Grand Scale

Ray Minella’s expansive English Manor lacked one thing: Landscaping. That’s where Mark Hicks of Elise Nursery came in



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Ray Minella was visiting friends in Lake Placid four years ago when the conversation turned to houses. “I know the best real estate bargain I’ve ever seen,” said one longtime friend who lives in Pound Ridge, New York, close to the New Canaan line. “It’s a mile from my house.”

A former Wall Street investment banker and divorced father of four, Minella was attracted both to the description of the place and to a potential deal. What’s more, over lunch the next day in Manhattan, where he was living at the time, his son Matthew told him, “You know, Dad, you’d feel better if you had a place to put your stuff,” meaning the books, art and cars his father collects. Two days later, he took his son’s advice and drove up to New Canaan.

The 15,400-square-foot English manor was custom built in 2002 by an American Anglophile who had gotten rich selling tax shelters in the U.K. The design for the house was inspired by Fonthill Abbey, a famed Gothic revival country house in England that’s documented in Bill Bryson’s best-selling book At Home. Despite spending millions of his own on the house, the original owner took out a construction loan from a Connecticut bank. When the IRS shut his business down five years later, the bank took possession of the four-acre property. By 2010, it was the largest non-performing loan on the bank’s books. Hoping to unload it, the institution invested another $1 million to $2 million in tying up loose ends and finishing up construction. The day before Minella arrived in New Canaan, the bank had the stone and timber mansion staged for viewing. Minella bought it a week later. Where the grand manor was deficient, however, was in the landscaping. There wasn’t any. “The house looked like an aircraft carrier that had been dropped from a helicopter,” Minella recalls. “It didn’t look like it fit the property.” What’s more, where the front of the house was barren, the rear was filled with construction debris, and beyond the mounds of earth and boulders and scraps of lumber, deep woods shadowed the house.

Minella turned to Mark Hicks, president of Elise Landscapes & Nursery in New Canaan, to take what was essentially a blank canvas and create a landscape that would put the property in scale with the grand manor.

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