A wrought-iron gate lurches open to reveal a cobblestone driveway leading past a porcelain fountain to the front door of this massive monument to French and Italian architecture.
"Welcome to the Houston Mansion"
Melanie Johnson owns the house that backs up against Buffalo Bayou and Piney Point Creek.
"Yes, that's the name. We call it the Houston Mansion. And I think it's appropriate."
Appropriate, because with three levels and nearly 24,000 square feet, what else would you call it? It has eight bedrooms, including two servants’ quarters, fourteen full-and-half-bathrooms, and a four-car garage that can accommodate a lot more than someone's Bentley.
"(The) garage doors roll up into soffits. You can make it a disco; you can make it a banquet room. And there's an outdoor kitchen there, as well. So you can have this huge, entertaining outdoor area without being into the main house. And you can entertain probably 200 people just with those areas."
In the main house, nearly every room has a theme — from the bar, reminiscent of the Beverly Hills Polo Club, to a powder room inspired by the Palace of Muret. And the dining room is modeled after Versailles, with a custom-made table that seats nearly two dozen.
"This room is probably the most elaborate of the house. And, then, we kinda get to the family area, which is really more cozy and simple ..."
Cozy and simple being relative terms, of course. That French-country family room opens to one of the house's four kitchens. And that main kitchen is the very definition of hardcore house porn.
"We have two dishwashers. We have eight burners, two ovens, a warming drawer, two microwaves, two Sub-Zeroes, two freezers — an icemaker. It just kinda goes and goes ... "
Johnson's history at 11682 Arrowwood Circle is long, and occasionally bumpy. She and her ex-husband, Douglas, bought the property in 1997. They quadrupled the size of the original house in fits and starts over five years. At the time, the Johnsons were local television executives. They sold KNWS Channel 51 a couple of years ago. Her ex declared bankruptcy.
Melanie scrambled to hold onto the house. She used what she learned renting out a vacation house she owned in Michigan to turn her Piney Point estate into a luxury rental.
"So I looked online to see if there was anything like this in Houston, and there was nothing. So, no competition — and I knew how to do it, because I had done it with the other house. So I thought I'd give it a go, and it's done fairly well."
Fairly well, indeed. "The Houston Mansion", as Melanie calls it, rented for $20,000 last weekend to an unnamed celebrity and his-or-her entourage, who were part of the entertainment at the NBA All-Star Game.
But even though the house is a lucrative rental, Johnson says she's eager to move on. She's been trying to sell the place for nearly six years.
"And we started at $19.9 million. Of course, the market was dramatically different when we started. Kept lowering the price, lowering the price. And I think about maybe what we would've had offered back then that we didn't take that we would love to have now."
Last year, Harris County appraised Johnson's house for $7 million. The opening bid for tomorrow's telephone auction is $5.9 million.
"Oh, dream price would be $12 (million dollars). If I could get $12 for it, that would be awesome — somewhere in there. But, we'll just see. I have $16 million in the house.
Pitman: "How does it feel to take that kind of haircut?"
Johnson: "You know what? It's only money. I came in this world with nothing, I'm going to leave with nothing — so it's just money."
The winning bidder gets not only the house, but most of what's inside — minus the artwork and some furniture that holds sentimental value. Among the more noteworthy items, a desk in the study that belonged to former Enron chief Kenneth Lay.