Fred Mengoni, who died last year, was an international developer with extensive real estate holdings. Many of his associates did not even know he was a central figure in the cycling boom that turned America into an international powerhouse on the competitive racing circuit.
His love for cycling extended across decades, and was instrumental in kick-starting the careers of several top-level pros — most notably Greg LeMond — as well as providing early funding for what eventually became USA Cycling. He was admitted to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1994.
Mengoni left his mark on East Hampton as well. He renovated and refurbished the Georgian mansion on the corner of Woods Lane and Main Street that had become known as the gateway to East Hampton, dubbed simply “The White House.”
This reporter, one of only a lucky handful given full access to the house and extensive time with Mengoni, the visit culminated with a wide-ranging interview published in The New York Times on July 7, 1997.
The house wasn’t always revered as a suitable guardian for the village gate. When Mengoni purchased it in 1989, he realized he was taking on a mammoth restoration task, and ran into roadblocks from the village government and neighbors, one in particular. “They didn’t want me to paint it white,” he recalled.
The project provided rare insight into how he operated: he went all in. “I brought my own craftsmen out from New York. They would work all night.” He was hands on, working right alongside them.
Literally every inch of the interior was addressed, from basement to attic. There are marble floor and gold doorknobs everywhere.
Despite his love for the place, though, Mengoni seldom slept there: He had 22 residences all over the world. When he died last year, the landmark went back on the market, and is now available at a comfortable $9.5 million, in the hands of Douglas Brown and Paul Brennan of Douglas Elliman.
It is quite the buy. It sits on nearly three acres; the 7600-square-foot home has four levels, seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, two half-bathrooms, a marble-covered main floor, a rosewood-paneled library, a dining room with a fireplace, an indoor Jacuzzi, and a wine cellar. The expansive grounds, including almost two acres hidden from the roadways, also hold a pool, pool house, three-car garage, and a barn.
The house dates back to the early 18th Century. In 1907, the house was moved back from the road, expanded and remodeled in the Colonial Revival tradition. An entrance portico was added, as well as a porch, and dormers on the third floor. Several outbuildings were also put up.
The house was left to Texas A & M in 1981 and fell into some decay before Mengoni bought it in 1989. “I gutted it,” he said. “It was a piece of junk.” He rebuilt it from the ground up, an effort that took almost four years.
Today the house bears his signatures — red geraniums in flower boxes at every window, and along the ample grounds in the summer, and white Christmas lights that frame the house and the windows and decorate the numerous specimen trees in the winter.
Along the way, Mengoni spent millions and battled review boards.
“It was stupid,” he said of the reviews. “They wanted me to paint the barn red and the shutters green. I wanted to put a sun room on the barn, and they wouldn’t let me put it in the sun. They told me to put it in the shade.”
Neighbors complained as well. “They didn’t want all the landscaping,” Mengoni said back then. “Maybe they were jealous. But 99 percent of the people I talk to love it.”
Mengoni, by his account, made four fortunes and went broke three times. Mengoni was born on July 21, 1923. He came to America from his native Italy in 1957 after having lost major sums on horse racing. “I only had a one-way ticket,’” he recalled. “So I couldn’t go back.”
His motive in seeing America was Marilyn Monroe, whom he had seen in a movie. “I like blondes,” said Mengoni.
About 40 years ago, he took a train ride to the Hamptons on the advice of a friend. “I fell in love,” he said. “This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I told myself I would come back here and buy a beautiful house.”
After he bought the White House, steel beams were brought in to stabilize the foundation. The basement, which was unfinished, now houses a great room with a rosewood bar, a marble fireplace, marble floors, a Jacuzzi, and a sauna.
“This kind of work you can’t give to a contractor,” Mengoni had said. “You need an artist.’”
He sent the original windows to Italy to be restored. The bathroom fixtures are gold plated, as are most of the doorknobs and closet handles. Most of the furniture came from his collection. He was partial to Louis XVI pieces, Italian antiques, and wood tables from China, rich with inlay and design. Rosewood and mahogany were his woods of choice.
The circular cobblestone driveway is heated from below ground to melt ice. Gold-rimmed crystal and china fill the vitrine in the formal dining room, and a sound system pipes music through all four floors.
He donated significantly to the United States Professional Circuit and sponsored two teams, one in the United States and the other in Italy. LeMond was his protégé.
“I don’t care about the money,” he said at the time. “It means nothing to me. It’s the challenge. I have so much now. I am lucky. But even when I was broke, I don’t give up. I keep coming back.”
Mengoni had said that he was busy with his 300 apartments in Manhattan and properties in Nevada, California, and in Italy and that he added to his holdings in the Hamptons. Mengoni was married once, for a year. “I risk everything, all of the time,” he had said. “When you have a family, you are compromised. This way no one can tell me what to do.” Though retirement never came to mind, Mengoni said, the White House had a special place in his heart. “Someday,” he had said, “I would like to live here all the time. Someday.’”
As it is, he had only slept in East Hampton a handful of nights, which isn’t bad considering his Swiss chalet: “I haven’t been there in 15 years,” he said.
Another great American icon is rumored to be eying the East Hampton Village place: Charlie Sheen.