‘Try and save my poor Versailles!’

A meditation on Sen. Kelly Loeffler's soap opera McMansion

Women in the markets of Paris started rioting about the price of bread in October 1789. They linked up with some revolutionaries and decided to storm the royal palace at Versailles, where the elites had held a sumptuous feast just days earlier.

The crowd showed up in the middle of the night, soaked in rain. They forced the gate open and demanded an audience with King Louis XVI. He appeared and promised to give them bread, and then the crowd escorted him and Queen Marie Antoinette out of the palace in a parade that eventually grew to 60,000 people.

As they departed Versailles, the king placed his minister of war in charge of the palace.

Tâchez de me sauver mon pauvre Versailles!” he pleaded — “Try and save my poor Versailles!”

He did not save the palace, and the commoners had their way with it. Much of the furniture was auctioned for cash, the art went on public display, and the king’s living quarters were converted to hospital rooms for wounded soldiers. At one point there was a serious discussion about melting down the metal statues to make cannons. French monarchs never returned to the palace at Versailles.

I was thinking about Versailles for no reason in particular while reading about the 15,000-square-foot residence of the wealthiest U.S. senator, Kelly Loeffler, and her husband Jeff Sprecher in Atlanta’s posh Buckhead district.

As you may have heard, Loeffler is currently being forced to participate in a democracy in order to defend her patronage seat in the Senate. Democratic candidate Dr. Raphael Warnock is challenging her, and their race is headed for a runoff Jan. 5.

One darkly humorous attack line from the Loeffler campaign is that Warnock, a pastor who grew up in public housing, is out of touch with the concerns of common people.

“We need someone who understands not just how to write paychecks and sign paychecks but how it feels like waiting on that paycheck,” a Georgia GOP apparatchik said in a late-November campaign ad for Loeffler.

Loeffler’s husband Sprecher made his fortune running a marketplace for power companies to buy and sell energy — the same niche as Enron, incidentally — capitalizing on a market that only existed thanks to massive deregulation of utilities in the '70s, '80s, and '90s.

Loeffler worked for her husband’s company InterContinental Exchange, where she helped market a credit default swap clearinghouse in the Cayman Islands in 2009 so that the world’s biggest banks could dodge U.S. taxes while millions of Americans lost their homes due to the subprime mortgage crisis. She kept working for her husband’s company and its subsidiaries until the governor appointed her to a vacant Senate seat in 2019.

It has been amusing to watch Loeffler cast herself as a down-home woman of the people in this campaign, stumping on front porches in gingham shirts and ball caps. Less humorous has been her turn from a milquetoast Mitt Romney acolyte to an enabler of Donald Trump’s fascistic aspirations, describing herself as “more conservative than Attila the Hun” while rubbing shoulders with QAnon loonies.

Anyway, Loeffler’s mansion has a name, and it’s called Descante. It’s in a neighborhood called — I kid you not — Tuxedo Park.

The home has no historic value except for the bits its builders imported from Europe. The soap opera writers Bridget and Jerome Dobson had it built in 1997 with no apparent nods to local history, the north Georgia natural landscape, or the last century of architectural thought. While no doubt well-constructed, aesthetically it’s a dead-ender’s anachronism with all the subtlety of a Cheesecake Factory.

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Here’s a description of the mansion in a 2013 Atlanta magazine puff piece about Loeffler and Sprecher:

Modeled in the style of an old European estate, Descante (as it’s called) is a stucco, steel, and limestone structure that boasts Versailles parquet in the dining room, a library with a secret passage to the living room, and a nineteenth-century pool house from France.

Versailles parquet!

I am hungry for interior photos; online real estate listings give me only scraps. Per the Daily Beast, the home “features lush, spacious grounds, a garage portico imported from Spain, several Renaissance-era European frescoes, and no fewer than nine antique fireplaces.”

The Versailles detail shows up again in a 2014 Buckhead magazine puff piece:

Descante is a $10 million work of art built to showcase other works of art that range from actual dinosaur footprints in the kitchen floor, a 1,500-year-old Etruscan statue, 17th century fireplaces imported from Cambridge University and 170-year-old parquet flooring from Versailles. The name is derived from Descant: meaning “The Art Of Composing.”

[Editor’s note: That’s not really what descant means, but close enough for gullible rich people.]

I am not an architecture critic, but I spend a lot of time ogling the tacky houses and 7-car garages our country’s oligarchs and wannabe oligarchs have built for themselves. Kate Wagner long ago mastered the art of skewering them with a light touch on her McMansion Hell blog, and I still can’t get enough. I’ve re-watched Real Housewives of New Jersey episodes just to get another look at Teresa and Joe Giudice’s pastiche disasterpiece in Montville Township.

Loeffler and Sprecher made their purchase in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, for $10.5 million. Even at $6.4 million below the Dobsons’ asking price, it was the most expensive single-family home sale ever recorded in Atlanta.

In keeping with American norms of ostentation, Loeffler and her husband rationalized their purchase of a 7-bedroom, 11.5-bath McMansion by telling nosy reporters they would use it for charity events. In 2011 they held a $25,000-per-head fundraiser event for then-presidential contender Mitt Romney at the house.

“It was the civic work that we decided to do to help justify owning such a beautiful property and wanting to share it with people,” Sprecher told Atlanta magazine in 2013.

A little bread, a little charity, an occasional glimpse of a private art hoard — these are the ways the ultra-rich have justified themselves throughout history. In the case of Sen. Loeffler, the veil of noblesse oblige has worn thinner now that she and her husband have fully entered public life.

This year alone, inquiring minds wanted to know about Loeffler’s fortuitous stock trades after a January coronavirus briefing. Others wanted to know why assessors gave her a huge tax break on Descante back in 2016 while property values were rising in her neighborhood.

With any luck, the senator will soon be retiring to private life to sort all of that out.

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