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Issue Date: March 2005 Issue


Home, Huge Home

One has an indoor basketball court; another has a video arcade for the grandkids. Some bear the mystery of history; others the fresh smell of brand-new construction. What do they have in common? They all make our list of the 250 most expensive properties in Northeast Ohio.
Colleen Mytnick
mytnick@clevelandmagazine.com

The List
Click here to search the list of the 250 most expensive homes in Northeast Ohio.
Monte Ahuja lived briefly in the downtown YMCA shortly after immigrating to America from India. He now lives in a 29,000-square- foot home in Hunting Valley. About the only similarities between the two residences are an elevator, a gym and an indoor pool.

But Monte and Usha Ahuja's home, designed by architect Joseph Giglio, has so much more. Upon entering, you face a dramatic Y-shaped staircase surrounded by a sea of dark granite. Behind the staircase is a two-story sunroom with a waterfall that echoes the two-tiered stone one outside the bank of windows. Overlooking the room are two balconies, from which the Ahujas' daughters used to call to each other when they still lived at home.

The walk-out basement is large enough to serve a sit-down dinner to 140 guests and has been used to hold fund-raisers for politicians George Voinovich, Mike DeWine and Bob Taft. Visitors to the house have included such business leaders as Alex Machaskee, Sam Miller, Mal Mixon and Dick Pogue. For livelier affairs, there is a dance floor. And, of course, there's the obligatory home theater. There's also an exercise room.

The Ahuja estate is the 12th most valuable residence in Northeast Ohio, according to county auditors. For this article, we tracked the 250 most expensive homes in the region, from the lowliest at $1.35 million to the top-ranking $6.27 million estate.

In between, there is an onslaught of luxury. One home (No. 33) boasts a video arcade for the grandchildren, while another (No. 3) has an indoor batting cage. For entertaining, a newer home on our list (No. 8) offers a rotating dining room so that every guest gets a view of the lake. Meanwhile, an older home on our list (No. 56) flaunts a roomy marble powder room with two stalls.

Many of the residences in our Top 250 feature multiple kitchens and laundry rooms. Tennis courts and pools (whether indoor or out) are commonplace. Home theaters are pretty much a given in new construction. Many of the properties have two or three times as many toilets as people to use them.

In this story, we'll take a look inside a few of those homes, including a Bratenahl estate (No. 33) up for sale for $11 million. If it sells, it'll be the most expensive existing home ever to transfer hands in Northeast Ohio. We'll examine the future of the high-end home market. And yes, we'll satisfy your curiosity about who's on the list, including a 20-year-old man living in a 20,000-square-foot Bath Township home (No. 136).

Lastly, we'll peek inside house No. 1 — the biggest home in Northeast Ohio and an impressive visual reminder of how credit-card debt can add up.

Making the List

Three years ago, Cleveland Magazine published "Top 200 Homes." But nothing stays the same. In addition to all the new homes that have been built since then, existing homes are reappraised with an on-site inspection every three years.

That's why we thought it was time to crunch some numbers again. Only this time, we made it the Top 250 homes and expanded our coverage to Erie and Huron counties. We compiled our chart by contacting county auditors and asking for lists of all homes valued at more than $1.4 million. We then merged the lists to find the 250 most expensive homes.

One thing that's become very clear is that appraising a home's value involves a great deal of guesswork.

While working on this project, for example, we found several homes in more than one county that were listed for sale for sometimes as much as 10 times their appraised value — discrepancies that were too great to attribute to a reasonable margin of error. After inquiring in one county, we were told, "You have brought something to our attention" and assured that a reappraisal would be done in short order.

Jim Hopkins, the director of Cuyahoga County's appraisal department, explains that several factors are used in determining a home's value, including square footage, lot size and a sales analysis of surrounding homes. Appraised values are usually lower than sale values, he says, because "you're always looking back in time" at previous sales.

Hopkins admits that high-end homes are the most difficult to peg. While additions must be reported to the county, renovations are a private matter and rarely seen or heard of by county appraisers. "People are not very receptive about letting you into their home," he explains.

Hopkins also notes that just because a home is listed for a certain amount doesn't mean it'll sell for anywhere close to that. His office only pays attention to actual transfer amounts.

And even sale values can be inflated when furnishings are included in the price of the house, as is often the case. "A lot of people sell these home as is," Hopkins notes. "It can be as much as $1 million worth of personal property. There can be $50,000 for a rug that they just got from Persia."

House No. 1

In our 2001 issue, the top slot was held by Vincent Aveni, the founder of Realty One, and his 21,772-square-foot home (then appraised for $4.5 million). Since then, that home has fallen to slot No. 16, largely because of a reappraisal that dropped its value to $3.25 million.

