JOHNS CREEK, Ga. » Bit by bit, Larry Dean’s life, at least as he had constructed it over the last two decades, was ebbing away.
Hundreds of strangers — many in little black cocktail dresses, some in white linen suits — showed up on Friday night for an estate sale here at Dean’s Xanadu-like mansion, once the biggest home in metropolitan Atlanta. They scrutinized every object, from a $10 snow globe to a $60,000 dolphin-sculptured fountain. And many walked out the $17,500 leaded glass and mahogany double front doors, which came from the Chicago Cotton Exchange, with an artifact from Dean’s past.
And Dean, a relentlessly upbeat software entrepreneur with cropped gray hair and a busker’s aim to please, gladly watched it go.
"It’s all good," he said, standing in the soaring rotunda of his megamansion, the pressure almost visibly rising off his shoulders.
The estate sale brought down the curtain on a particular kind of spectacle, a rags-to-riches tale that somewhere along the way slipped into reverse and played itself out in the unforgiving glare of the real estate market.
Dean, 67, who grew up without indoor plumbing in a low-income section of Atlanta, founded a financial services software company, Stockholder Systems Inc., in the early 1970s and became a millionaire many times over. He and his first wife, Lynda, spent four years and $25 million building their own private Versailles, which they called "Dean Gardens" and finished in 1992. Their architect, Bill Harrison, said each square inch of it was given the attention to detail of a Faberge egg.
The Deans’ dream was to raise their four children here in an atmosphere like "Dynasty," "only happy," and then leave the 58-acre estate, with its 18-hole golf course, wedding chapel, band shell and formal gardens to a foundation that would open it to the public for charity events.
But in 1993, shortly after finishing the house, the Deans separated and the house went on the market. It has languished there for the last 17 years. One potential buyer, Dean said, was Michael Jackson, who wanted the place in 1994 as a surprise for his fiancee, Lisa Marie Presley. But when the media reported Jackson’s plan and ruined the surprise, he did not sign the contract. Dean would not say how much Jackson was going to pay, but the home was on the market for $40 million.
Now, at last, the estate has sold — for $7.6 million. The buyer, the entertainment mogul Tyler Perry, has said he plans to demolish it and build his own home, one that is environmentally friendly and made of concrete.
Even in the Atlanta area, where a developer built a replica of the White House replete with its own Lincoln Bedroom and Oval Office, Dean Gardens stands out. At 32,000 square feet, it is nearly twice as big as the Atlanta White House. And its incongruity of interior styles, combining Egyptian, Renaissance, Vegas and more, have been a source of amusement, if not horror, to those who have attended charity events there or seen pictures online.
Joan Rivers mocked it on her television program, "How’d You Get So Rich?" When she saw a bed surrounded by an elaborate pink and green flower frame, she gasped that it looked like a float she once rode in the Rose Bowl Parade.
Bloggers and commentators have been merciless about what they see as a collision of self-indulgence, bad taste and a waste of money.
"After seeing the inside of this house, it’s no wonder at all that they divorced," one person wrote on the website hookedonhouses.net after a glimpse via the Internet. "I can’t imagine anyone being happy living in that monstrosity. Perhaps they should turn it into a prison."
"Oy," wrote another. "I’m so embarrassed to be an Atlantan right now. A few years ago, Atlanta was voted the No. 1 city in the country with ‘most conspicuous consumption.’ I guess this would be the feather in that cap!"
Hank Miller, an associate broker and appraiser with Prudential Georgia Realty, said the real value of the property is in the land. "The land is worth more than the structure, which is why they’re going to take it down," Miller said.
Jenny Pruitt, co-founder and chief executive of Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty, whose firm sold Dean Gardens after taking over the listing last year, said, "The luxury-home market has been hit very hard, and this was a very special property."
The sale price, Pruitt said, is the highest in Atlanta so far this year, but considerably lower than an $11 million sale last year. And it could easily be made up in tax credits, she said, if Tyler exercises the property’s conservation rights, given its extensive waterfront along the Chattahoochee River.
Dean said he was mostly relieved about the sale, which will mean the end of $1 million in annual upkeep, which his first wife had been paying in recent years. On top of the $25 million cost of building the house, they spent an additional $18 million over the years to pay for staff, taxes and utilities, for a total of $43 million.
"I didn’t get a dime out of the sale of the house," Dean said. "I own all the personal effects. That’s why I’m having the sale," though some of the proceeds are going to charities. "The $7.6 million went to pay off the back debts. I owed Lynda more than the buyer paid for it. The buyer basically stole the house."
As Dean absorbs the lessons of his experience and faces life with his fortune greatly depleted by divorces and upkeep costs for the house, he said he regretted building the house. If he had it to do all over again, he said, he would not. Still, he thinks of himself as happy and successful.
Dean, divorced for a third time and looking for wife No.4, said he planned to move to Florida and would probably write a book on Internet dating, which he says has been a letdown. Everyone lies, he said, especially about their age and weight.
Dean said he thought the sale would be harder on his oldest son, Chris, who at 21 was given thetask of decorating the house and now, at 43, is still trying to come to terms with the experience. It was his first effort at decorating something on such a grand scale; he made one more effort, which ended in disaster, and retired from interior decorating at age 24.
"Our whole family is coming to the end of a chapter," Chris Dean said wistfully. "This was so wonderful at the beginning, and so new, then after their divorce, when Mom moved out, it lost its life." He said he missed his mother’s cooking and her cakes and pies that filled the countertop.
"It became almost like a mausoleum sitting here with nobody using it," he said. "That was more heartbreaking than having it torn down."