The Clintons Are Coming and Chappaqua Braces
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 1999; Page A1
CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. – All day and into the night, the caravan of mostly expensive cars makes the pilgrimage, as though this quiet cul-de-sac were some overbooked amusement park, a fabulous freak show, the latest roadside attraction.
The vehicles cruise around the circle, pause briefly in front of The House – the $1.7 million place that the new couple from Washington is buying, the one with three new "No Trespassing" signs posted out front – and move on. In the privacy of their autos, the tourists say things like, "So much money for that?" and "Pity the others who live on this block."
Now that the first family has elected to purchase the 11-room, five-bedroom, 100-year-old Dutch colonial at 15 Old House Lane, now that Hillary Rodham Clinton is establishing legal residency for a possible New York Senate campaign, the wealthy, white and pleasantly wooded hamlet of Chappaqua – pronounced CHAP-a-kwa – is being flushed from its cherished obscurity. This week, television cameras prowled the neat brick-and-shingles downtown while the famous new neighbors replaced school construction as the hot topic.
And the not-yet-media-hardened populace is putting up with the army of nosy reporters – for now.
"I think anybody who's honest has to be pleased that a First Family chooses their town to move into," says John Ferrara, who lives on a nearby street.
His wife, Phyllis, frames the downside: "If I want to go walking, is the road going to be closed because he wants to go jogging? If I go to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee, am I not going to be able to get in there because he's having coffee?"
Town officials have contacted Saddle River, N.J., where Richard Nixon eventually moved after leaving the White House, to find out what to expect. Local police have already received their first request for a permit from a California man who wants to picket because Clinton is a "Communist." The last demonstration in town – was it animal rights, the Vietnam War? – was so long ago that no one's exactly sure what paperwork is required.
"Nobody ever knew where Chappaqua was," says George Haletzky, manager of The Little Store, purveyor of the town's favorite cuisine, the massive delicatessen "wedge" sandwich – not hoagie or sub, please!
So discreet and secluded is Chappaqua that it's where radical Abbie Hoffman hid out for some of his fugitive days, according to local police, who only learned of his presence after the fact.
In choosing Chappaqua, about 35 miles north of New York City, the Clintons eschewed even wealthier, better-known, old-money nearby locales for a striving – overly driven, some say – community of transplanted professionals who brought their stock market and business wealth here to put their children in the nationally recognized public schools.
The population of Chappaqua's Zip code – 10514 – is about 11,200 and the average household income is about $228,000, according to Claritas, the Arlington-based research firm. In another community, the property taxes alone on the Clintons' home – $26,000 – would amount to a living wage.
After the kids graduate from high school, many parents eventually sell and move – now, perhaps, profiting from presidentially inflated real estate prices.
While the Clintons are unusual for moving in when their daughter is already in college, a potential Senate candidate under suspicion of being a carpetbagger might feel at home here. Almost everyone in Chappaqua is from somewhere else. Clinton B. Smith, supervisor of New Castle, the town that includes the hamlet of Chappaqua, was raised in Montgomery, Ala.
The Clintons may find common cause in a place that votes reliably Democratic amidst a sea of suburban Republican wealth – including the couple who sold the Clintons their house. Chappaqua voted heavily for Clinton in both his presidential races. The local supervisor, town council members, judges and receiver of taxes are all Democrats. The Republican party isn't even fielding a slate in upcoming local elections, Smith said. But Democratic-leaning Chappaqua is an island in a GOP stronghold represented in Congress by Sue W. Kelly, a Republican who voted to impeach the president. Kelly yesterday welcomed the Clintons, but noted that they are moving to "the 12th highest-taxed congressional district in America," an "excessive" burden she hopes they will now help to relieve.
The president's spokesman said this week that as long as Clinton is president, the family will live in the White House, while spending as much time as possible in Chappaqua.
That's what worries some residents.
"On the one hand, I think security is going to be great in the neighborhood," says Catherine Schultz, who walked over to see the house with her husband Bob and their children and dogs. "On the other hand, I wonder what kind of nutballs will be running around."
