Touch Greatness University

As an innocent ploy to get a tour of a spectacular 80 room mansion in Salisbury, Ct., called “The Chateau” (above), because its design was based on a Belgian estate, Seymour Chwast and I told the realtor we were starting, with Louise Fili and Paula Scher, a design academy called TGU (Touch Greatness University). This was over twenty years ago when the housing market in Northwest Connecticut was flat, so the selling price was a mere $800,000 and the realtor was happy to show it to any Tom, Dick or Seymour who had the slightest interest.

The Chateau was outrageously beautiful, with an entryway of imported black and white checkerboard marble and incredible woods and moldings everywhere. The bedroom level, with eight full-size suites, was equally impressive, like out of an MGM costume drama. And the top floor was filled with dozens of small cells for all the servants required to maintain the house and grounds.

Nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in the verdant Twin Lakes section of Salisbury, the Chateau was the ideal spot for an institution of higher design learning. But we were not serious, or were we? After an hour-long tour of the house and grounds, we told the realtor, we would think about it, adding that we thought “$800K, ahem, is a bit steep.”

A week passed. We had forgotten about our fib, when the realtor called Seymour to say the price had been reduced to $700K. Hmmmm, a tempting offer to be sure. So we reconvened to discuss the real possibility of actually starting TGU, as a design and illustration Summer school. Others with less experience in the education business had been launching workshops back then, why not us? So we crunched the numbers. We even went so far as to tell others about our fantasy. My friend James Victore had TGU baseball caps made with each of our names embroidered on the backs. With those in hand (and on head) we had to do it!!!

We developed curricula. My class was called “Genius Can Be Taught,” the premise being that one needn’t be born with the gene (right Einstein?). The others focused on their respective specialties. We would schedule classes in the morning and lectures at night. We created a guest faculty list – people we’d like to spend a week with. We built in enough time for swimming in the lake and other water sports, as well as hiking, camping and survival skills. Oh yes, there was a class on “Cooking for the Faculty.”

So, we crunched more numbers . . .

Funny, how crunched and recrunched numbers can turn dreams into nightmares. We had naively thought we would only need twenty hand-picked students. Based on the real number, 250 at $5K would be necessary to cover most expenses.

So, when the persistent realtor called after another week’s silence, Seymour told him “the swimming pool is too small.” Now, that was design thinking!

Indeed for such a large house, it was much too small.

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said the realtor, “maybe we could get the owner to knock a few thousand more off the price?”

“Nevermind,” I replied. “We don’t know how we could make this work with the pool, and we couldn’t dig a new one. It simply was not feasible. And we must have a pool.”

Resigned, the crestfallen realtor thanked us and wished us luck with our venture.

Relieved, we forgot the entire scheme until . . .  A week later, he called Seymour to say . . .

“I have a 200 acre farm to show you. It can easily be zoned for academic use,” he said. “And I know you’ll be pleased with the size of the pool . . .”

5 thoughts on “Touch Greatness University

  1. Ralph

    I can relate. My wife and I were looking for a new home in the early 70s when we saw an ad for the Kellogg’s summer home. On a whim we asked the Realtor to see it. We immediately fell in love with it. The homes 21 rooms had been converted into a disaster of apartments. The two story carriage house was bigger than many homes. The stables had been converted into a 9 car garage where the signs designated parking for the Winton and Packard.
    At the time we were living on a farm owned the Studebaker family. We told the wife of the founder’s grandson about touring the Kellogg’s home. She told about going to the home on several occasions for visits as a young bride. She could remember it and the experience in great detail although it had been almost 50 years before.
    Being in construction, I soon realized to restore the place correctly would cost 3 times the asking price. So we reluctantly passed on the home. Whenever we return to the area, we drive by and wistfully think of what could have been.

  2. john pace

    Thanks Steve, just started to read your wonderful words. Was greatly inspired to become more connected after the How Design conference. i live in Cape Town South africa, and traveled the 19hrs to get to Chicago. The things you do for design…a comment on your story?
    Bloody realtors, like blood hounds turning into bulldogs.
    John P

  3. massimo Vignelli

    Steve, I am becoming addicted to your blog, they are really good, witty and informative.
    I wish you did the Castle summer workshop, it would have been great and successfull also without the pool!
    Until tomorrow, hugs, Massimo