Sale of the Century

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Sale of the Hilbert Mansion

by John Cinnamon

Realtor Greg Cooper stands outside the gates of the Hilbert (Lucas) estate he helped sell.

Oprah Winfrey. Howard Rockefeller Hughes, III. An unnamed NASCAR driver who already calls Indiana home. These are just some of the people who may, or may not, have had a serious interest in buying what many consider the most opulent residential estate in Indiana. The sale of the Hilbert Mansion, as it was known colloquially, spanned more than five years and saw a reduction from its original asking price of a staggering $20 million to the ultimate bargain basement (make that, finished basement) price of $3 million. These numbers are part of the public record. But what went on behind the scenes is an eye-opening look at the world of high-end real estate, high-stakes legal wrangling, and high-profile home buyers.

Nobody had a better vantage point for the whole sordid tale than Greg Cooper. A broker with the Dick Richwine Group at Prudential Indiana, Cooper was the lead broker for the sale of the 25,000-square-foot mansion at 1143 West 116th Street in Carmel that the original occupants ostentatiously called Le Chateau Renaissance. His agency was hired by Conseco to sell the property in an effort to recoup part of the $62 million judgment that Conseco won against its former CEO, Stephen Hilbert. But selling a $20 million estate that is the subject of a lawsuit is quite different from selling the average 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch.

“We thought it would have some level of global appeal,” says Cooper. “We have some industries here, the racing industry for example, that are very strong. The sports marketing industry. When we listed the home in 2005, we had several NCAA Final Fours scheduled and there was also talk of a Super Bowl. We thought there would be a bigger market outside Central Indiana and as it turned out, there really wasn’t.” The other thing that made selling the home even harder was the terms laid down by Conseco’s special projects manager, the person hired by Conseco specifically to sell the estate. Cooper explained that the special projects manager required that any potential buyer put down a $1 million non-refundable deposit with no contingencies. You could not get out of the deal for an inspection. You could not get out of the deal if you couldn’t get financing. That obviously limited the number of serious buyers.

High-profile celebrities would certainly be able to afford the $20 million price tag and $1 million deposit. And Cooper speculates that a number of celebrities were interested in the house. Unfortunately, all he can do is speculate. No actual celebrities toured the property. That’s what their “people” are for. Cooper related the story of a group who came from Chicago. “They had something to do with broadcasting, and they asked a lot of questions that were broadcast specific: ‘We’d like to do this here, we’d like to do that here. How far to the airport?’ Frankly, I always thought they were Oprah Winfrey’s people,” Cooper surmises. “But no one ever told me that.”

“There were representatives from a number of high-profile NASCAR drivers, a couple of whom live in the state,” he continues. “You can probably imagine who they are.”

The one time a prospective buyer did give a high-profile name, it was a false alarm. But alarming, nonetheless. “We had a guy who started leaving us these long, rambling voicemail messages at night,” says Cooper, “and he identified himself as Howard Rockefeller Hughes, III. He didn’t really sound drunk, but he didn’t sound quite right.” Cooper says the messages continued for some time until one Friday afternoon when he got a call from the front desk saying that Howard Rockefeller Hughes was there to see him.

The main house of the Hilbert estate.

“I can’t imagine who this guy is,” says Cooper. “So I go dashing to the front and as I get there, he’s decided to leave. He has a long, black trench coat on, black high-top tennis shoes, black pants, and dark glasses. He looked like Jim Morrison.” The man then walked out to 82nd Street in front of the Prudential Indiana office building and headed east on foot. They didn’t hear from “Hughes” for six months until he started calling again and reappeared at Cooper’s office. This time the police were called. “It turns out he was someone who was being cared for in a mental institution,” Cooper explains, “and had stopped taking his medication and left his mother’s house where he was supposed to be. When you see somebody like that in your office when you’re getting these incoherent ramblings, you don’t know if the guy is there to shoot the place up or not.”

There was one potential buyer who actually did put down the $1 million deposit. Cooper thought the deal would close. “When you have a million dollar non-refundable deposit, you’re thinking ‘this is gonna go’.” However, 29-and-a-half days into the 30-day contract, the woman who made the deposit called and asked for an extension. Conseco’s special projects manager said no. That sale didn’t close, the buyer lost her $1 million, and she was never heard from again. However, about a year-and-a-half later, Cooper got a call from an FBI agent in Florida asking questions about the woman. “She had apparently made some representations about the property,” says Cooper, and according to the FBI, “other people had lost their money on it.”

The typical reasons for not buying a house – the kitchen’s too small, there’s not enough closet space, there’s no sports barn with a full-size replica I.U. basketball floor – were not an issue with the Hilbert Mansion. So what reasons did Cooper hear from those looking at the house for not buying? “It’s too much to take care of,” says Cooper, “even for people with that kind of money.” Property taxes alone would be $250,000 a year. He explains that the property is unusual even for homes in that price range ($15 million +) across the country. Besides the enormous main house, the huge complex also includes five other buildings: a catering kitchen, pool house, sports building, guest house, and power generator building.

The opulent two-story library in the Hilbert Mansion.

Ultimately, it was Lucas Oil Products founders Forrest and Charlotte Lucas who got the deal of the century. After first touring the home in December, 2008, when the asking price had dropped to $10 million, the Lucases came back two years later and closed on the property in October of 2010, paying a shockingly low $3 million. Ironically, the stadium in downtown Indianapolis that bears Forrest Lucas’s name covers a mere 25 acres, compared to the 33 acres that encompass his new Carmel home.

For Greg Cooper and the Richwine Group, the entire process from listing to close lasted five years and four months. Was it worth it? “I don’t know,” says Cooper. “I’ve thought about that a long, long time. Thousands and thousands of hours. Over $100,000 in marketing out of our pockets. If the house had sold for $16 million, that’s a reasonable investment. But when you sell at $3 million, clearly on that particular sale it was not a moneymaker.” Cooper says it wasn’t all for naught, however. They did make several contacts that led to other home sales that made the experience worthwhile.

According to Cooper, two years removed from the sale, the online virtual tour of the Hilbert (now Lucas) Mansion still gets as many as 5,000 views a week. “The interest in the house never seems to end.”

“Her” master closet.

The ornate grounds of the Hilbert Estate.

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