Mansions in the middle of nowhere

October 13, 2010 | 99 Comments

Middle-of-nowhere mansions (© Forbes)

Homes that cost $10 million or more are expected to boast certain luxuries, and the gated compound called the Brentwood has all the amenities a trophy home should: a three-tiered screening room, a billiards hall equipped with a wet bar, a master bathroom with a fireside Jacuzzi and 10-spigot shower, guest homes, lushly wooded surroundings, a tennis court and a boat dock.

What’s unusual about the Brentwood is its location: Big Chippewa Lake, Minn. Two hours outside Minneapolis, it is worlds away from moneyed areas such as Beverly Hills, Calif., or Vail, Colo., where the vast majority of astronomically expensive homes are clustered.

Yet millionaires, moguls and well-to-do families have built estates worth double-digit millions in places where no nearby home comes remotely close in price. Why would anyone put so much money into a property with a location that makes it exceedingly difficult to resell? The answer is often personal.

When the Brentwood’s publishing-industry owners decided to build a sprawling, homey family retreat, they eschewed more glamorous locales; their Minnesota roots span generations. The wealthy couple hosted children and grandchildren at the property, which is decorated with whimsical brass sculptures of deer and prancing children, until the family outgrew it. Now real-estate agent Greg Antonsen, of Christie’s Great Estates, says it’s a perfect buy for a family or anyone looking for a little solitude.

“You have all the privacy you want — it’s its own world,” Antonsen says. “When you’re on this lake, it’s you and you alone.”

In most parts of the country, even the most expensive homes cost less than $10 million. But some rich families, when deciding where to settle, choose sentimental value over deluxe areas, resulting in homes so opulent they often stand out like sore thumbs.

The price of history
Another Minnesota home with a shocking price tag, the Southways Estate, was built by the Pillsbury family in 1918 and occupied in the 1990s by Minnesota Vikings co-owner James Jundt and his family. The Jundts have been trying to unload the storied family home for two years at $53 million, and attempted to sell it in a much-publicized auction in December 2009.

But in spite of its sweeping views, period details and architectural significance, the auction hasn’t yet resulted in a sale. Perhaps that’s because in uncertain economic times, few real-estate investors want to take a chance on a grand home in an out-of-the-way place.

Age and back story lend cachet to a number of mansions off the beaten path. A former plantation is on the market in Charleston, S.C., for $22 million. In Foxburg, Pa., a restored 1828 home, built by the descendants of George M. Fox, who founded the Quaker religion, is being sold for $24 million.

The Chateau du Lac, a mansion that will appeal to eccentrics, is in an unlikely place: Door County, Wis. At $23 million, it’s by far the most expensive home in the scenic area, but that’s not the only strange thing about it. The home’s buyers will also receive all its contents, including a kitchen full of antique silver and cutlery, and a collection of evening purses. Should they be pet lovers, there’s space for the family’s departed dog in the home’s adjacent mausoleum. The home’s owner, 90-year-old businessman Frank Spitzer, bought it sight unseen for his wife, Erlys, who has since died.

“It’s just an expense at this point,” says George Chakmakis, Spitzer’s lawyer, in an e-mail. “He has still never been there.”

A resale challenge
A mansion that’s far from millionaire’s row can offer seclusion, uninterrupted views and more bang for your buck. But selling ultrahigh-end homes can be tough in areas where few are looking to put their wealth on display. The universe of buyers for homes this expensive is already small, and it shrinks even more when the location is obscure. The Jundts’ inability to sell Southways, even with aggressive tactics, demonstrates the difficulty of marketing grand homes in modest places.

“The people who are going to live in Minnesota are the people who already live in Minnesota. There’s a nine out of 10 chance that whoever buys that home is from there, has roots there, or already lives there and is moving up,” says John Brian Losh, CEO of “That buyer is there right now, but they just think the price is too high.”



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