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Part III: The Russian Billionaire and the Luxury Resort

Circa-1925 postcard showing the exterior of the Aknusti Estate, owned by the illustrious Gerry family, outside of Andes, New York. Courtesy of Peter Hayes Millen.
Circa-1925 postcard showing the exterior of the Aknusti Estate, owned by the illustrious Gerry family, outside of Andes, New York. Courtesy of Peter Hayes Millen.

Welcome to Curbed's original series Homeward Bound, in which long-affirmed city dweller and design journalist Karrie Jacobs documents her process as a first-time home builder. Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and the author of The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). This eight-part series is a continuation of Jacobs's pursuit to solve the puzzle of modest, modern, and regional domestic architecture, using a recently-acquired parcel in upstate New York as a first-person case study.

The old Hogan's, in Andes, New York. Photo by Julia Resichel for The Watershed Post.

A few weeks after my husband Ed and I closed on the purchase of our 58 (make that 48) acres in Andes, New York, a strange thing happened. We got a call from our real estate agent saying that someone wanted to buy the property from us for about one-third more than what we'd paid. Without giving it much thought, we said no.

In general, Andes is a pretty typical Catskills town, situated in a once thriving dairy belt, surrounded by rolling pastures and mountains. It has the familiar mixture of locals who are just getting by and more affluent weekenders up from the city. The downtown features the sort of galleries and antique stores that typically spring up when stores that sell things you actually need fade away. There is a café, for instance, that specializes in tea and another that makes (delicious) tarts. The Andes Hotel (currently on the market for a little under a million) is the town's heart, with a decent restaurant and bar and bands on weekends. But the general store-slash-gas station right smack in the middle of town, the place where you used to be able to buy regular stuff (newspapers, ketchup, pizza, and coffee) stands empty.

Again, this is not so unusual. The Catskills are dotted with the husks of former grocery stores and rotting gas pumps. And, in this case, the last two shopkeepers bailed out. But the fact that Hogan's isn't open anymore is mired in local myth—and, perhaps, in reality—to the saga of a globetrotting luxury hotelier named Adrian Zecha and the Russian oligarch who used to date Naomi Campbell. As is our little anecdote about the surprising offer on the land.

The first time we looked at our future property, the real estate agent informed us that local speculation was rampant because of a high-end resort that was going to open, someday, outside of town. The money behind this resort had been snapping up properties on Main Street, supposedly in an effort to preserve the town's charm and keep it tasteful for the moneyed crowd to come. Pretty much everyone we met in Andes told us a version of this story.

The Andes Hotel. Photo by Julia Resichel for The Watershed Post.

It involves a couple named Andrew Wos and Cheryl Terrace. Cheryl and Andy seem to have a hand in everything that happens in Andes, much of it good. Last year, for instance, they organized a farmer's market in the middle of town in a building that is owned, according to the Delaware County tax map, by an entity called the Keauhou Properties Co. Ltd., which owns several other properties along Main St. Another LLC called the Andes Property Co. owns several of the neighboring properties, including the vacant general store. While the provenance of Keauhou is unclear, Andes Property is registered to Andy, who is also the president of something called the Broadlands Management Corp.

Archival images courtesy of Peter Hayes Millen via Flickr.

Broadlands is also the name of a magnificent 2,000-acre spread located a few miles outside downtown Andes, originally the estate of the Gerry family, who've been in the region since colonial times. It was apparently (everything in this story involves wiggle room) purchased in 2006 by an entity called ADG Broadlands LLC. That entity is reputed to be backed by Adrian Zecha, the 82-year-old hotel magnate from Singapore who founded the ultra luxurious Aman Resorts chain in 1988. The first Aman is in Phuket, Thailand, and the chain includes about two dozen fabulous hotels in exotic spots like Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Currently there are two Amans in the US, one in Utah and the other Wyoming, both in spectacular settings. The room rates run to about $1,500 a day, and Aman's clientele include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and, formerly, Princess Diana.

The Aman brand didn't strike me as a likely match for the Catskills. And, in truth, I didn't believe any of it until I visited Broadlands (once known as Aknusti) a few weeks ago. Cheryl showed me around. There's a 20,000 square foot mansion, designed by Walker & Gillette in 1912, standing empty, plus enormous old stables clad in a rich, iridescent glazed brick that no one makes anymore. Mostly, I was amazed by the land: 2,000 pristine acres that were originally landscaped by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted. "Twice the size of [Olmsted's] Central Park," said Cheryl. Okay, I thought, maybe this could be a magnet for the kind of people who fly private.

Iridescent glazed brick on the facade of stables found on the property of the old Aknusti estate outside of Andes. Photo by Karrie Jacobs.

In many respects, Cheryl and Andy seem like the average urban expats who find their way to the Catskills. Cheryl practices what she calls "conscious interior design," meaning she takes on projects with an eco bent. She brews her own kombucha. She's preserving the habitat of the bobolink by haying less.

Andy has been around Andes for decades and supposedly first found the Broadlands estate while searching for a good spot to hold a road rally. He, according to the story, brought Zecha to the area and convinced him to invest in the estate. ( Cheryl confirmed that the offer on our land came from a "friend" of hers; Andy declined my request for an interview and was not at Broadlands when I visited.)