But even if Aveni's home was still valued the same, it wouldn't come close to the new No. 1: the Lerner family's $6.3 million Hunting Valley estate. With a total of 34,051 square feet, it's not only the most expensive property on our list, but also the biggest.

Built in 2002, the estate comprises two homes: a primary residence and a guest home. (Al Lerner, MBNA founder and Cleveland Browns owner, passed away the same year the house was completed.) The main home is 28,633 square feet and has five bedrooms, six full baths and five half baths. There are nine fireplaces. The guest home, at 5,418 square feet, offers three bedrooms, three full baths and one half bath. Both buildings are made of stone with slate roofs. A sketch provided by the auditor's office also shows a pool, pool house and sunken tennis courts.

While we'd like to show you a picture of the home, the family's security force makes that difficult. When our photographer tried to snap a picture, she was stopped and politely — but firmly — asked to leave.

Buying a Piece of History

For $7.5 million, you can buy house No. 56, a Daisy Hill estate, complete with a 60-foot-long indoor pool, a terrace overlooking a lighted tennis court, a guest wing, nine fireplaces and more bathrooms than the owner can count off the top of her head.

But along with those assets — which can be duplicated in newer luxury homes — you would also be buying a piece of history.

By 1924, two bachelor brothers had racked up a list of accomplishments that included the groundbreaking for Terminal Tower, the development of much of Shaker Heights and a rail line running between the two. So perhaps it was natural that Oris Paxton Van Sweringen and Mantis James Van Sweringen would seek a nice place to live.

But instead of building new, the Vans began with a giant barn, transforming it into a 54-room country home with interior walls a foot thick. "This house is so peaceful," quips the current owner, "because the cows used to live here."

According to a 1966 Plain Dealer story, the house was reputed to have cost $2 million to build (about $22 million in today's dollars).

Because a subsequent owner reduced the home to 30 rooms, it's hard to say exactly how massive it originally was. In fact, it's hard to say precisely how big the house is today. While the auditor lists it as just under 15,000 square feet, it feels much larger. Not even the owner is certain and the home's Realtor has it listed simply as "20,000+" square feet.

The first floor is dominated by a vaulted, beamed living room that easily accommodates three separate seating areas and a grand piano. Old photographs show that this room was, almost incomprehensibly, much larger before the house's reduction.

Other features of the first floor are a sunroom, a pub, a large kitchen, a breakfast room, a Dickens library (so named by the brothers, who collected his original manuscripts), a drawing room, a family room and a two-tiered dining room. There's also a guest wing on the floor with its own living area, four bedrooms and two marble baths.

The owner, a very private person, raised four girls in the house and plans to move to New York City to be closer to them. She bought the house in 1989 with her then-husband because they wanted to raise their daughters near family. It was the only property immediately available in Hunting Valley, "so we could move right in," explains the owner, who worked for years to restore the house to its original condition, removing layers and layers of cheap flooring to reveal the original wide-plank oak, slate and marble.

The home's second floor features a huge master bedroom with his-and-her baths and four large bedrooms for the girls. (The house has a total of 10 bedrooms, making the legend that the Van Sweringens shared a room particularly oddball). A staircase leads to a third-floor turret room, one of the girls' favorite play spaces when they were little.

The basement itself is larger by far than most people's homes. In addition to the pool, there are two bathroom/changing rooms, a sauna and steam room, as well as a large room for mechanicals, an area for the dogs and an oak wine cellar.

Follow a long slate gallery and you'll find yet another wing of the house, containing a two-bedroom apartment complete with kitchen, study, two full baths and a living area. There are also servants' quarters in the home and a six-car garage.

The oldest property on our list (No. 89) was built by the Norweb family in 1898 in Bratenahl. Part of the estate was later sold to the federal government and became a missile site during the Cold War. Bratenahl Mayor John Licastro remembers touring the facility. "As a 10-year-old boy, you don't forget seeing a missile raised out of a silo," he says.

That portion of the property is still in the feds' hands, but serves a more benign purpose now: disseminating government contracts. The Norweb estate still exists as well, but is rented out by the owner, who lives in California.

The $11 Million Homes

The most expensive home to sell in Northeast Ohio in 2004 was house No. 24, which went for $3.2 million, according to records provided by Smythe, Cramer Co. While no one to whom we spoke was 100 percent certain, it's said that the most expensive sale price ever for an existing home in Northeast Ohio was $5.85 million — a Hunting Valley home (No. 2) purchased by Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, former president of the United Arab Emirates and a patient of The Cleveland Clinic before his death last November.

