Corrections or additions?

This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

No Buyers at the Glass House Auction

This was it. I was definitely going to see Andy Garcia

or Hugh Grant. Someone rich and famous and terribly good-looking.

This past Saturday, May 3, the 17,000 square foot (34,000 if you count

the basement) glass house called Chalan Farm, built on 48 pristine

acres in Griggstown by Columbia Electronics mogul John Boulton and

his wife, Prudence Morgan Boulton, was put on the auction block. The

price of admission? A $100,000 cashier’s check. The minimum bid? Three

million bucks. There’d be live music. Catered nibblies. My heart pounded

in anticipation. I would definitely see someone famous or at least

someone who uses Botox.

In fact, this is a story about anticipation, like when a new movie

opens and all the critics call it a must-see but refuse to give away

the ending. J.P. King, an Alabama-based company that specializes in

premier real estate auctions, orchestrated a tremendous promotional

campaign, sending an A-list of 10,000 people a lush color brochure

extolling the virtues of the gigantic curiosity most people in the

area simply refer to as The Glass House — 360-degree views of

the surrounding natural park-like setting (or as J.P. King spokesman

Carl Carter quips, "360 degrees of God’s wallpaper"), 14-foot

ceilings, underground heated garage for up to eight cars, master bedroom

with built-in oval swimming pool with wave system, climate controlled

wine cellar, and so on.

J.P. King also pumped up the volume during its two-month long build-up

with ads in high-end real estate magazines like the duPont Registry,

Dream Homes International, and the New York Times magazine. The company

arranged no fewer than 30 tours of the property in the two weeks leading

up to the auction.

I imagine I’ll see many important-looking people in Armani suits with

phones glued to their ears talking in serious muffled tones to their

people. A parking lot full of Rolls Royces, Ferraris, and Jaguars.

My anticipation begins to build immediately as I turn into a long

gravel driveway winding through the woods, complete with its own 10-mile-per-hour

speed limit sign. Imagine having your very own speed limit sign. Girls,

start your engines. At the top of the hill, the house rises before

me like a glass phoenix, long and low and simply stunning at first

sight, like a perfectly cut diamond. I spot a red Ferrari and other

expensive cars with New York plates. Yes! I feel sure Joan Rivers

will shove a mike into my face at the door and ask me who made my

twin set.

I’m in! I’m in the club! I hear live classical piano and turn —

but wait a minute, Cinderella, it’s only someone playing an electronic

keyboard. Carter greets me and like a thunderbolt, I know, Hugh’s

not coming, just as surely as I know Carter’s suit is not Armani.

There is coffee and lovely biscotti, quiche, and pastries by Main

Street, but no china, just paper cups and plates. This is what you

get when you’re potentially forking over three million George Washingtons?

I suddenly remember there isn’t a stitch of landscaping outside. What’s

up with that?

Carter takes me on a brief tour of the house, waxing poetic about

all the other mansions they’ve sold at auction: Barbara Mandrell’s

house in Nashville (he got her six minutes on a morning show for that

one), Alamo founder Michael Egan’s house in Fort Lauderdale, Calumet

Farms in horsy Kentucky, which went for close to $20 million….Yeah,

yeah, I think, I’ve had my 15 minutes, too, and mine was definitely

more exciting than this. I politely interrupt him to ask why the staircase

is naked plywood and why there’s a big hole in the sheetrock. A diversion

for an answer — what they call bridging in the PR business —

"So, you wanna see the basement," he asks. I grab a spinach

croissant and say under my breath, OK, whatever.

Underground, there’s a 25-line telephone feed and 23 miles of electrical

wire, a basement "chockful of technology," brags Carter. To

me, that’s guy stuff. My eyes pick up other details, like a gorgeous

antique bed (why isn’t that upstairs, I wonder), and a sea of little

cardboard boxes with labels like "Knox for nails" and "canned

fish." Why worry about your nails when there are people upstairs

who want to buy your house? Who’s gonna pay three million for a house

that doesn’t even have a real kitchen, just an L-shaped island with

a sink and fridge that looks like it came from Home Depot? Where’s

the Viking? Where’s the sub-zero fridge? I’m seriously beginning to

doubt anyone’s going to buy this house, I mean, to live in.

My instincts are right. Apparently the bidders who are

interested in Chalan Farm are vying for the property not as a place

to crash after wrapping a film in Romania or orchestrating a major

merger, but rather as a commercial property, say, a museum, conference

center, or special events venue (think weddings and bar mitzvahs).

Indeed, confirms Mr. Morning Show, the house is zoned residential

but is built to commercial standards and "the most interest seems

to be on that side."

But, he adds, the rub is that J.P. King has been unable to work out

the commercial zoning issues with the township prior to today’s auction.

Now I really begin to see: this auction is going to be a big nothing.

But I hang in there, just in case the Donald or Jack shows up at the

last minute.

