When Sue and Bill Groner decided to uproot from New York City and live full time in their former weekend retreat neither they nor their architect imagined they would one day be watching the house go up in smoke.
The basic ranch-style house set in the rolling hills of Westchester County served as the perfect home for nine years. The town, Bedford, is a 50-minute commute from Manhattan and attracts high-profile residents from Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart to financial movers and shakers, but it is less ostentatious than the Hamptons and feels more like the country, with a relaxed pace and a genteel, hunting and fishing lifestyle.
Sue and Bill, a lawyer specialising in catastrophic personal injury cases, decided to leave the city before they had children so were quite comfortable turning their second home into their primary one. But when their two children were born, modifications were necessary and, earlier this year, the family was ready for a radical change.
The Groners were faced with a choice between buying a new house and leaving the property they loved “in a great location with gorgeous, mature trees” or staying, tearing down the old structure, and building a different home on the same site – a cheaper option with area property prices going through the roof.
“Knock downs” are nothing new in the US, with many homes, even multi*million-dollar ones, purchased as nothing more than potential building plots. In East Hampton recently an early Gwathmey Segal home in a spectacular ocean-facing location was bought with an adjoining coach house for $18m. Within a few weeks the house had been bulldozed and the new owners intend to build another home on the site.
But the Groners settled on an even more dramatic option. A neighbour showed them a story in the local newspaper about how the area’s fire brigade uses homes awaiting demolition as a “controlled burning” training facility for volunteer firefighters, who don’t get rigorous professional training but still need to experience blazes before their first emergency. So they agreed to have their house burnt to a shell (burning it to the ground might have endangered surrounding trees) and to hire a demolition team for the “finishing off”.
The house was a good distance from other properties so acquiring a permit was no problem, and the controlled burn was staggered over a weekend – around six hours during the day and three to four hours in darkness. (The firemen have other professions – the chief is a New York City cop, for example – so weekdays were out.)
Stadium lighting was erected for the night-time sessions; dummies were placed in rooms in the house; and the Groners watched it all from the house next door, which they are renting temporarily. Sue admits the experience of seeing her home engulfed in flames was “pretty bizarre” and somewhat emotional; she also worried that it would be a “disturbing experience” for the children. But they were “pretty cool”, she says.
Work on the new house is now well under way and the Groners are pleased with the decision they made.
For the volunteer firemen, who Sue observes “can save our lives and the lives of other people”, the house was an invaluable gift. It was as she says a “win win” outcome for everyone . . . and, as the fire brigade is a charity, by donating their house for training purposes the Groners could also benefit from a sizeable tax deduction.