haunted houses

Storied and Sordid: The History of Jeffrey Epstein’s Just-Sold Mansion

Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Following his recent flight to the darkest pits of hell, Jeffrey Epstein has posthumously sold his Upper East Side townhouse for roughly $50 million to an undisclosed buyer. The house, which was furnished with the type of gaudy eyesores that only people who can afford to have terrible taste can acquire, was originally listed for $88 million. Despite the significant haircut it’s taking on the sale, the fact that the estate was able to sell it at all is no small wonder. The pandemic has made the last year challenging for the Manhattan housing market, particularly on the luxury end, and this specific luxury house served as a pedophilia dungeon for the past 20 years. How did this particularly problematic and very expensive house change hands in the middle of a market downturn? Here’s everything you need to know (and some things you probably don’t want to know) about what until recently was Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion.

What’s the history of this house?

Breaking ground at the beginning of the Great Depression, the house got off to what is in hindsight an ominous start. It was built by architect Horace Trumbauer for Herbert N. Straus, the son of Macy’s owners (and Titanic victims, whose death is depicted in the movie) Isidor and Ida Straus. The younger Straus died in 1933 and never lived in it himself; his heirs donated it to the Catholic Church in 1944, when work had still not been completed on it, and it became a hospital. The Birch Wathen School, a private academy that serves kindergarteners through 12th graders, bought the house in 1962, then sold it to Epstein’s mentor Leslie Wexner in 1989 for $13.2 million, which was at the time the highest-ever sale price for a  Manhattan townhouse. Despite dumping millions into subsequent renovations, Wexner never really lived in it either, and he and the house were featured in a 1996 New York Times story about rich people who buy homes they never use. Epstein acquired the house in 1998 under somewhat opaque, vaguely suspicious circumstances — it was placed in a trust he controlled jointly with Wexner, and the title was transferred for a price of $0 —  and moved in. Strangely, over the course of nearly 90 years, Epstein is the only person who’s ever actually lived there.

How nice is it?

Epstein’s décor aside, it’s an incredibly beautiful house: As the design blogger Heather Clawson at Habitually Chic noted recently, Wexner’s renovations made the cover of Architectural Digest in 1995. It’s also huge, at 21,000 square feet and 30 rooms—it’s often said to be the largest private home in Manhattan, and even if that’s an exaggeration, it’s certainly one of the biggest. The front door is 15 feet tall and made of solid oak. The sidewalk outside is heated so snow doesn’t collect.

But those are features inherent to the house. Now let’s talk about what he put in it. There’s (or was, when Epstein was alive) a taxidermied tiger and poodle, an awful painting of a woman cupping her bare breast, a mural of Epstein himself in a prison yard surrounded by officers (because “there is always the possibility that could be me again”) a painting of Bill Clinton wearing a blue dress and red heels, a mannequin of a woman in a wedding gown hanging from one of the ceilings, and a chessboard at the base of the stairwell in which the custom-made chess pieces are scantily clad women modeled after his staffers. Presumably, none of this freakish array of stuff is being sold with the house.

Why did it sell at a huge discount?

There are only so many people who can buy a $50 million house, and when this property went on the market last summer, a lot of them were trying to sell their own Manhattan homes. In the past month, however, Manhattan’s market has rebounded. So how much of the sale price was a result of market conditions and how much was related to Epstein’s abhorrent behavior in the house is a little hard to parse. But consider this: Given all the options in the world, would you want to take a bath in the tub where Epstein reportedly played with fake breasts while lathering up? It’s also worth noting that the city’s Department of Finance put a market value on the house of $56 million (as opposed to the prosecutors’ estimate of $77 million), so it’s possible that the asking price was simply overambitious.

What went down in this house?

While much of the attention on Epstein’s sex trafficking focuses on his private island in the Virgin Islands, much of the same activity was alleged to have occurred at the Herbert N. Straus House as well, and federal prosecutors focused on activities there when they charged Epstein with sex crimes in July 2019. They focus on a period between 2002 and 2005, during which he had assistants lure in girls as young as 14 before engaging them in sex acts during his nude massages. They were paid and then asked to recruit more underage girls, creating a vast network of victims. When authorities raided the house following Epstein’s arrest, they found “possibly thousands” of photos of underage girls in a safe, in addition to evidence “consistent with the victim recollections of the inside of the mansion.”

Who the heck is actually buying this place?

We don’t know. Paperwork hasn’t been filed yet, and buyers at this level often operate through shell companies, although a new law says they have to disclose their names when they do. The New York Post reported that the buyer works in finance and is not from the United States, and it goes without saying that this person has a high tolerance for creepiness. Other potential buyers, the Post noted, hung up on their broker for even suggesting the Epstein house. Presumably the buyer will want to renovate, and perhaps in a way that strips off its recent history.

Where will this money go?

As of February, Epstein’s estate has contributed $55 million to an independent fund that goes to his victims, and more than 150 women have applied for payouts. But the administrator of the fund announced last month that the program was suspending payments because it was having trouble selling off Epstein’s illiquid assets, including his real estate. A group of victims and the government of the Virgin Islands countered by demanding a freeze on the estate’s assets, hinting that they think something irregular is going on. If the estate is indeed out of cash, the sale of the house will certainly bring some in—although it will likely be a few weeks at least for a big deal like this to go from contract to closing.

The Unique Story of Jeffrey Epstein’s Just-Sold Mansion