Issue date: July 14, 1999

Welcome to Larryland: Mr. Ellison builds a dream house in Woodside Welcome to Larryland: Mr. Ellison builds a dream house in Woodside (July 14, 1999)


The construction site off Mountain Home Road in Woodside is a 4-year-old boy's dream: 23 acres bustling with close to a hundred hard-hatted workers and enough heavy equipment -- start with augers, backhoes, cranes, dump trucks, excavators and front-end loaders -- to fill an alphabet book.

In two more years, when the project is scheduled for completion, it should reflect quite a different dream -- Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's vision of an oasis of calm, peace, harmony and order.

The swarm of workers and equipment are busy reproducing a 16th-century Japanese country estate designed around a small lake, authentic down to the handmade cedar shingles and mud-plastered walls.

The stark difference between the project today and the plans for its finished version is only one of a series of contrasts inherent in this undertaking.

The individual buildings are relatively small-scale -- an almost 8,000-square-foot main house, with a boat dock dividing the public side for entertaining from the private living quarters; two guest cottages; and a handful of auxiliary structures. But the entire project is so immense -- 30,000 cubic yards of dirt will be excavated for the 2.3-acre lake; 5,000 tons (10 million pounds) of rocks have been brought in for landscaping -- that David Strausberg, superintendent for the main contractor on the site, says on some days it's hard to even notice what all those workers and all that equipment have accomplished.

Although the buildings will be constructed without nails and have mud plastered walls, they are also designed to stand up to a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake.

The plans show man-made structures subordinate to natural features, yet the final product will have no relationship to the meadows and oak forest that previously covered much of the site. The waterfall will have an on-off switch -- a fog machine will provide soft focus on demand.

Hundreds of trees have been planted and others moved on the site. Gil Gibson, in charge of the landscaping, says they moved one oak that weighed 145,000 pounds. It appears to be doing quite nicely.

Antique Japanese screens, doors, stone lanterns and other items are being collected for reuse in the new structures. But the home originally on the property when it was purchased by Mr. Ellison, designed by famed Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan in 1913, has been dismantled and the historic elements stored away with no clear future.

Five boxes of Native American artifacts, mortars and pestles, hammer rocks and monos (scrapers) were uncovered during the excavations. Irene Zwierlein, a member of the Woodside History Committee, says the artifacts are the property of her Amah/Mustsun tribe and will be displayed in a public spot in Woodside as soon as they are turned over by Mr. Ellison and a display case is found.

The new structures will be constructed with traditional 16th-century building techniques, but hidden away where no one can see them will be the most modern of support systems. Close to the entrance to the property will be a utility building that will have a shop, electrical service, emergency generators and water-filtering equipment. But the building will be entirely underground and landscaped over "so it will basically disappear," says Ken Morrison of the Rockridge Group in San Francisco, project manager for Mr. Ellison.

There are more than 7 miles of underground utilities on the property. The garages, which hold a modest half-dozen cars, will also be underground, as will tunnels to allow the household staff to go unobtrusively about their duties. Golf carts will traverse unpaved paths to bring fresh linens and victuals to the guest houses.

A boat will bring large parties of guests across the lake from a parking area. Nothing on the property will be asphalt -- road surfaces will either be of gravel or paved in stone.

This paean to simplicity, nature and harmony is also an ode to the dollar. Just how subtle can one be with $60 million -- the amount Mr. Morrison says the project is now expected to cost?

The original cost estimate was $40 million, but the new figure should be enough, Mr. Morrison says, "to do everything the way it's supposed to be done."

That includes facing concrete bridge pillars with imported Chinese granite well below the water line, where, it can be presumed, they'll never be seen.

A chunk of change has gone to the town of Woodside. Permits Technician Dan Coughlin says the Ellison project has paid at least $257,000 in fees to the town, including $101,000 for building permits and $55,000 in road impact fees.

In contrast, Mr. Coughlin says, building an average 3,000-square-foot home in Woodside might ring up $8,000 in permit fees and $4,500 in road impact fees.

It's not only the cost of Mr. Ellison's project that has ballooned. The planned completion date at the time Woodside issued permits three years ago was this month.

But, Mr. Morrison says, figuring out how to "re-create things that haven't been done in so many years" hasn't been easy.

Designing the retreat, which was done in large part by Paul Discoe, an ordained Zen priest, may have been the easiest part of all. Actually figuring out how to build it has taken numerous trips to Japan, long searches for people who have worked on similar projects, and countless hours of research.

"It's an intellectual challenge for everyone," Mr. Morrison says.

Take, for example, the stone bridge that will serve as a gateway to the property. Mr. Morrison said the bridge was designed on a computer, with the size and placement of each rock plotted out. A large-scale model helped determine how to attach the stones, where to place them, and even how wide the joints should be "so it looked handmade but not too rustic," he says.

Once the design was perfected, a full-size template was printed out and shipped to China, where skilled craftsmen cut each piece of granite to fit the templates, built the bridge, then disassembled it and shipped it back to Woodside, where it is now being reassembled.

The same Chinese granite -- 2,000 tons of it were imported -- will face a larger bridge, which is built from concrete so it can meet modern earthquake standards. (The San Andreas fault runs less than a half-mile to the west of the site.)

The granite will also surface the courtyard around the main house, pave a section of the road winding around the lake to the house, and face an exposed garage wall "so it will look like an ancient Japanese wall," Mr. Morrison said.

That granite is also proof that at least some expense was spared in the project. The granite is from China, and not Japan, where identical stone is found, because labor is less expensive in China, Mr. Morrison says.

Another construction detail is the boulder that will be part of the master bathroom shower. The 30-ton stone (yes, that's 60,000 pounds) was recently moved into place with a rented high-rise crane that was brought to the site expressly to move the "shower rock."

Water will cascade over it from above, and in the end, Mr. Morrison says, it should appear as if "the house was built around this stone."

The "pond" around which the complex is designed would probably qualify as the world's largest swimming pool -- 2.3 acres with concrete sides with steps leading out. The pond will be filled with purified water which Mr. Morrison says "you could probably drink."

Water from the large pond will be pumped into a smaller pond, where a combination of biological and mechanical filtering will clean the water before returning it.

Seven wells have been drilled on the property to fill the pond, and a massive storm drain system built to keep storm runoff from muddying the waters.

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