A Rockstar Record! Grand Theft Auto Creator Dan Houser Buys Truman Capote Mansion for $12.5 M.

  • It has been said in our screen-addled age that video games are the new fiction. Be that as it may, Grand Theft Auto must then be our Moby Dick, which would make Dan Houser modern America’s Herman Melville. Or maybe he’s Dickens—Mr. Houser is British, and his work is equally dour and gritty.

    How fitting, then, that the Rockstar Games co-founder is the new owner of an illustrious Brooklyn Heights mansion at 70 Willow Street where Truman Capote, along with some of the borough’s richest men, once lived. The sale, at exactly $12.5 million according to city records, is the most expensive in Brooklyn history, and, by extension, anywhere outside of Manhattan. It surpasses the previous record by a full $1.5 million.

    If there was any question that video games had surpassed films, music and books for cultural—to say nothing of economic—primacy, this should bring such debates to an end. In Cold Blood has been dehtroned by Red Dead Redemption.

    Even to Nicholas Callaway, the seller of the distinctive yellow home, the digital evolution is apparent. Mr. Callaway is a long-time publisher of over-sized art books. Madonna’s Sex, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings and Georgia O’Keefe’s One Hundred Flowers are among those stacked up on the coffee table of Callaway Arts & Entertainment. With The Times, Mr. Callaway co-published OBAMA: The Historic Journey, a visual catalogue of the president’s reelection.

    Two years ago—right around the time he put his home on the market for a staggering $18 million, in fact—Mr. Callaway put his publishing career behind him, at least on paper. With the help of investors, he founded Callaway Digital Arts to publish mobile apps, with a particular focus on the iPad. The company’s motto is “turning beloved stories into beloved digital experiences,” and so far, the focus has been on known brands: Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine, Angelina Ballerina and, the cuddliest of them all, Martha Stewart.

    “I have bet the whole ranch on this,” Mr. Callaway told Reuters last year. The same might be said of his former home.

    That is if a ten-fold investment over the course of a dozen years can be called a gamble. Though Mr. Callaway only achieved two-thirds his original asking price, he still sold the 9,000-square-foot behemoth for considerably more than the $1.25 million he paid in 1998, according to city records. In 2007, the 18-room manse was offered as a rental for $40,000 a month.

    That is actually a relative steal, assuming 20 percent down on $12.5 million and an insanely low 4.2 percent mortgage rate, all of which comes out to almost $49,000 per month—and that is before taxes, not to mention the heating and electric bills it must cost to keep those 11 bedrooms comfy at night.

    Yet Mr. Houser and his wife Krystyna must pay back a mere $2.5 million, according to mortgage documents she signed. The house was purchased anonymously through a limited liability corporation, but the mortgage, as well as the filing for the corporation with the state, point to the Housers—the LLC was registered to a condo Mr. Houser owns at 20 Greene Street in Soho. Which proves 70 Willow is not his first sizable buy, given the 4,324-square-foot loft was purchased in 2006 for $6.25 million.

    Mr. Houser knows the city well, and not just from his homes on both sides of the East River. He moved to New York in 1998 to join his brother Sam Houser and Terry Donovan in the creation of Rockstar Games. In 2002, they released the vicious go-anywhere, do-anything, commit-any-crime Grand Theft Auto III, revolutionizing the industry, drawing criticism the world over and launching the best-selling video game franchise of all time. The last major release, Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008—there were actually a number of titles in between, and since—was set in Liberty City, an arch replica with exacting details of four of the Five Boroughs (Staten Island was left out).

    With intricately wrought copies of Rockefeller Center, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, the GTA IV not only wowed gamers but real estate geeks, too. It appears a facsimile of 70 Willow was not featured in the game.

    One imagines Mr. Houser bringing the same excitement to his exquisitely wrought new home as to the video game worlds he creates. Beyond its massive scale, the 9,000-square-foot, yellow-clapboard mansion features such intricate details as 11 different fireplaces and a soaring spiral staircase connecting all three floors. Layers upon layers of molding line the ceilings and walls.

    “38 windows have east, south, and west exposures, including parlor floor Jeffersonian floor-to-ceiling pocket windows and French doors leading to the Federal style columned veranda,” Sotheby’s broker Karen Heyman enthuses in her listing. (She declined to discuss the sale or the identity of the buyer.)

    Outside, there is that rarest of Brooklyn Heights amenities: a driveway. It looks perfect for parking the Infernus. Out back is a large garden facing a 40-foot “Federal style columned veranda,” Ms. Heyman’s listing notes. It is said this was one of Capote’s favorite places to write. It was here, while living in a basement apartment, that the sociable author completed Breakfast at Tiffany’s and wrote In Cold Blood and, naturally, In the Heights. The opening line? “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”

    So too did Adrian Van Sinderen, a descendent of Revolutionary-era Dutch settlers who commissioned the house in 1839, making it one of the oldest extant homes in the neighborhood. It later housed banker William Putnam, a trustee of the Brooklyn museum and prominent figure in the borough. His wife hosted women’s suffrage meetings there, and an account of one from 1894 was recorded by none other than Elizabeth Cady Stanton for The Times.

    “A historic home located in Brooklyn Heights,” Ms. Heyman’s listing concludes, in a bit of understatement, “a quiet refuge just minutes from Manhattan.” Hopefully the arrival of Mr. Houser will not disrupt the quietude. That would certainly not be the case if one of the characters from his video games had moved in.

    mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC