There’s something undeniably alluring about the concept of stepping back through history. That universal appeal is why so many of us take time during our travels to seek out surroundings that evoke times long past—touring lavishly appointed castles, marveling at architectural wonders and visiting the homes of great poets, leaders or other inspiring individuals. What would it be like, we wonder, to live in such a historically significant place?
And then there are those who decide to find out firsthand. Take John Castle, chairman and CEO of Castle Harlan, who bought the rambling Palm Beach, Florida home known as JFK’s Winter White House 17 years ago and has lived there with his wife ever since, eating dinner at the same 18-foot dining table where Rose and Joe Kennedy and their children once broke bread. “The property was sensational because of the spectacular ocean view, but there was also a magic to the fact that it was owned by the Kennedy family,” says Castle, recalling his first impressions of the Mediterraneanstyle home designed by Addison Mizner. “Jack interviewed the members of his cabinet in the den, and this is where he worked on his inaugural address and his book, Profiles in Courage.”
In fact, the very table on which JFK wrote is still on the premises, as is much of the original furniture, including the beds of Joe, Jack, Bobby and Teddy. Castle, who paid a little over $4.2 million for the 1.6 acre property—originally listed by the Kennedy family at $7.6 million—shrewdly threw in another $80,000 for the furniture. “We spent another $6 million on renovations, so all-in it was probably about $11 million,” he says, noting that the house was in severe disrepair. “It needed a new roof, air conditioning, heat and new plumbing, plus the kitchen and bathrooms probably hadn’t been updated in 60 years.”
Laying out 140 percent of your new home’s purchase price for renovations may sound extravagant, but living in a piece of history doesn’t come cheap. In fact, Timothy Corrigan, founder and principal of the architectural restoration and design firm Landmark Restoration, says the restoration price tag typically starts at about 50 percent of a historic home’s purchase price and can be astronomically higher.
With older structures, it’s all too easy to wildly underestimate the costs involved in making a home residence-ready. “Unlike new construction, where you can anticipate all the potential issues, with renovations, you need to understand that you won’t always know what lies ahead,” says Corrigan. “I’m not sure anyone knows what they’re getting into when they start a project like this or they probably wouldn’t do it.”
Having restored and lived in eight historic homes, ranging from a 1913 Beaux Arts mansion in Los Angeles to an 18th-century Chateau in France’s Loire Valley, he speaks from experience. Corrigan bought his first old home while living in Paris and heading Saatchi & Saatchi’s European operations. “It was the first property I’d ever owned,” he says, recounting the love affair that ultimately led him to leave advertising and reinvent himself as a restoration guru. “I was looking for a weekend house and not really realizing how different things are when you’re dealing with stone walls three to five feet thick. You can’t just make a room bigger or put plumbing where you want it.”
“I don’t feel that we ever really own an old house. We are just custodians.”
After spending a year—and approximately twice what he’d budgeted—restoring the place, Corrigan achieved the home he’d envisioned. Soon thereafter his Paris apartment was featured in HG Magazine and people began approaching him about renovation and design projects. Eventually, he decided to jettison his advertising career to pursue his real love: the design and renovation of old buildings for himself and his clients.
While Corrigan enjoys the restoration journey, most buyers of historic homes are aiming for the endgame. “The consistent thing that people want is a house that looks and feels old but works like new,” he says, citing efficient, effective, heating systems and bathrooms as examples. “Bathrooms are really more of a 20th-century concept; so if a house hasn’t been renovated in 100 years, it probably doesn’t have a lot of bathrooms.”
Even in newer, old homes, bathrooms and kitchens usually need overhauling. Built in the 1920s, John Castle’s home had bathrooms that were fine—for the ’20s. “What people considered an adequate bathroom in 1925 would not be considered adequate today,” he points out. “Now, people want two sinks, showers independent of bathtubs and about two or three times the square footage.”
In addition to structural constraints, such updates can be hindered by regulatory hurdles. Owners of landmark-designated homes will typically need to slog through a Byzantine maze of red tape to get approval for renovation efforts, and even those without a historic designation often struggle mightily with local authorities. Corrigan faces huge hurdles in the ongoing restoration of his current love—the Chateau du Grand Luce, a historic landmark he was able to purchase in 2004 from the French government partly because of his plan to restore it to its former glory as a private home.
“The restrictions literally went down to the kind of trees I planted on the property, and I couldn’t do anything structural to the ground floor,” he says. “In those situations, there’s always a lot of negotiation. You want to do X, Y, and Z, but you say, ‘If you let me do Y and Z, I won’t do X.’”
“The property was sensational because of the spectacular ocean view, but there was also a magic to the fact that it was owned by the Kennedy family.”
For Castle, the renovation process was less convoluted but still far from simple. “Everything we wanted to do ultimately got done the way we wanted to do it, but we did go through negotiations along the way,” he reports, noting that his home was subjected to 300 inspections during the process, even though it does not fall under any historical association’s jurisdiction. In fact, in the absence of such an agency, the new owner of the Winter White House eventually cast himself in the role. “The architect and interior director would have been happy to do dramatic things, but I said, ‘Yes, we need to make it modern enough to be comfortable with 20th-century air conditioning and heating and we need to decorate it nicely, but we will try to preserve its historic significance in the process.’ There were places where I had to lay down the law.”
Ultimately, embracing the role of protector of a legacy can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of owning a historic home. “If you have a love of buildings and architecture, the process of taking something that has decayed and restoring it is incredibly rewarding,” says Corrigan. “I don’t feel that we ever really own an old house. We are just custodians. It was there before us and it will be there after us; we are just there to do what we can to help it stay healthy and alive.”
Before You Buy
Ready to take the ownership plunge? Consider these seven tips from veteran buyers of historic homes before you make the leap:
1. Beware Voyeurs. Owning history may mean sacrificing some privacy. John Castle doesn’t mind the drive-by gawkers who slow to a crawl as they cruise past JFK’s Winter White House, but he isn’t keen on memento-seeking interlopers. “When we renovated, people would literally drive up, put a chunk of brick in their trunk and drive away,” he says.
2. Know Thy Regulators. Restrictions vary widely from country to country, (i.e., France and Spain are reasonable, while Italy and Switzerland are nightmarish), so do your homework before you decide where to buy.
3. Do the Math. While it’s nearly impossible to estimate accurately the total restoration costs, you can identify the major issues and ballpark the costs of addressing those to calculate a starting point.
4. Bring in the Experts. Gather information from architects, contractors and/or other experts who have done this type of renovation before, preferably people from the area who have experience with local restrictions.
5. Don’t Forget the Land—and the Furniture. Be sure to budget for landscaping and furnishings in addition to home renovations. After all, you can’t exactly throw down grass seed and go to IKEA to furnish your castle. “There are cases where people buy and renovate a property and then run out of money, so the rooms are all empty,” says Corrigan. “A good rule of thumb is to expect furnishing costs to run about 50 percent of the valuation of your property minus the value of the land.”
6. Contain the Pain. Do everything possible to speed up the costly and exhausting renovation process. “I’m a big believer in getting through it quickly, so you can appreciate and enjoy your home; plus it costs more to let a job drag out because you’ll be paying supervisors and contractors,” says Corrigan.
7. Expect the Unexpected. Prepare to be surprised and not necessarily pleased. “When one of the structures at my current home began to cave in, we discovered that it was because they had excavated huge amounts of limestone from underneath it to build a nearby village,” says Corrigan. “You just can’t anticipate something like that.”