Here in gray, paved-over Gotham, we’ve come to know Michael Bloomberg the tycoon, bon vivant, philanthropist and Mayor. But there’s another side of the man, familiar only to the few who have visited a Westchester estate called Gotham North: Michael Bloomberg, country squire. That’s the one whose own sanitation department shovels horse manure, whose builders favor cedar, and who employs more grooms and gardeners than deskbound bureaucrats.
Philip Hymes viewed the arrival of the new squire in North Salem, N.Y., in 2001 with some concern. Mr. Hymes, 80, and his wife Virginia live in a low burnt-red wood house whose modest acre of property is enveloped on two sides by a sprawling, 26-acre estate that the Mayor-to-be purchased for $3.65 million in early 2001. The estate, Then called Salem Sunshine Farm, was best known for its connection to a 19th-century circus: The farm lodged the elephants. Now, however, it would be known for horses-Mr. Bloomberg had applied for a permit to keep 20. So Mr. Hymes looked uphill and worried about drainage: Rainwater flows down from the Mayor’s hilly estate across Mr. Hymes’ property and into his well. And 20 horses produce about a half ton of manure a day.
“If our well is contaminated by urine or feces, our entire property will be ruined,” Mr. Hymes and his wife wrote to the North Salem Board of Appeals in a vain attempt to keep the horses out.
Mr. Bloomberg came to North Salem through his equestrian daughter, Georgina, who rode horses at the nearby Old Salem Farm. In February 2001, he closed on Salem Sunshine Farm and promptly renamed it Gotham North. Then he set about transforming it from a quiet country house into a prize property for Georgina and his ex-wife, Susan.
Mr. Hymes, a reedy-voiced man who works as a lighting designer, watched the goings-on up the hill with amazement. His red house looks north up Titicus Road to the estate’s main residence, a four-bedroom stone Colonial-style farmhouse. Up the hill and to the south, Mr. Hymes used to see nothing but a small stable, a few sheds and dirt paths.
Then his neighbor’s sprawling property was transformed. At the entrance, two stone pillars went up around a discreet, automatic white metal gate and a sign: “Construction Site. Private Property. No Trespassing.” The path in from the road was paved all the way up to the stable. Down went five minor structures, and out went the old swimming pool. The only important building left standing on Gotham North was the white farmhouse, which got a $1.5 million renovation.
Then according to records at the North Salem Building Department, Mr. Bloomberg’s workers expanded the place’s rustic vocabulary to include “cabana” and “gazebo.” And not just any cabana, either: This oak-floored beauty comes complete with an office, a wet bar and a plasma television, and stands beside a new, 40-by-20-foot pool, sloping gently from three feet to eight feet deep. The wooden gazebo, christened Sunset Pavilion, was put on a stone base and topped with copper. Landscapers brought in eight new full-grown trees to ring the structure.
What impressed Mr. Hymes most was the care taken of the land itself, an uneven stretch of country fringed with birch and red maple that bends steeply uphill at its southernmost end. International Equestrian Design, a Montreal firm, trucked in 600 cubic yards of mason sand, the fine, clean, soft aggregate found in children’s sandboxes. Mixed with polypropylene fiber, the sand provides an ideal, resilient support for horses’ hooves. The company also graded the land, mowed the grass and trimmed the hedges.
“It looks like Central Park done over,” Mr. Hymes said recently. “It’s taken care of like a French villa-there’s no money held back and everything is pristine.”
These days, Gotham North is regularly described as one of the most beautiful properties in North Salem, a tactful hamlet with no real center that sprawls around the Titicus Reservoir, which is part of the city’s watershed. The town’s population is just over 5,000, but it’s been home to the famous since Ulysses S. Grant moved there after his Presidency. Current residents include David Letterman, who jogs not far from Mr. Bloomberg’s house.
Mr. and Mrs. Hymes don’t see much of their neighbors, Mr. Bloomberg least of all. The Mayor is, after all, embroiled in the many frustrations of Gotham, the maddening city 50 miles away where nothing ever seems to go as planned. Down in Gotham, Mr. Bloomberg faces the daily frustrations delivered by intransigent unions, silent ferry pilots and disloyal Republicans. The swarming press and ungrateful voters may not have been what the founder of Bloomberg L.P. had in mind when he decided to run for Mayor of New York.
