Tear-Down Tactics: What Happens When a Mansion Is Demolished?

By Claudine Zap

May 19, 2021

What’s better than buying a luxury beachfront mansion for $80 million? Ripping it down and building a new one.

That’s the plan of Larry Ellison, the multibillionaire founder of Oracle, who recently made news with the purchase of a premium parcel in North Palm Beach, FL.

Although the elegant mansion on the property was over 10,000 square feet and “masterfully created to capture panoramic ocean views,” Ellison simply wanted the land beneath the Tuscan-inspired manse.

So farewell to the home theater, the “expansive wine room,” and chef’s kitchen. For a buyer with Ellison’s means, those luxe features can easily be rebuilt exactly to his taste.

Larry Ellison’s property in North Palm Beach, FL


Location trumps mansion

Ellison snagged the third-largest oceanfront compound in all Palm Beach County. The spread featured an oceanfront compound situated on 7.94 acres with over 520 feet of ocean frontage, in the exclusive neighborhood of Seminole Landing.

With a pool, tennis court, and VIP guest suite all just steps from the ocean, the location and outdoor amenities may have helped seal a deal. More crucial to Ellison’s intense interest? The property is one of just a handful of properties in Florida that comes with a helipad.

Now with a clean slate, he can build his dream home.

“I think it’s next to impossible to secure that much prime land with a helicopter pad on the ocean—and gated,” says one local property expert, Jeff Lichtenstein with Echo Fine Properties.

And after Lichtenstein ran the numbers for us, Ellison’s move to tear down the existing mansion made sense—especially in the red-hot Palm Beach market.

“It runs around $550 to $650 a square foot to build in Seminole Landing,” he notes. “That location is really in the heart of the Northern Palm Beaches.”

He adds, “I think he is building a 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot dream estate. It’s still less than the $122 million highest price in the Palm Beaches.”

Other mansions meet their maker

Ellison isn’t alone when it comes to summoning the wrecking ball. Other posh properties have recently received the tear-down treatment.

Take the Palm Beach property of the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. Purchased for $18.5 million by the spec developer Todd Michael Glaser in late 2020, the waterfront home has been leveled.

In its place will be a brand-new build, with no trace of the previous owner, who was arrested on charges of sex trafficking and died in jail.

Jeffrey Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion before demolition


Quite apart from infamy, there are other reasons for mansions to meet a premature end.

Take the case of Rosie O’Donnell, who purchased a 9,000-square-foot country manor in Saddle River, NJ, in 2013, for $6,375,000.

After six long years on the market and a number of price cuts, it finally sold in March to a local developer, for $5.3 million. However, the purchase wasn’t made to preserve the home’s massive master suite or glassed-in breakfast room.

Instead, the mansion will be reduced to rubble to make way for affordable housing in Bergen County.

Rosie O’Donnell’s former home in Saddle River, NJ


The mechanics of mansion demolition

It figures that mansions come with complicated demolitions.

For a home that’s the size of a small resort, “The main issue is to salvage anything you can,” says Mike Cogdill, owner of Cogdill Builders of Florida, who works in the Tampa area and is not involved in the Ellison demolition.

With everyday wear and tear on a modest house, there’s usually nothing worth salvaging at the time of destruction.

That makes for quick work for a guy like Cogdill, who says, “The smaller houses are gone in two days.”

He notes that owners of high-end homes may want to extract certain elements before heavy equipment rolls in. Prime examples of this extraction would include pricey appliances, exotic surfaces, luxury flooring, and period furniture. Those items can then be sold or perhaps reused.

That process, and any mitigation of toxic elements like lead or asbestos, needs to take place before the arrival of the wrecking ball.

Timewise, Cogdill estimates that a mansion usually takes “Two weeks of dismantling, then on to the demolition, which probably takes a month to six weeks.”

Mansion tear-downs in SoCal

Tearing down a high-end home in Los Angeles is just as common as in South Florida. It’s the smart thing for a well-off buyer who likes a location but desires a custom, modernized home, notes Robert Kleiman, CEO of Structure Home.

Kleiman is a custom home builder primarily who focuses on the tony west side of Los Angeles, in neighborhoods like Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills.

He says the homes he works on tend to be older—relative to L.A.—built from the 1920s to the 1950s.

This usually involves situations where the “land is more than likely more valuable than the house that it’s sitting on. It’s very unlikely that remodeling one of those old houses up to today’s standards makes a lot of sense,” he notes.

He adds, “It’s actually harder work and more expensive—than to tear down and start from scratch.”

While some homes do get bulldozed, many more get taken apart piece by piece in a process that’s called “deconstruction.”

Kleiman says that although the process takes more time and is costly, the majority of his clients go with it. After asbestos and lead is abated, materials, fixtures, lumber, appliances, and the like are salvaged, and then donated to an organization like Habitat for Humanity.

The client receives a tax deduction, the process is advantageous for a nonprofit, and it’s better for the environment. A rare win-win-win.

Kleiman estimates that the deconstruction process takes about three to four weeks, as opposed to a week-and-a-half for straight demolition, where nothing is salvaged.

Tear-down in Santa Monica, CA

(Robert Kleiman)

The resulting rebuild

(Robert Kleiman)

Another developer in SoCal concurs with Kleiman’s opinion of older homes.

“Generally speaking, to try and salvage an old mansion would entail much more work and be more costly,” says Holland Ashrafnia, director of developments with Aaron Kirman Group at Compass, and founder of The H Group.

Ashrafnia added, “It’s only worthwhile to renovate if the home is architecturally significant.”

A prime example? L.A.’s fully restored Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which fetched $18 million after a meticulous makeover.

Ashrafnia ticked through a couple more upsides to tearing down and building anew: An architect has a fresh canvas to design a new residence, and anything remodeled over 50% is considered new by the city anyway.

A new mansion can be built with modern conveniences, as opposed to trying to slap a sleek look on a ’20s-era home.

As Ashrafnia puts it, “Most older homes don’t possess what today’s sophisticated buyers require.”

The $87.7 million Palazzo di Vista in Bel-Air

(Joe Bryant)

Apartment therapy in NYC

For high-end apartments in New York City, demo is a part of daily life, according to Ben Chasin, an international builder and designer for over 25 years, and founder of Couture Interior Design International.

“It’s an approach that’s fairly common,” he says. “Unless someone goes to a place and is in love with it as is. But normally, things are to be customized and altered.”

The challenge with the demolition of a luxury unit inside an existing building is that the process takes on a very different look. Debris is carted out in garbage bags and by wheelbarrow, piece by piece, while taking into account the building’s dog walkers, as well as potentially annoyed neighbors.

“It could take a month or two. It is bit by bit, layer by layer. You have to pull the surface off,” Chasin says. “It’s like a house of cards. It’s very systematic, it’s very organized. You’re dealing with water, you’re dealing with electricity, you’re dealing with neighbors. And you’re dealing with liability. It’s a lot of care. Nothing is quick. The same way you’re building it, you’re taking it apart. You’re setting yourself up for the creation. But there’s a beginning.”

And while the process is much slower and meticulous in NYC, the interest in demolition hasn’t fallen off.

“It’s unique when you’re dealing with affluent people that have a high taste level,” Chasin says.

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