Class Matters

Old Nantucket Warily Meets the New

Published: June 5, 2005
NANTUCKET, Mass. - In spring, along with the daffodils, crowds on the ferry and workers raking the beaches, comes the ritual of real estate gossip. What properties changed hands over the winter? And who could possibly be paying those out-of-sight prices?
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Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

"The two worlds can mix as long as they don't talk too much," said Michael J. Kittredge, new money.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

B.J. Worgess, a carpenter, atop a new $12 million house. He says he can no longer afford to live on Nantucket.

That 15-acre waterfront parcel for sale for $15 million? It was snatched up after only one day on the market. Turns out the purchaser was Steven Rales, the billionaire entrepreneur who owns at least 61 acres next door and bought the parcel to protect his privacy and waterfront views, said Dalton Frazier, a local real estate agent.

Have any other palatial estates expanded? Not so long ago H. Wayne Huizenga, the billionaire founder of Blockbuster and owner of the Miami Dolphins, wanted more elbow room and bought a neighboring house for $2.5 million. Richard Mellon Scaife, the publisher and heir to a banking fortune, bought an extra house too; he needed it for the staff.

The real estate frenzy, even in the dead of winter, is only the most visible reminder that over the past decade or so this 50-square-mile, fishhook-shaped island off the Cape Cod coast has come to be dominated by a new class: the hyper-rich. They emerged in the 1980's and 1990's, when tectonic shifts in the economy created mountains of wealth. They resemble the arrivistes of the Gilded Age, which began in the 1880's when industrial capitalists amassed staggering fortunes, except that there are so many of them and they seem to be relatively anonymous.

Like their precursors, they tend to be brash, confident and unapologetic. They feel they have earned their money, and they are not shy about spending it. They construct huge mansions, outdo one another in buying high-end status symbols like mega-yachts (100 years ago it was private railroad cars) and not infrequently turn to philanthropy. Their wealth is washing over the upper reaches of society as it did a century ago, bringing cultural and political clout as they take up positions on museum boards and organize presidential campaign fund-raising dinners.

And they seem unconcerned about being accepted by the old money. If the blue bloods want to mix with them, fine. But if not, the hyper-rich are content to stick with their kind. If they cannot join an exclusive country club, they form their own. They are very good at creating a self-enclosed world where the criterion for admission is not the Social Register, but money.

Once a low-key summer resort, Nantucket is rapidly turning into their private preserve, joining the ranks of other enclaves like Palm Beach, Aspen, the Hamptons and Sun Valley. Now that the hyper-rich have achieved a critical mass, property values have zoomed so high that the less-well-off are being forced to leave and the island is becoming nature's ultimate gated community.

"It's a castle with a moat around it," said Michael J. Kittredge, a 53-year-old entrepreneur who realized a fortune when he sold his Yankee Candle Company seven years ago for about $500 million. He was relaxing in the living room of his 10,000-square-foot house, which has a basement movie theater and a 2,000-bottle wine cellar. A separate residence a quarter-mile away houses staff members and a gym.

"Successful people want to be with other successful people," Mr. Kittredge said. "Birds of a feather," he added. "On Nantucket you don't feel bad because you want a nice bottle of wine. If you order a $300 bottle in a restaurant, the guy at the next table is ordering a $400 bottle."

Dressed in blue jeans and a pink button-down shirt, he looked across the breadth of his swimming pool at a spectacular water view. The island, he said, is rapidly dividing into two types of people: "the haves and the have-mores."

New-Fashioned Values

Nantucket, with its vistas overlooking cranberry bogs and more than 80 miles of beaches, has always had its share of rich people. In the first half of the 19th century, owners of whaling ships amassed fortunes from oil and built the still well-preserved Federalist and Greek Revival mansions on upper Main Street.