His Mayoralty is far more popular around Gotham North, where both Mr. and Mrs. Hymes, though Democrats, are fans. Last August, the Bloombergs opened the house to neighbors at a benefit for the North Salem Bridle Trails Association. Mrs. Hymes pulled the Mayor aside from the steak, sushi and abundant liquor to tell him, “I think you’re doing a great job.”
“That makes two of us,” Mr. Bloomberg replied.
Even the quiet grandeur of City Hall, with its renovated West Wing, might have a tough time competing with the crown jewel of Gotham North: the stable. Actually, the stable bears a resemblance to City Hall that can probably be dismissed as accidental (although the fact that Mr. Bloomberg owns Gotham North through a Delaware Corporation called Gotham Enterprises L.L.C. makes you wonder if the resemblance isn’t deliberate).
With 18,000 square feet on two floors, the stable looks like a somewhat smaller scale model of City Hall, which has 57,000 square feet on three floors, according to the city’s Art Commission. Like City Hall, it’s a two-story building with a narrow middle section connecting two wings. In place of City Hall’s white marble exterior, the stable is painted a shining white and topped with cedar shingles like the other buildings on the grounds. City Hall is topped by a white cupola; the stable’s cupola is copper, but it also shines in the sun. And Gotham North’s stable-constructed at a cost of $3,084,461-has a bonus: On the second floor are quarters for three grooms. Think how useful these experts in the disposal of horse manure would be around the seat of city government.
As for the occupants, can the members of the City Council-annual salary: $90,000-really compete with a squad of show horses priced at $100,000 and way up? Writing on a Web site two years ago, Georgina Bloomberg, now 20, listed the names of some of her steeds at the time: Rave, Dialog L, New Hope, Diplomacy, Action, Julius, Kahlua and Grand Cru.
A Horde of Horses?
Mr. Hymes wasn’t the only one worried about the horses as Mr. Bloomberg negotiated for the house, and the 20-horse permit, in 2000.
Frances Sweeney from up the road wrote to the North Salem Board of Appeals that Mr. Bloomberg’s “horde of horses” would mean activities “of a particularly smelly, noisy, unclean and disruptive nature.”
Mr. Bloomberg closed the deal with a set of promises. No horse shows. No big lights for riding at night. And a huge, high-tech container on the west side of the stable-away from the Hymes house-to hold the manure while it’s waiting to be trucked away.
All that work came at a fairly modest cost by the standards of a man whom Forbes valued at $4.9 billion. Mr. Bloomberg’s man in Westchester, David Zublin, has filed papers indicating expenses of at least $6.4 million with the Buildings Department. (Mr. Zublin declined to talk to The Observer about the work. An aide to the Mayor said that Mr. Bloomberg would “burn in hell” before opening up Gotham North to the press.)
After the stable, the most impressive improvement at Gotham North was the “caretaker’s cottage,” a three-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot white structure about the size of Mr. Hymes’ house. With its modest, white exterior and shingled roof, the one-and-a-half-story building matches the rest of the estate.
“Even the help live in splendid quarters,” said Philippe Radley, another next-door neighbor.
But like Gotham itself, Gotham North has its frustrations. The caretaker’s cottage, lovely as it is and built at a cost of $645,000, has apparently been erected in the wrong place.
The cottage now stands roughly at the center of a triangle formed by the main house, the stable and an artificial pond directly up the hill from the Hymes residence. Apparently, it belongs a bit farther west, closer to Titicus Road and away from the horses and the people. But with a small porch over a bit of lattice-work and a door framed by old-fashioned lamps, the building doesn’t look terribly mobile.
On Nov. 12, however, Mr. Zublin notified the North Salem Buildings Department that “we would like to move an existing house on the property.”
The preliminary estimate of the project’s cost is $500,000, but those estimates have a way of swelling-even tripling-at Gotham North. And it won’t be an easy job to move the “cottage”: There are the roof’s cedar shingles to think of, and the tall chimney, and even the little weathercock that points west when the wind blows off the reservoir.
Mr. Hymes hasn’t yet gotten word of the plans to move the house.
“It could happen. I would never know,” he said.