Katharine Hepburn's beachfront estate for sale
The actress Katharine Hepburn's estate at Old Saybrook in Fenwick, Connecticut, is for sale.
Katharine Hepburn was a one-of-a-kind film star.
For more than 60 years, from the Thirties until the late Nineties, she performed with range and aplomb that put today’s Hollywood leading lights to shame. From Little Women to The African Queen, Hepburn could do hilarious and tragic, exuberant and melancholic, all within a single scene. Beautiful, headstrong and sometimes fierce, she was also a unique character off-screen.
So it is no surprise that the Hepburns’ estate at Old Saybrook in Fenwick, Connecticut, is equally one of a kind. For more than 65 years, it was a haven for the actress, where she could relax with her family, immerse herself in nature and generally take a break from the vicissitudes of life on set in Los Angeles or in the centre of New York.
The house is located where the Long Island Sound meets the Connecticut River, about 200 miles north-east of New York, just beyond New Haven. In her memoir, Me, Hepburn described the house as “paradise”.
The home was built in 1939. There had been a property on the site before, a replica of which appears in the film The Aviator. Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, endures a dinner with Katharine and her family, who are shown as cultured, snobbish old money compared with Hughes’ genius new wealth.
In real life, Hughes came to visit in a seaplane, which he landed on the water outside the property. It would still be a stylish way to arrive. The old house was destroyed by a storm, however, shortly after Hughes’s visit.
Hepburn, by then a superstar again after The Philadelphia Story, bought a set of children’s building blocks. She assembled a model for her ideal home to replace the old one, where she and her family could while away the summers.
The estate has its own beach and dock, ideal for swimming or watersports. The land surrounding it is held in trust, to ensure that the family had privacy from reporters or fans. The main house has more than 8,300 sq ft of space, with six bedrooms, eight bathrooms and plenty of living rooms. There are even seven fireplaces, for evenings when the Atlantic closes in.
In short, it is the perfect residence for a family in search of somewhere that mixes the great outdoors with a cosy interior.
“The historic Katharine Hepburn home remains the quintessential family estate,” says Collette Harron from Sotheby’s International Realty, which is selling the house. “It features an extraordinary renovation that maintains its legacy.”
Ah yes, the renovation. Because, while Katharine Hepburn might be the most famous name associated with the property, much of its present state is down to Frank J Sciame, the current owner. He bought the house from her estate in 2004, three years after the star died.
“My wife and I had a little cottage in Fenwick at the far-west end of the area – we only used it occasionally, because our main house was on Long Island. But we would come for summers. Everyone knew about the Hepburn house – it stood out from the neighbourhood.
“I heard it was on the market for $12million [£7.1million], which was more than I was going to pay. It made sense, however – it has 600ft of private beach, with great water. But then the asking price started to fall. When it reached $8million, that was the moment when I thought, 'I should take a look at it.’”
The house that he saw had fallen into disrepair. This section of the coast is subject to terrible storms, as well as the usual toil exerted on seafront homes. The once-mighty Hepburn estate was bedraggled.
“When we looked around we understood why the price was low,” says Frank. “The house had sunk into the land, and had listed six inches. There were signs of water damage. Even at $8million, nobody was interested.
“I made an offer of $6million, but cash. There was no financing, and it wasn’t subject to an engineer’s report. But the owners only had 48 hours to think about it. They accepted.”
Frank and his wife bought the house, and embarked on a massive restoration project. By day, Frank is CEO of one of the area’s leading building firms. Over the years he has worked on plenty of famous old buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum. Where other potential buyers would have been put off by the scale of the task, he saw the chance to bring his skills to bear.
“It was a challenge – that’s why I knew it was perfect for us. With our expertise in historic buildings – we had worked on the Morgan Library, in New York, for example – we weren’t afraid of major works. As well as correcting the list, we raised the property by five feet to protect it from future flooding.
“Then we renovated the entire house. We redid all the fireplaces, all the furniture, the walls and interiors. The bones are still there, in the structure and the brickwork, but almost everything else we brought up to standard.”
The new house has all the conveniences that a film star could dream of. The kitchen has a marble worktop and Sub-Zero appliances. Wide doors open onto calm lawns.
The project was not without hiccups. There was an almost comic row over the height of some gateposts. “The borough thought they were too high; I didn’t,” Frank adds succinctly. Rather than lower the height of the posts, he simply piled up the earth around their bases. It achieved the desired effect in letter, but not in spirit, and an argument ensued.
“That was a silly little thing, really,” he says. “On the whole, the borough was helpful, particularly in terms of the historic sensitivity. They want to make sure all the houses are built appropriately to the other houses in the area, but they agreed that our project was in keeping.” The local authorities were not the only ones impressed, he adds.
“When we were finished Katharine’s brother and sister came to see it, and they were happy, too. They thought it had been tastefully done. That meant a lot to us.”
Although they planned only to use the Hepburn house as an occasional cottage, the Sciames – like the Hepburns before them – fell in love with the place. “It grabbed us,” he explains. “We have spent nearly 10 summers here. Something about the house’s history, and the stories you hear about it, as well as the fact that it’s just a wonderful place to be. Apparently, Spencer Tracy came to visit for dinner, and there was a storm. At one point Katharine stood up and told all the men to take their trousers off – they all had to rush out to bring the boats in. Tracy thought they were quite a mad family. Things like that just add to the cachet of the house. But it’s time to move on. Time for us to go back to Long Island, like we planned the first time around.”
The Sciames are keeping a small cottage on the estate, to visit during the summers, but are selling the main house. Frank suspects there won’t be any shortage of people interested. The Connecticut market suffered a tough 2012 and 2013 but, this year, it has picked up. In the first quarter of 2014, prices for single family homes rose nearly 10 per cent, according to Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. With interest rates in America at historic lows, as they are in the UK, this trend should continue.
Of course, a property as unusual as this one operates in a market all of its own. Owners who want to make a rental income would find no shortage of well-heeled holidaymakers happy to rent it. There are few estates with this mix of location, setting, space, privacy and finish. And all of that is without including the Hepburn factor.
“There is still this wonderful network of fans of Katharine,” says Frank. “People still drive by sometimes, trying to have a look. Even our friends, when we bought it, they all wanted to come and take a look around. Katharine loved it, her family loved it, and you get a real sense that the people who have been here for so long have all enjoyed it, too. The house has great karma.”
A home with impeccable pedigree and an immaculate history. Forget Philadelphia - here, a new owner could write a new act of the long, romantic Old Saybrook Story.
The Hepburn estate is for sale for £8.8m through William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty (001 860 304 2391; www.sothebysrealty.com)