Planned palace upsets some neighbors in tony D.C. suburb
By Justin Jouvenal,
In an era of prosperity that has made the Washington area the nation’s most affluent region, the home going up in an exclusive Great Falls neighborhood could be its most potent and polarizing symbol yet: a 25,424-square-foot mansion modeled on the Palace of Versailles.
“Le Chateau de Lumiere,” as its owners have dubbed it, will be among the largest homes ever built in the area, but it is also creating an outsize controversy worthy of Louis XIV himself.
Its construction has divided the Hidden Springs community, pitting a former media mogul against a CEO. It has sparked angry confrontations and spurred a lawsuit that has opened a window on the type of high-stakes disputes that are usually kept hushed in the region’s toniest enclaves.
The fight largely boils down to a collision between new and old ideas about the way Washington expresses its success — and flaunts its wealth — in a place that has the region’s most concentrated affluence.
Washington once shied away from such overt expressions of wealth, more common in Beverly Hills and Palm Beach. But the owners of Lumiere see their mega-mansion — big enough to make your average McMansion feel downright cozy — as a dream home.
Some neighbors see an eyesore that is not in keeping with the Hidden Springs’s traditionally Washington aesthetic, elegant but understated. They also object to the owners knocking down acres of trees to build a home in a neighborhood that was specifically created to be a wooded retreat from go-go Washington.
“It’s going to put a spotlight on the neighborhood,” Thomas J. Burns, a Hidden Springs resident, said of the chateau. “I’m disappointed someone would disturb the natural beauty of Great Falls by building such a showy home here.”
The chateau will sit on a hill on a five-acre lot across River Bend Road from Great Falls Park. It will feature stone columns, arched windows, a curved roof and landscaping that echo the famed French palace. True to its moniker, the mansion will be illuminated by an extensive underground lighting system. Builders and real estate agents peg its cost at $15 million to $20 million.
Plans show the home will have five bedrooms, three two-car garages, an elevator, and a pool and a pool house. The entrance foyer will feature two sweeping staircases leading to a gallery running the length of the home.
The basement alone will have a wine cellar, an exercise room, a billiard room, a theater with a concession space, a spa, a sauna, a card room, a recreation room, a gallery, a kitchen and a large guest bedroom. On the third floor, the master bedroom suite will take up an entire wing and consist of a study, sitting room, gallery and four other rooms.
The grandness of the home stands in contrast to its low-profile owner, 38-year-old Young Yi, who a Virginia business license lists as the head of the 1st Class Sleep Diagnostics Center. The Northern Virginia chain, which treats sleep disorders, has grown to six clinics since it was founded in 2004.
Yi declined to comment through her attorney, Edward Cameron, but he said she plans to live there in the home with her husband and children. Cameron declined to discuss the family, the home’s design or other aspects of the project, saying the Yis felt it was a private matter. Fairfax County officials said the project has the needed permits to move forward.
“My clients have done very well for themselves. It’s a question of what they are entitled to do on their property,” Cameron said. “This is something that has been well planned and well thought out. A prominent architect is involved. . . . I wonder whether it might be envy motivating the neighbors’ complaints.”
Those neighbors include former Gannett chief executive Craig Dubow and his wife, Denise, who live adjacent to the planned chateau. The couple grew increasingly alarmed as the Yis knocked down many of the trees on their lot in February and put up billboards proclaiming the coming of the chateau, which will be roughly four times the size of the Dubows’ home.
Like those of many Hidden Springs residents, the Dubows’ house is nestled on a thickly wooded lot. Streams thread between the homes and collect in ponds, which gives the neighborhood the feel of a place far outside the Beltway.
The CEOs, investment bankers and officials, such as former solicitor general Ted Olson, who make Hidden Springs their home guard that natural beauty and solitude. There is no sign for the entrance of the neighborhood. Some residents deliver their own trash to dumpsters at a local school, rather than have a noisy trash truck rumble down the main road.
Hidden Springs homes are custom-designed, so they range in style from colonial to modern and from roughly 2,500 square feet to 15,000.
When the 37-acre neighborhood was created in the 1960s, covenants were put in place to preserve the rustic character. The guidelines regulate how owners develop their five-acre lots, which trees can be removed and how homes can be lit, among other things.
The Dubows and other residents contacted the Yis and their builder about their concerns in February. Cameron said the Yis were willing to work with the neighbors. But court documents painted a different picture: The Yis’ attorney allegedly “defiantly proclaimed” the covenants did not apply to his clients and told the neighbors he would “see them in court.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Dubows filed a lawsuit this month against the Yis and their builder, saying the chateau would ruin the “sylvan character” of Hidden Springs, the plans violate the neighborhood covenants, and the chateau would sink local home values, according to court documents. The Dubows want the plans scaled back to fit the more “conservative” aesthetics of Hidden Springs. The Dubows and their attorney declined to comment.
Cameron said the covenants expired on the Yis’ property years ago.
It’s likely not the last such conflict.
There were eight homes worth over $5 million sold in the D.C. area in 1999, according to numbers supplied by luxury home broker Casey Margenau from the main sales database used by real estate agents. The number increased to 36 in 2005. Since January 2011, Margenau said there have been 26 such homes sold in the area.
Margenau believes most of that growth comes from sales of mega-mansions over 12,000 square feet. The homes are largely being built in McLean, Great Falls, Potomac and Bethesda, where one estate is a whopping 35,000 square feet.
“Only in the last 10 years, we have come to the point where we have a substantial amount of very high-end homes in our area,” Margenau said.
The homes usually include a raft of features not seen on your typical tract home: master bedrooms with kitchenettes for midnight snacks, inlaid hardwood floors, one-touch lighting systems that will turn on every light in the home at pre-programmed levels.
Margenau said he believes the market for mega-mansions is being driven by D.C.’s newly prosperous and by an influx of international business elites, who have different tastes and are being drawn by the D.C. area’s relatively strong economy.
For now, “Le Chateau de Lumiere” remains a work in progress. The land on the lot is graded and a foundation has been poured, but nervous neighbors are waiting to see how it will take shape and what it will mean for their own properties.
As one quipped: “Versailles had thousands of acres. This has five.”
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.
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