While I now see that Broadlands could make an excellent resort, I still think there are problems with the scenario. One is that Aman itself has been rocked by upheaval in recent years. According to a Fortune magazine article that is much discussed in Andes, Zecha has come and gone from his company a couple of times. He left as chairman in the 1990s when a real estate investment firm took over the majority of shares. Zecha returned to run it in 2007 at the behest of an Indian company called DLF that had bought it.

After the economic downturn, Zecha wanted to reclaim his stake and partnered with an American tech entrepreneur, Omar Amanat, and a Russian billionaire, Vladislav Doronin (also known as Naomi Campbell's old flame). This team succeeded in purchasing Aman in February of last year for $358 million, but the partnership quickly went south: Doronin supposedly ousted Zecha as CEO and took over himself. Allegedly Doronin even threatened to kill Amanat. By summer, they were all in court. In July 2014, a London judge reinstated Zecha as CEO. Given all this turbulence, it seems unlikely that Zecha would be in a position to begin operations in a spot so distant from customary sybaritic pleasure spots. (Aman's newest property opened in Tokyo late last year; Doronin prefers cities.)

It's also (unsurprisingly) very difficult to connect Zecha or Aman to any of the LLCs that own property in and around Andes. One, Keauhou Properties Company Ltd, was formerly registered to a New York City address on West 79th Street that appears to belong to a Fumiyo Okuda. Okuda was quoted in a 1992 New York Times article about a Regent Hotel that was nearing completion on 57th Street. At the time, she was a manager of a subsidiary of the hotelier, and Regent was a luxury chain that Zecha helped found. He'd sold his stake in 1986. Without spending a day in the county courthouse scouring the relevant paperwork, that was the only (admittedly tenuous) connection I could find between Zecha and Andes.

The other links dead-end at vague corporations registered in Delaware or, in one instance, lead to a California corporation, registered in 2006, called ADG Broadlands LLC that lists an attorney named Gary S. Hand as its contact. Hand, in a further search, turns up on IMDB as executive producer of a half dozen unwholesome sounding movies. What, I wonder, is Adrian Zecha's connection to the executive producer of Queerspiracy! and Dirty Sex?

Meanwhile in Andes, excitement has faded over the new jobs and growing tax base that the resort rumors inspired nearly a decade ago. And tempers are rising over the seeming abandonment of Hogan's Store. One of the holding companies that may or may not be linked to Zecha has been sitting on the vacant property. Last October, the Andes Town Board sent a letter the LLC in question (and to Andy Wos) stating that the absence of a general store has caused the town to suffer "economically and spiritually." The letter suggests that the company is not actually making an effort to rent the store out. According to a recent article in the Watershed Post, a good local news source, Wos never responded to last year's letter because he found it "insulting."

Last month, locals held a heated meeting at the Andes Hotel to discuss, according to the same article, the "warehousing of buildings by resort-linked investors," most notably the general store. Wos wasn't invited but Julia Reischel, editor of The Watershed Post, located him across the street at the empty store. And here is the weirdest thing of all: Wos explained he was showing the store to none other than Adrian Zecha, who had, Wos claimed, just slipped out the back door before the reporter came in the front. In other words, we only have Wos's word that Zecha—a man who once built a hotel in China that has its own private entrance to Beijing's ethereal Summer Palace—was spending a June afternoon poking around the ruins of a failed general store.

As Reischel's article explained, "Zecha was hosting a family reunion in the Catskills that week, staying at the Beaverkill Valley Inn in Lew Beach and hosting a pig roast at Broadlands." Again, via Wos. Again, strange. The CEO of a $1,500-a-night ultra luxury chain was hosting his family at a $395-a-night (including all meals) fishing resort? But when I called the inn, they confirmed that the Zecha clan had been there.

Looking out of town from the hamlet of Andes, New York. Photo by Julia Resichel for The Watershed Post.

The whole story is endlessly odd. While the appeal of the Broadlands property is clear, the exact purpose of the downtown real estate frenzy isn't. Maybe downtown Andes is destined to be a little theme hamlet, a cute day trip for the one-percent. Logic, however, suggests that this is something more ordinary, an effort to amass properties and sell them for top dollar after the resort opens, whenever that may be. But it also seems plausible—from a New Yorker's perspective, anyway—that the properties, all clustered on the north side of Main Street and around the corner on Delaware Avenue, are being assembled for some larger project. Certainly it's what Donald Trump would do under the circumstances.

For the moment, this is just another Andes mystery. The good news is that Argyle Farms, locally known for raising sheep and goats, is supposedly entering an agreement to operate the general store. Someday soon there may again be gas and newspapers—not to mention lamb chops.

Read more from Karrie Jacobs on her website, and follow her @KarrieUrbanist on Twitter. And stay tuned for the next installment of Homeward Bound on Tuesday, July 28.

· All Homeward Bound entries [Curbed]
· The global battle for the ultimate luxury hotel chain [Fortune]
· Suspicions swirl around resort plans for Andes [The Watershed Post]