A Connecticut “Gold Coast” mansion sold by talk show pioneer Phil Donahue for $25 million is to be bulldozed by its current owners who say it is falling apart and overrun by vermin.
The once-palatial Tudor on Westport’s most exclusive avenue has become a home for rats and raccoons with a caving-in roof, its new owner Peggy Reiner claims.
She is involved in a bid to tear down the 8,500 square foot manse after building a 20,000 square foot beach-view home with a commanding prospect of Long Island Sound in front of it.
The plan has faced resistance from the town’s Historic District Commission, which has asked for talks to find alternatives to demolition.
That would end the glamorous history of the home at 114 Beachside Avenue, which was once part of Westport’s “Hollywood of the East,” when the commuter town played host to some of showbiz’s biggest names.
For some two decades beginning in the mid-80s, the seven-acre estate with sweeping lawn down to a private beach was a weekend and summertime get-away from Manhattan for the talk guru Donahue and his actress wife, Marlo Thomas, star of the popular 1960s sitcom “That Girl.”
Beachside Avenue was home to Don Imus, who owned the nearby 106, while other Westport residents included Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, and domestic guru Martha Stewart.
The now-imprisoned producer Harvey Weinstein had two parcels at the west end of Beachside Avenue. The rapist’s mansion was recently leveled by its new owner.
In 2006, Donahue purchased another multimillion-dollar Gold Coast mansion close by and sold the Tudor and grounds for a record-breaking $25 million to the financier Herbert M. Allison, Jr.
Allison then served as President Obama’s assistant Treasury secretary, overseeing the controversial bank bailout in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
After Allison’s death in 2013, the estate was listed in 2017, but there were no takers and the grand old place fell on hard times.
The Reiners bought it in 2020 for $16,500,000, a veritable bargain at almost half of the $32 million listing price.
They’ve now completed construction of the new contemporary 20,000 square foot beachfront home, appraised at more than $20 million, sited directly in front of the old place.
And now they have applied for permission to demolish the circa-1911 seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom, five-fireplace stucco, and wood behemoth, which is not landmarked.
A Westport realtor closely involved in the sale told The Post, “The Tudor was not in good shape when the Reiners bought it. The purchase price was strictly for those nearly eight, gorgeous beachfront acres, with a spectacular view of the Sound. The house itself was pretty bastardized, and it had been previously renovated very badly.”
At a recent Historic District Commission hearing on Zoom, Reiner asked for permission to begin demolition immediately.
“It’s been infested by lots of different types of rats and rodents and moths, and we’ve had a really hard time…it’s falling apart, it’s under [not up to] code,” she said.
“It has a lot of beautiful parts to it, but most of it has been ruined over the years by many different occupants.”
Reiner listed the problems as balconies that are unsafe to walk on, a caving-in roof, and a waterlogged basement, telling the commission: “It kind of is not savable, sadly.”
She said she was talking to an organization that could hopefully make use of some of the fine craftsman material used in the house before demolition.
Grayson Braun, the commission chairwoman, told The Post they had wanted to find alternatives to demolition, so imposed a 180-day waiting period.
“In the case of 114 Beachside Avenue, because of the age of the house over 50 years, the style of the house, and the significance of the house, we upheld the 180 days wait period,” she said.
But no such talks have been held, she added.
Braun, who is in the building construction trade, and sells architectural products, has been on site and viewed the mansion’s exterior and found it to be in good shape.
“It’s a beautiful and very left-intact Tudor revival home, and I really hoped it could be saved. But I can’t speak to whether, or not it is infested with rats, or raccoons, or moths, or any of the things Mrs. Reiner claims in the hearing, and I don’t know what she knew when she bought it.”
Meanwhile, the Reiners, and, or their representatives, have declined to attend any further hearings, and are awaiting the deadline to begin demolition.
A demolition sign is posted on one of the stone pillars leading to the property. “There’s nothing we can do,” said Braun.
The town, on the Metro North line to Grand Central Terminal, has been trying to deal with the issue of historic home preservation, as teardowns are constantly being replaced by McMansions.
Remarking on the pending Tudor demolition, Westport’s unofficial town crier, Dan Woog, 70, a lifelong native of the town who pens the popular gossipy and newsy blog “06880”, Westport’s zip code, remembered the Donahue Tudor and grounds in its heyday.
“It was a gorgeous piece of property that sat right on the water. It was really something! What people do with real estate here sometimes boggles your mind.
People will tear down a multi-million dollar house, to build another even bigger multi-million dollar house, also tear down great homes with a ton of historic value, without even a second thought.”
Donahue, 87, and Thomas, 83, were not part of the town’s social scene, he added.
“They weren’t a major part of the community like Paul Newman and Rodney Dangerfield,” observed Woog. “The people who live on Beachside Avenue, they have plenty of property, they don’t have to leave their property and get to know the town.”
But the couple – who live in a Manhattan apartment the New York Times described as “Malibu overlooking Central Park” – found themselves embroiled in their own dispute over a Westport teardown in 1988 when they owned the Tudor.
When they bought the Tudor for $3.5m around 1986, it was on three acres.
Two years later the couple paid $6.8 million for the neighboring 2,500-square-foot house and the 7.2 acres it sat on.
The house was an experimental concrete design from architect John M. Johansen, a noted midcentury designer known as one of the Harvard Five.
Donahue demolished the home, claiming it had been vacant for sometime and was attracting “vagrants, lovers and other strangers” who he claimed littered the place with “empty beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers.”
When Johansen learned that the house – known as the Taylor House, or the Labyrinth, had been bulldozed, he told The Los Angeles Times, “This wasn’t a very exemplary act from a public figure. And they nicknamed him, ‘Mr. Sensitivity.’”
And the town’s then-architectural historian, Mary McCahon, told The New York Times, “It was a wonderful building. The best design in Westport. Tearing it down, I think, on a scale of 1 to 10, is a 10.”
Donahue was unrepentant. “Many people who are expressing deep concern have never seen the house, nor have they been in it,” he said.
And he stressed that he wasn’t miffed by all the criticism. “When they pass out the scandals,” he asserted, “I’ll take this one.”
But Thomas was less happy with the criticism.
In a 1990 take-down memoir of Mrs. Donahue, “That Girl and Phil”, the Donahue’s majordomo, Desmond Atholl, dealt with the bulldozing of the house in a chapter entitled, “Excuse Me, Your House Is Blocking My View.”
Atholl claimed that Marlo said of her ritzy neighbors who complained about the bulldozing, “Whose money is it anyway? F–k them all!”