That could change if either one of two Bratenahl homes sells for even close to its asking price. This fall, adjacent lakeside homes were on the market. One (No. 33) was built in 1997 and was up for exactly $11 million. The other, built in 1925, was listed for $11.9 million (at $800,000, however, its appraisal value is not high enough for the house to make our Top 250).

Currently, the market has an abundance of high-end homes, according to Hoby Hanna, executive vice president for Smythe, Cramer Co. "In the last year and a half," he says, "there have been a lot of homeowners that have decided to put their home on the market for a very big price in this marketplace, without tremendous motivation to sell the house."

It's not that the houses aren't worth the asking price, Hanna stresses. It's just that the asking prices aren't in line with the Cleveland market and any potential buyer would at least have to consider resale potential. "For how much more than $11 million are they going to be able to sell them?" Hanna asks.

Other Northeast Ohio landmark luxury homes for sale include an Old Chagrin River Road home (No. 10) for $9.5 million. Owned by a plastic surgeon and his wife, it features a tunnel leading to a 12,000-square-foot recreation center, including an indoor basketball court. In Bay Village, a lakefront home (No. 131) is for sale for $6.5 million.

But let's return to the two Bratenahl homes. The owner of the older property selling for $11.9 million declined to be interviewed for this article. The owner of the newer home, listed by Monique Plociak of Smythe, Cramer Co.'s Pepper Pike office (also the agent for the Van Sweringen home), invited us in for a tour, provided we not use her name.

Visitors enter through a two-story foyer with black walnut floors, a serpentine staircase with wrought-iron accents and a stunning lake view through a curved wall of windows. A grand piano (all of the furniture is included in the asking price) anchors a living room with custom-made Italian marble floors.

To the left, an octagonal office boasts a fireplace, cabinets with custom-made stained-glass fronts and black walnut paneling.

To the right of the foyer is the main living area, including the kitchen, a large eating area, a great room and a media room with a big-screen TV and three smaller TVs. A 150-gallon, built-in saltwater fishtank is serviced by a special room in the basement where "state-of-the-art water mixing" is done.

The master suite includes his-and-her baths and closets, an exercise room with an inspiring view of the lake and even a small laundry area (there are a total of three laundry rooms in the house).

The basement was designed largely with the homeowners' 12 grandchildren in mind, with a huge playroom, a seven-game video arcade and home theater, as well as a full kitchen. The only thing not for the children is a 1,600-bottle wine cellar.

The house abounds with well-thought-out details. The kitchen, for example, has what we can only call an appliance condominium. Building on the idea of an appliance garage (a pull-down door that hides your coffee maker), there is a small room behind the kitchen with a long countertop. By lifting a door where the backsplash would be in the kitchen, a cook can easily access a dozen or so appliances.

The back of the house is stunning, with a three-tiered sandstone terrace. Luxury extends to the great outdoors, with a Viking grill built into a granite countertop.

The only problem with the house, in fact, is its size. "We totally overbuilt," says the lady of the house. "Before we knew it, we had 14,000 square feet. It's a full-time job." So they put the house up for sale.

Bratenahl Mayor Licastro thinks that, after reaching its nadir in the 1960s and '70s, his village is finally getting the attention — and the listing prices — it deserves. In the last 15 years, the appraised value of all property in Bratenahl has about tripled as people have rediscovered the community's charm.

As an example, he points to the 9,267-square-foot residence of Terry Stewart, director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The French chateau-style home sold in the late '60s for $70,000. Stewart bought it for $1 million in 1999 and renovated it. The home, complete with outdoor pool and sandy beach, is now appraised at $1.1 million (not high enough to make the Top 250) and listed for sale at $4.5 million.

"And it's worth every penny," says Licastro.

 

King James' Castle and Other Prominent People

He may be tops in the NBA, but on our list, LeBron James is right in the middle of the pack (No. 136). Located in Bath, his 12,000-square-foot colonial boasts 11 bedrooms, eight full baths and four half-baths. It was built in 1977, added onto in the '90s and is said to be undergoing a makeover at the hands of James. While his property taxes were just under $30,000 in 2004, it's likely he's got the cash.

But before James settled on his Bath residence, he checked out a lakefront home in Bratenahl (No. 33). The owner of the home reports that James sent an agent to look at the property, but no offer was made.

Since we last did this article in 2002, more sports personalities have dropped off the list than have been added. Carmen Policy sold his home (No. 25) to attorney Larry Friedman last summer and moved to Napa Valley, where he bought 10 acres of land with plans to build both a home and a winery.

