Don Brown was an inventor and a dreamer who, once he’d made his fortune in business, turned his mind to more domestic pursuits. The result? Waterwood Estate, one of the most extravagant homes in the Great Lakes region.
Boaters who see the house from the lake call it “the castle.” Those driving by on the road, however, don’t see a thing. The view of the 160-acre lakefront estate is blocked by rolling hills and trees.
That’s the way Don Brown and his wife, Shirley, wanted it. They may have built what is almost certainly the most expensive home on Lake Erie, but they didn’t want or need anyone to know it. After moving to the Vermilion, Ohio, home in 1993, they denied repeated media requests to showcase their estate.
Instead, they lived quietly. Don spent most of the day in his office, from which he could see eagles teach their young to fish. Shirley liked to read and did her own cooking despite an estate staff of 25. Her grandchildren loved her famous five-hour stew.
But that peaceful life ended suddenly.
In January of last year, the Browns and two pilots died when the plane bringing them home from a trip to Florida crashed into a field in Ohio. Don was 89. Shirley was 87. The couple’s two sons agreed to allow Lake Erie Living to feature the house, partially to help market the property and partially to share their parents’ legacy. Photos of the house have never been made public before.
Don’s first big idea, which he patented in 1961, was to reconfigure drop ceilings to allow for easier access to the ducts and pipes above them. “My dad was always a creative guy,” says Keith Brown, a businessman who now lives in Florida. “He was always building something, always trying to improve on something.”
When Don sold his company, Donn Products Inc., in the mid-1980s, he turned his attention to another dream — to live on the lake. Though he hired noted Washington, D.C.-based architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Don knew what he wanted and is responsible for much of the design. “Mr. Brown had his vision. He took it and ran with it,” says Brian Hurtuk, the first vice president at CB Richard Ellis handling the sale of the estate.
That vision led to a most impressive home — so impressive that the sales price is undisclosed. “There’s not a lot of comparables,” says Hurtuk, who notes that the home cost $20 million to build in the mid-1980s. There is no question that it is the most expensive residential property for sale on the lake, easily dwarfing the $4.5 million price tag of the runner-up — a home in a western suburb of Cleveland.
“It’s probably not the house for the Brady Bunch,” agrees Randal Dawson, a senior vice president at the Chicago office of CB Richard Ellis, who was brought to Vermilion for his experience appraising high-end properties worldwide.
Dawson sees the estate as having three types of potential buyers. The first would be a very wealthy person from Ohio, a guy like LeBron James if he still played basketball in Cleveland. Although Waterwood is nearly an hour west of downtown Cleveland, the estate has a heliport, which cuts down the trip to 15 minutes. The Browns often flew into Burke Lakefront Airport for business or to meet friends. They also enjoyed taking their Bell 222 helicopter to Frankenmuth, Mich., for a nice dinner out. “They kind of used it like we would use a car,” says estate manager and pilot Andy Overly. “If it was over an hour, they’d take the helicopter.”
The second possibility, says Dawson, is that a large company or institution — such as the Cleveland Clinic or a university would buy it to use as an executive retreat.
The last scenario is a foreign buyer — say, an oil tycoon from the Middle East or Russia who would purchase it for use as “just a getaway,” says Dawson. “These people have homes all over the world, but don’t necessarily live in them. It could be someone who spends six to 12 days a year there.”
So what makes the home so extraordinary?
First, the size. The main house at Waterwood has 38,000 square feet and more than 100 rooms, making it the biggest home on Lake Erie and in Ohio, according to an executive summary on the home prepared by CB Richard Ellis.
The attention to detail begins before you even enter the property. The state route it’s on — a fairly quiet two-lane road that runs parallel to the lake — has a turning lane exclusively for Waterwood. Once you pull in, the half-mile-long driveway leads past a waterfall to the main house. The land was engineered for total privacy, with manmade rolling hills blocking any view of the properties to the east or west.
The 160 acres of land contain a private marina with a 180-foot floating dock that holds up to six boats, a private beach and a two-acre fishing reservoir. Miles of paths meander throughout the property. There’s also that heliport, with an attached airplane hangar that, at 1,925 square feet, is bigger than many homes. (The Browns’ personal garage at Waterwood holds only two cars, but features a rotating floor so that Shirley never had to back out.)
The house itself looks like a sculpture. It’s composed of more than a dozen steel-concrete-and-glass cubes topped with pyramids, a striking pattern (especially when viewed aerially) that’s complemented by the nine chimneys jutting up past the pyramids.
Once inside the house, however, the scale is intimate — especially in the private area used for daily living by the Browns. The kitchen, with its louvered maple cabinets and Corian counters, looks like it could belong in any home down the road. But step out of it to the easternmost room in the house and you’ll remember where you are. The Browns’ private eating area may be the smallest room in the house, but its four glass walls place diners in the middle of a private oasis — surrounded almost completely by rolling hills and waves. It is not uncommon to see a fox or deer pass by.
Other parts of the house are dramatic in a different way. Brown was known for having a mind that never stopped and a new idea every day. In the private living room of the house, there is another table. With the press of a button, the floor underneath it rotates, providing each diner with an eventual view of the lake.
The lower hunting-themed level, called the “Safari,” deviates from the pristine look created by the white walls and Italian marble in the rest of the house. In one room, there are two life-size faux front porches on either side of a ping-pong table where the grandchildren liked to play when they were little. When they outgrew it, Brown added a poolroom to entertain them. There’s also a gym, sauna, wine grotto, two indoor swimming pools, a barbershop and a lounge.
In the middle of the lower level, there’s a small seating area with four chairs. The floor here doesn’t spin, but it does rise 30 feet. As it reaches the glass dome above it, that too lifts, until guests are overlooking the shoreline and the estate. As in the rest of the home, no detail was forgotten; the four chairs were custom made with holes for wine glasses.
The real show stopper in the home, however, is the great room, a massive space anchored on each side by a 10-wood-wide fireplace. Other than those hearths, the walls are composed entirely of glass panels that open, allowing lake breezes to accompany the view. This is the room that Hurtuk imagines serving as the heart of an executive retreat.
So does the home financed by the sale of drop-ceiling tiles actually have any? No, but the Browns’ old house in Westlake, Ohio, was loaded with them, according to their son.
Keith Brown adds that his one regret is that his parents didn’t build their dream home sooner.
“My father always had a vision for building a fantastic home based on technology,” Keith Brown says. “Why it took him so long, I don’t know.”