A paradise built for two

After 15 years of driving four hours roundtrip for a two-day weekend, real estate supremo Leonard Steinberg and his partner Thom Caughlin discover heaven in their own backyard.

“We are shameless promoters,” Leonard Steinberg, self-styled “chief evangelist” — actually president — of Compass Real Estate, says when I meet him and his partner, executive director at Fast Retailing, Thom Caughlin, in their newly built weekend home on the western tip of artist’s palette-shaped Whatmore’s Lake in Waccabuc. 

As newbies they have been welcomed in to the local community, and Steinberg’s enthusiasm for the area is contagious. What he and Caughlin are shamelessly promoting is what they themselves are now enjoying and what they want others to experience is the good life on Whatmore’s Lake. And no, they aren’t remotely worried that city folk will come in droves and compromise the tranquility and — let’s be frank — the exclusivity — of the area. “Well, I am in real estate after all,” Steinberg elaborates, with a glint in his eye.

His company is active in the area and he makes no secret of his desire to sell homes and see Waccabuc flourish. “We don’t just sell property,” he further explains, with emphasis on the word “sell.” “When you buy a property, it’s not just a shelter. It’s becoming part of a community.” And he goes on: “The best agents don’t disappear after the closing. You need to know you can always reach out to them.” 

Relaxed in Venetian gondolier’s T-shirt and cream-colored chinos when I met up with him on a recent sunny, Sunday morning at his home on the lake, Caughlin  feeling summery in shorts, the couple are clearly still reveling in their new home, which took only a modest nine months to build. “The New York lifestyle is incredibly stressful — having an escape is medication,” says Steinberg. “Now, consider what you can get here for…” — he throws out a modest figure — “and really, more people should think of moving here. Yes, the taxes are high, but if you use the schools, the cost of land and homes way offset the taxes.”

Waccabuc, the couple tells me, has a Cotswoldy quality. There are stone walls, horses. “This is a town where everyone has respect for the land,” says Steinberg, warming to his theme. “North Salem is over the hill. There’s a bagel store in Cross River and an old-fashioned pharmacy which stocks the Weekend (Financial Times), my guilty pleasure,” he confesses.

There are seven other houses around the 20-acre lake and all the owners belong to the Whatmore’s Lake Association. Steinberg and Caughlin are also on the Three Lakes Council (Lakes Waccabuc, Oscaleta and Rippowam) belong to the Westchester Landowners Council. They are also keen to get involved with land preservation. There is a palpable sense of community and Steinberg says the area is so laidback it is not uncommon for people to leave their houses unlocked. “This is the safest ZIP Code in America.”

What’s more? Whatmore’s Lake people, Steinberg adds, are into culture. And while the majority of Waccabuc and lakeside residents are from New York City, a sizable number live in the area fulltime.

The couple had a house in Saugerties on the Hudson River for 15 years, but driving four hours or more round trip for a two-day weekend began to take its toll. They discovered Waccabuc through a friend in Pound Ridge and decided it was where they wanted to be. Being so close to Manhattan — the drive takes just over an hour, and taking the train to Katonah is an attractive alternative to the car — was perhaps the ultimate draw. “The biggest mistake people make,” observes Steinberg, is not seeing what’s in one’s backyard.

“Imagine,” he continues, “having 20 acres you don’t own but are yours to enjoy and which you don’t have to look after. It’s bliss.” There is no motorized transport on the lake but you can have a rowboat. “Not that we row,” puts in Caughlin wryly, although they do not rule out a spot of lake-based exercise at some future point.

The two-story house is a celebration of white, cream and taupe, brimming with light. With its cool, contemporary furnishings and a melange of prints and pictures both old and new — a limited edition Shinola turntable does double duty as a beautiful artifact in its own right while referencing Detroit, where Caughlin grew up — it’s as strikingly modern as it is designed for cozy comfort. A rare combination indeed. Right now, only a garden is missing — “something with a natural look” — they both agree. Nature tamed. “But it doesn’t happen overnight,” says Steinberg wisely.

While Caughlin wanted to buy an old cottage, Steinberg preferred to build. He got his way. “Caughlin and I love creating homes,” he says, darting a look at Caughlin, who nods in agreement. Sitting here in their lakeview living room, with its peerless view of the water, the early fall cobalt sky a perfect backdrop, Caughlin doesn’t seem too bothered not to have got his own way. “We have the elevation here. The sunrises are ridiculous,” says Steinberg, and Caughlin can only nod in agreement.

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