Wall Street Journal
October 22, 2011
Jacqueline Siegel paces the floor of her unfinished 7,200-square-foot ballroom. The former beauty queen, with platinum-blond hair, blue eye shadow and a white minidress, clacks along the plywood construction boards in her high heels trailed by a small entourage of helpers and staff.
"This is the grand hall," she says, opening her arms to a space the size of a concert hall and surrounded by balconies. "It will fit 500 people comfortably, probably more. The problem with our place now is that when we have parties with, like, 400 people, it gets too crowded."
The Siegels' dream home, called "Versailles," after its French inspiration, is still a work in progress. Its steel-and-wood frame rises from the tropical suburbs of Orlando, Fla., like a skeleton from the Jurassic age of real estate. Ms. Siegel shows off the future bowling alley, indoor relaxing pools, five kitchens, 23 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms, two elevators, two movie theaters (one for kids and one for adults, each modeled after a French opera theater), 20-car garage and wine cellar built for 20,000 bottles.
At 90,000 square feet, the Siegels' Versailles is believed to be the largest private home in America. (The Vanderbilt family's Biltmore house in North Carolina is bigger at 135,000 square feet, but it's now a hotel and tourist attraction). The Siegels' home is so big that they bought 10 Segways to get around—one for each of their eight children.
After touring the house, Ms. Siegel walks out to the deck, with its Olympic-size pool, future rock grotto, three hot tubs and 80-foot waterfall overlooking Lake Butler. Her eyes well up with tears.
Versailles was supposed to be done by now. The Siegels were supposed to be living their dream life—throwing charity balls and getting spa treatments downstairs after a long flight on their Gulfstream. The home was the culmination of David Siegel's Horatio Alger story, from TV repairman to chief executive and owner of America's largest time-share company, Westgate Resorts, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue and $200 million in profits.
Yet today, Versailles sits half-finished and up for sale. The privately owned Westgate Resorts was battered by the 2008 credit crunch and real-estate crash. It had about $1 billion in debt—much of it co-signed by the Siegels.
The banks that had loans on Versailles gave the Siegels an ultimatum: Either pay off the loans or sell the house. So it's now on the market for $75 million, or $100 million if the buyer wants it finished.
As she stands on her deck in the Florida sun, Ms. Siegel wipes away her tears. "Maybe it will still work out," she says. "It always does, right?"
The Siegels' Versailles may be the nation's most extravagant monument to the debt-fueled, status-crazed real-estate binge of the past decade. Like many Americans, the Siegels borrowed too much, spent too much and bet that values could only go higher. Even in the age of excess, Versailles was excessive.