructed out of limestone and tan terra-cotta tiles. “This thing is too big for a potato field in Sagaponack,” said Mr. Dilworth, who added that, to his knowledge, “there are no limestone buildings in Southampton.”
The infrastructure required to run such a compound will also be substantial. At least seven septic tanks will be installed (in an area that draws its water from underground wells) and, according to Ms. Hass’ article, the power plant for Fair Field “will be larger than the plant that heats and cools Southampton High.” Because Fair Field is registered as a single-family home, it did not need to undergo land or environmental impact reviews.
When all of this is constructed and landscaped, critics contend it will be a blot on an area that is known for its views of potato fields rolling down to the sea. The Rennert house, they say, will do no less than change the character of Sagaponack.
According to Mr. Cannuscio, Mr. Rennert’s building permit has either reached him or is on its way. There is a bit of mirth in the town supervisor’s voice when he discusses the matter of Mr. Rennert’s house. He has said in the press that Mr. Rennert suffers from “edifice complex” and that his critics have “palace envy.”
Mr. Cannuscio said that the plans for Fair Field were approved “because no one foresaw, when the zoning code was put together in 1957, a situation that would call for us to limit the maximum size of a dwelling.” He added, “Would it have been appropriate for us, if we saw Mr. Rennert coming with his plan, to run and craft a new law” in order to prevent him from building his home there? “It’s unfair to legislate something slightly retroactively.”
Mr. Cannuscio said that as it stands, Mr. Rennert’s property is legal. He explained that if those 64 acres were subdivided, “it’s conceivable that someone could carve it up and build 20 homes,” each with its own septic tank.
“It’s somewhat ironic,” the supervisor noted, that when real estate developer Edward Gordon built his 30,000-square-foot home in Bridgehampton, complete with an adjacent private golf course, “I don’t think anyone complained. And if they did, they did not complain to my office.”
Asked if there might be another reason for the protests against Mr. Rennert’s house, Mr. Cannuscio replied, “that is the million-dollar question. I’ve heard comments that people are fearful that [Fair Field] will become a religious community. I’m appalled by that.”
Mr. Cannuscio said that he mentioned this to Mr. Bialek, who is Jewish, “and he said that he has that same fear that Mr. Rennert might end up donating this place to a religious sect. I told him I was offended by that. He said that, be that as it may, he was fearful of that possibility.”
“He’s lying,” said Mr. Bialek who claimed to have only spoken only once, on the phone, with Mr. Cannuscio. “As a matter of fact, he’s trying to make it a religious issue. He’s trying to spin it that way. Then we can’t criticize [the city] for what they did.… We do not care what alternate uses Mr. Rennert might have in mind [for Fair Field]. We do know that the house that was approved is an unusual structure completely out of character with the area.”
Mr. Bialek insisted that there is “no foundation” to the issue of whether Mr. Rennert might be using his estate for Orthodox Jewish services or instruction. But given that a number of the Sagaponack Home Association’s members are Jewish, one local resident said that the pitch of some of the association’s early complaints smacked of “Jews hating Jews.” In other words, assimilated Jews anxious over the arrival of payess-and-sheitel-wearing Jews to the Hamptons.
Lately, however, the source said that the homeowners association seems to have stuck to the problems of the size and the style of Mr. Rennert’s home, “which is the real issue.”
Another resident, attorney Mark Schwarz said that, in his opinion, “the story is not so much the Rennert house as it is the Orthodox scene that’s going on out there.” There are a number of places for Orthodox Jews to worship including the home of Manhattan businessman Norman Starks and until recently, at the Sag Harbor Inn (which, according to its owner, Charles Egosi, is looking for a new rabbi). And with such newsworthy people as Mr. Perelman keeping kosher, he said, these Hamptons religious services have “become media events and social events out there like everything else.”
Mr. Schwarz opined that “a lot of Jews in the area are concerned that there could be a backlash against Jews because all of a sudden you’re going to see the traffic and an Orthodox approach to a beach weekend.”
Ira Rennert, he said, “might be the tail rather than the dog.”
‘I Want This Solved’
In this city of power and money, fashion and sex, it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we have found a way to keep the corrosive forces at bay, and that we will have all the time on earth and the energy that we need to achieve our dreams.
A year ago, Jenifer Estess had every reason to believe that she would have that time. For six years, starting in 1989, she was a producing director of the Naked Angels, the theater group that counted actors Rob Morrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marisa Tomei and George magazine editor John F. Kennedy Jr. among its members and supporters. Ms. Estess raised funds for the Angels group and produced its annual benefit at the East Hampton Airport.
Last year, however, Ms. Estess, who is 35, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S., also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative neuromuscular disease that affects 30,000 people in the country. There is no cure for A.L.S. and very little treatment. The doctors were not very encouraging. “I was told by one doctor to just start charging on my Mastercard and enjoy the rest of my life,” Ms. Estess told The Transom. Another doctor said, “Your motorneurons are dying and they will never be replaced. Christopher Reeve [who suffered a spinal cord injury that has left him paralyzed] is better off than you.”
The lack of knowledge and treatment left Ms. Estess astounded and angry. “With A.L.S., because there is no treatment or answers, everybody runs away from it,” she said. “You and your family are left with no grounding or orientation.”
“This is a sick disease,” said Ms. Estess. “It’s only been a year and I’m in a wheelchair. You have to get home care. You can’t move. You can’t take care of yourself. And I’m a woman of independent means. I also think that being in New York, we’re at the high end of beauty. Image is everything. This disease distorts your body.”
Eventually, the A.L.S. will cause Ms. Estess to lose the use of her vocal cords. Until that happens, she said that she is determined to use her expertise as a producer to raise money for research and awareness of the disease. Ms. Estess recently formed Project A.L.S., a charity devoted to raising money for A.L.S. research. On June 1, her friends, many of them from the entertainment industry, will get together for Project A.L.S.’s inaugural benefit at the Roseland Ballroom. Actor Ben Stiller will co-host and Fiona Apple, Gina Gershon, Mr. Morrow and Ms. Tomei are among those making appearances. Tickets start at $250. (For more information, call 969-0329.)