Call it paying respect.
To announce that Melcombe, the Glenview estate of the Binghams, was on the market, Kentucky Select Properties principal broker and co-owner John Stough held a party. Kathy Cary catered. Edith Bingham attended. So did Breaux Ballard. About 50 influential Louisvillians were there, as well.
Kentucky Select doesn’t hold a party every time a property goes on sale. But this isn’t just any property. Winfrey Blackburn once wrote, “Most houses in Louisville could fit in the entry hall of this one.”
Melcombe’s well-chronicled guest list has included presidents and ambassadors, dukes and duchesses. And, as Stough mentions, it’s a novelty on the market. It hasn’t been up for sale in 98 years.
That was when Judge Robert Worth Bingham, patriarch of the publishing family, bought the estate from the family of Charles Thruston Ballard, the flour mill baron. Ballard had just died, and Bingham had just married Mary Lily Flagler, the widow of Standard Oil founder Henry Morrison Flagler, considered the wealthiest woman in America at the time.
Judge Bingham’s granddaughter-in law, Edie Bingham, now in her 80s, has a well-known passion for conservation and preservation, and Stough peppered the guest list with like-minded people, those interested in local history and architecture. There was no sales pitch and, the realtor said, that wasn’t the purpose of the event.
“I didn’t hold this for people who are in the market to buy a house,” he told me. “But I did want to show off the grandeur of the house for those who’ve never seen it. And, of course, these are also the people who circulate in the milieu of those who’d be drawn to purchasing a $3 million house.”
The actual selling price is $3.355 million, which fetches the 12,000-square-foot “big house” and roughly 9 acres of the original estate, which includes gardens designed by landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin, who designed for the likes of the Fricks, Vanderbilts, Huttons and du Ponts in the period between The Great War and The Great Depression. (The gardens at the du Pont’s fabulous Winterthur Estate in the Brandywine Valley of Southeast Pennsylvania were her creation, as well.)
Edie Bingham, who moved out of the main house after her husband, Barry Bingham Jr., died in 2006, will remain in “the little house,” which occupies 20 separate acres that are not for sale. She had been using “the big house” for special events, but the upkeep of the massive property has become too much for her, said Stough.
“I asked her permission to host the function, and she agreed,” the realtor told me. “She’s quite proud of the house, of course.”
And it proved to be a successful venture. While Stough says his intention was just to expose the property to a broader market and perhaps get some word-of-mouth going on in the rarified world of $3 million property owners, the payback was almost immediate. Within a day of the event, on the first day it was listed to the public, Stough said he had a number of showings among very serious prospects – including some who hadn’t been in the market for a new house.
“It threw them into the market,” he said. “It’s the kind of house that makes you want to move. After all, those who are interested are likely in significant houses already, so it requires a significant house to get their attention.”
Stough said he sold three houses in the $3-$4 million range last year, “all going to people who hadn’t planned on moving, who weren’t out actively shopping. But if a certain property becomes available, it sparks people to make a move.”
He called it “the cocktail party conversation phenomenon,” in which a group of people begins discussing it, and that discussion widens and takes on a life of its own.
“That can happen on its own, of course,” he said. “We just tried to make it less accidental.”
Is this off-market approach a new way of selling a house? “I suppose for the right property,” Stough said. “I’ve never really done this before. I’ve had events to which I invited real estate agents, and they invited their clients. But this was different. I thought this house was so historic, so notable, it had its own allure, and exposing it to a wider audience might be a positive way to get the word out.”
He said the market for a house like this is limited, almost by definition, because people who would buy it tend to be local people and that means they have a house in this market they have to sell, as well. Even if the real estate market is improving, million-dollar properties are not exactly flipping like flapjacks.
“Louisville gets only a small nibble of interest from out-of-towners,” he said. “Some of the fabulous Lexington horse farms get the attention of people elsewhere who want to have a ‘trophy property,’ like an oceanfront house in Palm Beach or a ski chalet in Aspen. People interested in a house like this in Louisville are looking for a primary residence.”
On the other hand, there’s been some notable activity in this market these last few months – high-profile properties being gobbled up by buyers from outside of Louisville. We may be entering a new era. Stay tuned.