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Global's Unsinkable Captain

Gary Winnick's cable firm went under, taking billions in investor wealth with it, but he is lavishly restoring his $94-million mansion.

July 04, 2002|KAREN KAPLAN and ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even by the standards of Bel-Air, Gary Winnick's mansion on Bellagio Road is lavish.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club, the Georgian-style house commands views from downtown to the coast. Its 64 rooms include a kitchen with six sinks and enough ovens to warm 100 plates at once. The master suite boasts separate massage, sitting and shower rooms. There are a dozen bedrooms and a dozen bathrooms just for servants.

But Winnick isn't satisfied. He's spending millions to restore the 65-year-old estate.

Inside, craftsmen are stripping away seven layers of paint, refurbishing antique doorknobs and light fixtures and sculpting plaster crown moldings using techniques in vogue when the house was built. Outside, as many as 100 workers are resurfacing patios and replacing ailing trees and shrubs.

None of this sits well with former employees and shareholders of Global Crossing Ltd., the telecommunications company Winnick founded in 1997. For a few years its stock soared on hope and hype. Then, in January, the company filed the fourth-largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history, wiping out $54 billion of shareholders' money and putting thousands of employees out of work.

Winnick, the company's chairman and the largest individual shareholder, lost billions in paper wealth. But he had sold millions of shares two years earlier, when the stock still was flying high. He cleared more than $575 million then and used some of it to buy his $94-million mansion--the highest price ever recorded for a home in Los Angeles County.

Now the 8.4-acre spread has become the stuff of legend among those who lost their jobs, investments or both in Global Crossing's collapse. They see the 23,000-square-foot mansion as symbolic of the excesses of the tech boom, when stock options and a giddy atmosphere on Wall Street enabled some entrepreneurs to get rich even as the firms they led were about to melt down.

"The company's going down the tubes, and he's flaunting his money and spending millions of dollars on the house," said former Global Crossing employee Michael Nighan, who has joined other laid-off workers in an effort to recoup $32 million in severance pay wiped out by the bankruptcy filing. "At this point, we're beyond anger. Now it's amazement more than anything else."

The house and the elaborate renovation are lampooned regularly on a Web site run by former Global Crossing employees. "Where do I sign up as a subcontractor? I need a job," one former worker wrote recently.

Other tech leaders have been humbled by the collapse of their companies. In April, Bernard J. Ebbers, the deposed chief executive of long-distance giant WorldCom Inc., sold his yacht to pay off some of the approximately $400 million he owes on loans he used to buy now-worthless company stock.

Enron Corp.'s former chairman, Kenneth L. Lay, sold luxury homes in Colorado and Texas to stave off personal bankruptcy. His wife, Linda, opened a thrift store in hopes of raising cash by selling family castoffs.

Winnick, by contrast, continues to pour money into his home renovation, which is expected to cost as much as $30 million. Because the house is Winnick's personal property, it cannot be seized by Global Crossing's corporate creditors as part of the bankruptcy.

"People talk about the house all the time," said attorney Randy Sunshine, a golf enthusiast and member of the Bel-Air Country Club who has watched the renovation from the five greens that surround the house. "You can't help it--it's just so huge and it just looms right over the golf course. And with all of what's going down with Global Crossing, I think there's an irony there."

Built to Be Talked About

The mansion--dubbed Casa Encantada, or House of Enchantment--was built to be talked about. Its very design reflected the original owner's determination to impress.

A gurgling fountain adorned with bronze statues dominates the long, curving driveway, and four slender columns frame the entrance beneath a triangular pediment. Painted the color of white stone and topped with a pitched copper roof, the mansion would look at home on the Mall in Washington.

Inside, a grand, curving staircase rises above the entryway's parquet floor. Each step is decorated with an oval design resembling a seashell. The grounds--big enough to hold three major league baseball fields--include several lawns and plazas, elaborate formal gardens, a tennis court, a pool, a two-story pool house and a pair of greenhouses. Pine, eucalyptus and other trees shield the estate from public view.

Winnick, who lives in a Brentwood estate, declined to discuss his Bel-Air house. Friends say the 54-year-old entrepreneur, who has pledged more than $100 million to charity over the years, considers the restoration another of his many philanthropic efforts.

Previous owners opened the house for lavish parties and fund-raisers to benefit a variety of causes.

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