Jun 27, 2014
08:07 AM
History

Ridgefield Mansion Where Houdini Practiced Escapes For Sale; Robert Vaughn Once Owned It

Ridgefield Mansion Where Houdini Practiced Escapes For Sale; Robert Vaughn Once Owned It

Photos courtesy of William Pitt Sothby's International Realty

Calling Ridgefield’s Sunset Hall a castle might be stretching the definition a bit, but with 19,452 square feet, a ballroom, 11 bedrooms, and historic links to the United Nations and Harry Houdini, the latest addition to our Connecticut Castle series is certainly fit for a king.

 

Driving up the gated, manicured driveway to Sunset Hall feels like entering a film from Hollywood’s Golden area—one where everyone wears tuxedos and top hats, has cigarette holders, and spends their time lounging in impossibly big mansions with impossibly well-manicured lawns. My 1991 Buick with 100,000+ miles feels as out of place in this driveway as a boat in the desert.

See the other stories in our ongoing series on Connecticut castles

“Have you seen The Great Gatsby?’” asks Kathy Schmitt, the realtor listing the property, as she meets me at the entrance. “This property is very much like the property [in the film].”

Schmitt works for William Pitt’s Sotheby’s International Realty. Sunset Hall was put on the market in January—the asking price is $5,750,000. The majestic estate is one of the highest points in Fairfield County (on a clear day it is said to have views of Manhattan), it overlooks Round Lake, and has a heated gunite pool with a cabana and fireplace, a tennis court, gazebo, and a two bedroom guest house. The main building is a 1912 Georgian Estate that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

(Sunset Hall's driveway above, and pool below.) 

And the architecture isn’t the only thing that’s historic. The property’s past is full of notable figures and historic anecdotes.  After World War II the estate was seriously considered as a location for the United Nations, Houdini’s brother owned it for a time and the famous magician would frequently visit on the weekends and is said to have practiced his famous underwater escapes in the pool.

“It's just a beautiful piece of property. One of the nicest in Ridgefield," says Kay Ables, Ridgefield’s town historian. “It’s always been considered one of our greatest treasures. We have a lot of wonderful big old mansions here but this certainly is one of the most important.”

You enter Sunset Hall through a grand and open space that affords views of balconies on the second and third floors. Inside the 19,452-square-foot house there are 11 bedrooms, each with its own unique color scheme and theme, servants' quarters, a grand dining room, mammoth living room, a library/billiards room, piano concert area (below), and an actual ballroom that is so big and ornate that one can picture Scarlett O’Hara waltzing away in it. Even the bathrooms (all 11 of them) offer a sense of royalty.

“Each bathroom has its own personality,” explains Schmitt, as she points out an intricate lion’s head commode in one of the first floor bathrooms.

The house was built by James Stokes, who was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. A few years after buildilng it, Stokes sold the property to Dr. Leopold Weiss, brother of legendary magician Houdini. Houdini would regularly visit and be seen about Ridgefield. In a 1987 column in the Ridgefield Press, Richard E. Venus, Ridgefield’s former town historian, wrote that Houdini and his wife “spent many weekends at his brother’s Ridgefield home. I recall seeing him as he shopped in the local stores on a Saturday morning.”  

(Above, the grounds outside the mansion. Below, the tennis court and guest house). 

The property was considered a potential site for the United Nations in 1946—a  committee of delegates actually visited Ridgefield to explore the property before the United Nations current Manhattan location was selected. Other past owners include Brooklyn beer baron Samuel Rubel and the Cutten family of Sinclair Oil. More recently, the actor Robert Vaughn and his wife purchased it in 1981 and sold it in 1998.

The current owners bought the house in 2008 for $5.5 million and than put $1.3 million into repairs and improvements. Schmitt says houses in this price range take longer to sell but she’s confident there’s a buyer out there—one with a love of history, flare for entertaining and a princely pocket book. 

Watch Sotheby’s virtual tour of the property below: 

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

Ridgefield Mansion Where Houdini Practiced Escapes For Sale; Robert Vaughn Once Owned It

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