Though former Cavs coach Mike Fratello still lives in Bratenahl, he dropped off our list altogether after his 5,600-square-foot house was reappraised from $2.1 million in 2002 to a current value of $910,000 (the higher value, explains the auditor's office, was due to a clerical error). While former Browns quarterback Tim Couch still owns his Westlake home, it's appraised at only $803,900 and, therefore, falls far short of making our Top 250.

For the most part, CEOs and entrepreneurs dominate the Top 250. Near the top of the list is Don Brown (No. 8), the man whose lakeside Vermilion mansion was made possible by his devising one of the ugliest home inventions of all time: the dropped ceiling.

Said to be a very private man, Brown received special consideration when it came time for his home to be appraised. While auditors' offices normally send out staff members to determine values for homes, Erie County auditor Jude Hammond appraised the property himself. Unlike other parcels in Erie County, details of Brown's house — such as the square footage and number of bedrooms — are not made available as part of the public record.

While solid information about Brown's house is scarce, the property has become something of a legend in the area. Perhaps the most intriguing report is of a dining-room floor that rotates so that each guest is afforded a view of the lake. It's also said that when Brown's neighbors across Lake Road complained during construction that his house would block their view, he bought them out and used the land to store maintenance equipment.

Another successful entrepreneur, Charles Sekeres, founder of Physicians Weight Loss Centers, owns the highest-ranked house in Summit County (No. 14). Donald Murfin, founder of Lubrizol Enterprises, owns the second most valuable Summit County home (No. 39). Joan and Robert Minchak, founders of JB Dollar Stretcher Magazine, made their money go far enough to build a house in Richfield Township (No. 115).

The corporate Clevelanders on our list tend to locate in the same high-end part of town: Hunting Valley and Gates Mills. Invacare chairman and CEO Mal Mixon lives in Hunting Valley (No. 88), as does Third Federal CEO Marc Stefanski (No. 32). KeyCorp chairman and CEO Henry Meyer's Hunting Valley home occupies slot No. 44.

So who lives in all those gorgeous lakefront homes on the West Side? George and Lora Blaha (No. 3), who made their money in insurance, hold the top West Side slot, followed by William Leimkuehler of Leimkuehler Orthotic-Prosthetic Center Inc. and his Westlake house (No. 15) on Chairmans Rowe.

Only one house in Cleveland proper (no. 170) makes the Top 250. The contemporary-style home was built in 1991 on Edgewater Drive by Donald Shury, president of State Alarm Systems Inc.

What's Next?

The people we interviewed say the housing market has seen a tremendous pickup since the November elections. "There were all these people sitting on the fence," says Nate Coffman, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cleveland. "My guess would be that they were waiting to see if George Bush was elected."

Realty One Real Living president Barbara Reynolds says the high-end home market is tied to two factors: the stock market and the housing market in general. "I'm looking at this year being a good year," she adds.

Realtor Barb Hudak, who has the listing for house No. 120 in Bath Township, confirms the trend. "It's phenomenal," she says. "I don't have enough hours in the day."

Still, Hudak dropped the asking price on her Bath listing by more than $1 million to $2,695,000 — proof that it's always tough to sell a home past a certain price point. "If this home were in any other part of the country, it's unbelievable what the home would sell for," she says.

Selling a house priced between $1 million and $2 million is not that difficult, observes Realtor Plociak, but the market for buyers "gets smaller and smaller the higher you go."

Some of the potential buyers for such a property, of course, will prefer to build new. Builder Joseph Badger of Badger Brothers notes that he sees people building dream homes uniquely tailored to their lifestyle and ignoring concerns about resale value. Examples of that include a doctor who breeds "super high-end dogs" and is building a home with a kennel and dog-cleaning room in his walk-out basement. Another couple considering building new wants to design their home with a huge aviary so that their birds share the home.

So where are the latest luxury homes? Since we last did this story, both Shaker Heights and Brecksville have fared well. Shaker made our list twice in 2002 and nine times this year. Brecksville increased from two to eight appearances during that same span. Going forward, Hanna points to Solon, Bath, Richfield Township, Aurora, Bainbridge and Avon Lake as communities to keep an eye on.

For Usha Ahuja, though, nothing compares to Hunting Valley. Twenty-five years ago, she and her husband used to drive through the rolling terrain of the community, dreaming of possibilities. "That kind of stuck in our mind," she says.

Since then, the couple has lived in a 6,000-square-foot Seven Hills home and a 10,000-square-foot Moreland Hills home. Usha hopes they're staying put now, but you can never be sure.

"I hope so," she says, laughing. "But my husband gets itchy after five to seven years."

additional research by Kim Schneider


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