At a few minutes past 11, the main room upstairs is a little more

crowded, but mostly with neighbors who have never had an opportunity

to see the inside of the house and with friends of the Boultons. Carter

whispers in my ear that only those individuals carrying white 9 by

12 envelopes are actual bidders. I spot only a couple of those and

I’m not allowed to talk to them. These people definitely did not look

like Andy Garcia. These people couldn’t put a shirt and pants together

if their life depended on it. I could hear my grandmother turning

over in her grave. Where were the beautiful people? Where were the

rich bald guys who make really big decisions in their really big offices

and then go out to Spago?

The auctioneer, a dead ringer for the proverbial local car dealer

hawking the upcoming President’s Day sale on TV, is dressed in a bright

green sport jacket. He steps up to the podium and announces the official

rules of the auction with the breakneck speed of a radio sportscaster

covering a baseball game when the bases are loaded. Most of those

present keep a safe distance away and seem, like myself, to be trying

very hard not to scratch their head or tuck their hair behind their

ears, lest they be mistaken for a truly rich person bidding on the

house.

At this point Carter pulls me aside and whispers: "I’ve just learned

that we’ll probably not have a sale. Most of the bidders are not prepared

to pay the published reserve [the $3 million] without the assurances

about the commercial zoning. We’ll sell a charity item first to get

things going, then we’ll open [with a high price] and come down."

He explains that if there is no sale, J.P. King will "operate

as a traditional brokerage firm" and negotiate a private sale.

The charity item is a rather large crystal Waterford vase. Proceeds

will go to the Delaware and Raritan Greenway, central New Jersey’s

regional land conservancy, a nonprofit that was instrumental in preserving

85 acres adjacent to Chalan Farm and 45 more beyond that, according

to Linda Mead, executive director, who was present but not bidding

at the auction. The Boultons are big supporters of D&RG and have held

several fundraisers at their home, most recently hosting Pulitzer

Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon — and Mead hopes the new owners

will be similarly supportive.

A blonde in a bright blue jacket (J.P. King employees come in two

colors: green for men, blue for women) parades the vase in front of

the crowd like Vanna White and the auctioneer takes off. All of a

sudden, the glass walls drop away and I feel like I’m at a county

fair looking at livestock on the auction block. All these green and

blue jackets seem to have forgotten this is a THREE MILLION DOLLAR

HOUSE, not a heifer.

"HeybiddybeydiddyONEHUNDREDdiddydodiddydoONEFIFTYdoIhearoneseventyfivebiddyblahblah"

As if one green jacket up front isn’t weird enough, five other green

jackets actually circulate among the crowd, goading them on with equally

thick Alabama accents, verbally prodding onlookers to make a bid.

Then the auctioneer’s voice goes into overdrive: "YEAHcomeoncomeonGIMMEABIDNOWcomeoncomeonGIMMEABIDHEREyeahTWOHUNDREDnowyeahnow."

The vase, in the space of 30 seconds, goes for a mere $225.

Finally, the big moment arrives. The auctioneer opens the bidding

for the house at $15 million. FIFTEEN MILLION DOLLARS, and the green

jackets buzz like so many bees around the room, literally clapping

their hands as if heating up the crowd for an evangelist revival.

I feel sure a blind person or young crippled girl, planted by the

auction firm, will emerge from the crowd at any moment and be healed

on the spot. But apparently this technique is de rigueur and does

work, even north of the Mason-Dixon line. Reached by phone two days

after the auction, Carter assures me the company has sold properties

up north including a Harwichport, Massachusetts, oceanfront estate

on the Nantucket Sound that went for $4.5 million the day of the auction.

It probably had a kitchen and finished stairwells. The auctioneer’s

voice grows louder and more frenzied, and I imagine bone china teacups

falling off the shelves miles away on Library Place and lace antimacassars

sliding off armchairs upholstered in Brunchwig & Fils chintz on Hodge

Road. Don’t these guys know people don’t talk this way in Princeton?

FIVE MILLION! (At these auctions, the price goes backward. "That’s

just part of the psychology," Carter explains.)

The green jackets clap louder and echo the auctioneer’s song that

rises and falls like a gospel diva belting her heart out to the Lord.

THREE MILLION!

My mind is reeling. Geez, I fantasize about winning $1 million in

the lottery. Well, I guess everyone else present does the same thing

because, like a giant firecracker that bursts with a huge explosion

full of spark and color then disappears just as quickly into the night,

the auction fizzles into funereal silence in 90 seconds flat. Nada.

Nyet. Nothing. The auctioneer, suddenly looking like a wet weekend,

as they say in England, rather quietly announces the conclusion of

the auction, repeating the "published reserve" price of three

million and, now almost mumbling, adds that the property will go into

private sale "as is."

Owner Boulton goes into a huddle with the auctioneers but first issues

an upbeat comment: "Obviously it would have been better to have

a sale today, but we are optimistic that we can clarify the outlook

for the zoning and sell this to the right party who can use it to

its potential and benefit the area."

I grab an almond biscotti and head for the door; this Cinderella knows

midnight is near. A big buildup to a big nothing. So what now? The

day is still young and perhaps I can catch the last inning of my son’s

T-ball game. Now there’s an idea. Sold!


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