The house itself – known in Chappaqua history as Little Brook Farm – is well above the average local sale this year of just more than $600,000, and yet it strikes gawkers as surprisingly unimpressive for a First Family. The gravel driveway is short, the house clearly visible from the street. The Clinton house is hard by the place next door, a homely rambler-style house with a giant blue trash receptacle out front.
To appreciate the magic of this historic manse, you have to get inside, says real estate agent Nancy Breitberg. "It's just a lovely living space," she says, including a living room that flows into a library for the book-loving president. There's a family room, which is connected to the kitchen and a screened porch.
Occupants of the other five houses on the street seem a little overwhelmed, but welcome the newcomers, while cautiously hoping life will not remain this crazy.
"Anybody would be shocked," says Michele Neufeld, 32, a former Manhattan prosecutor. "You live somewhere, and the next thing you know, the president is moving next door."
Life in the hamlet – named after an Indian word meaning "laurel swamp" – is trying to maintain the quiet rhythms of late summer, even under the pressures of celebrity. The fame quotient here is low; residents include singer Vanessa Williams and New York Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy. New York newspaperman and 1872 presidential candidate Horace Greeley was one of the hamlet's first commuters.
The old stone train station remains the precious link to Manhattan, while the headquarters of Reader's Digest is the only local industry.
Picking up her commuter parking permit at Town Hall, resident Barbara Locke gripes to town clerk Linda Peterson how sick and tired she is of news stories referring to Chappaqua as "tony."
"That implies upper-class snobbish," she says. "There are no gated communities. It's unkempt along the roads. It's not this manicured lawn look. We don't have a high-walls look, like in Greenwich."
In the status wars among elite communities north of the city, Chappaqua is proudly informal – but not too much so. It may not have gated communities, but it does have "private roads," and please, keep out.
When the Clintons arrive, a "new residents packet" will be waiting for them, with information on Solid Waste Management and Lyme Disease. They'll be invited to performances of the Chappaqua Drama Group. And then there is the all-important Community Day, when the town turns out in all its civic glory.
"What better way to show you're not a carpetbagger than come to your new home's Community Day?" says supervisor Smith.
Smith says he's not worried about town life being unduly disturbed. The report from Saddle River, he says, is that "there's a big flurry of activity . . . and soon enough, they go to the grocery store just like anybody else."
Chappaqua's narrow, curvy, tree-lined roads lead to an increasing number of gaudy new subdivisions, but the town is about maxed out for new development. Good thing, say residents, because traffic is already horrendous, and the Clintons are only going to make it worse.
Haletzky, manager of The Little Store, says the threat of disruption is being exaggerated. "Add up all the time they're going to stay here, what's it going to be – a day here, a weekend there?" he says.
But down on South Greeley Avenue, Haletzky's competitor, Stosh Wegrzyn at the Town Delicatessen, is pessimistic. A main artery was closed last Saturday when the Clintons came house-hunting, and Wegrzyn says he lost business. "We have to close Chappaqua because Billy's in town?" he snorts.
That lack of enthusiasm extends to the two private country clubs just a short drive from the Clintons' new abode – a convenience the First Duffer will surely appreciate. Down on the fourth hole of the Whippoorwill Country Club, the club's second-oldest member, Robert Raymond, 88, says he "wouldn't be thrilled" if the president attempted to join.
Some golfers worry that Clinton's security needs would shut them out of the course. Then there's the character issue. "It's not an honor," says a 20-year member. "I have no respect for him."
Down at the Seven Bridges Field Club, one of the town's seven swim clubs, lifeguard Brendan Dymes, 16, figures that Chappaqua is a good place for the Clintons because residents aren't easily impressed. People here "have an ego," Dymes says. "They feel they've accomplished something, and they really don't care" if there's a president roaming the neighborhood.
How to explain, then, this long line of residents parading past 15 Old House Lane?
"There's only one first lady," says Pamela R. Socolow, 33, a media consultant, who brought her young son and daughter. But she's convinced Chappaqua's attention will quickly revert to more important obsessions, like where to put a new middle school.
And then what? What if Hillary Clinton should run for the Senate, but lose? Will the hamlet's charms keep the Clintons here?
Not a chance, guesses Alison Burrows, a sales manager in town.
"They'll be out of here," she says.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company