Buys $2 million dollar, five-year-old mansion, burns it down for better ocean view. Discuss.
Burning down the house
Wealthy attorney buys Montauk homes, gives to firefighters to torch in drills so he can rebuild, have view
May 16, 2005
What does a wealthy homeowner do when he can afford a perfect hilltop property but it comes with an unimpressive house?
For W. Christopher White, a Manhattan real estate attorney, the answer was to burn it down to make room for a larger, more luxurious house.
And what does he do when a neighbor's roof is the only flaw in an otherwise unobstructed 180-degree water view? He buys that house for $2 million and burns it down, too.
White, a senior partner in the Wall Street law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, donated both houses to the Montauk Fire Department for training purposes.
Yesterday, firefighters torched the second of his acquisitions on the ridge above East Lake Drive. The 2,500-square-foot, two-story Tudor had a turret, stained-glass and mullion windows, a two-car garage, and a swimming pool. It was built just five years ago.
"It's mind-boggling to me that people have so much money that they can afford to burn down a perfectly good house," said Montauk Fire Chief Charlie Grimes. "But it's a good thing for us that they can."
James Kim, a partner in Men at Work, the Wainscott-based firm building White's home, stopped by to watch the blaze, but declined to be interviewed. White could not be reached for comment.
Neighbors said he recently won a bidding war on the Tudor house that was burned down yesterday. The first house was burned down two years ago.
In exchange for donating a house, an owner is eligible for a tax write-off equivalent to a portion of the house's market value - and a clean slate to build a new, usually larger house. White's latest write-off will be about $1 million, but he plans to plant only grass and shrubs there for now, Grimes said.
For the past month, Montauk volunteers have had the home at 26 Talkhouse Lane to re-enact emergency situations with a smoke machine. Yesterday, members of four neighboring departments joined them for drills involving real smoke and flames.
In room after room, they set fire to wooden pallets stuffed with hay, then practiced finding and rescuing "victims," dousing the flames and escaping from rooms filled with smoke.
Just after noon, they set the final blaze, watching as flames crackled across the roof, melting glass hung from the windows like tattered cloth and dense black smoke funneled upward.
Volunteers from South Fork fire departments often train together at a Yaphank facility that has only a concrete building. They also solicit donated houses so they can hone their skills in real-life situations. They find one every year or so, but unlike White's, those are usually uninhabitable or of little value.
"This is some country we live in; so many people can't afford to buy a house and we're burning down a perfectly nice one," said Dorothy Peel, an emergency medical technician in her 20th year as a volunteer. "Still, it's best if we can practice on something real."
As a pair of firefighters in a cherry-picker doused the nearby hillside to avoid setting fire to the bushes, a neighbor, Neil Kennedy, calmly pulled weeds from his gravel driveway.
"It's a shame because that was the nicest house on the hill," Kennedy said. "It's a free country, I guess, but he sure is dumping a lot of money into it."
Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.
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