It can’t help but catch the eye: a sprawling bluestone structure akin to a castle, a newcomer on a street of gracious old Victorian manors. Boldly seated a stone’s throw from the sidewalk, the mansion beckons passers-by to listen for the music of its fountains, admire its impeccably kept gardens, bend to smell the Russian sage that bows between the bars of its wrought-iron fence, strain for a glimpse beyond the multitude of arched windows.
Homeowners Ron and Michele Riggi have made the most of every square inch of their one-acre property at the corner of Broadway and Greenfield Avenue in the Spa City. Their head-turning homestead boasts 25,000 square feet of under-roof space, including outbuildings.
“You can see most of the gardens from the road,” says Michele. “It’s for everyone to enjoy.” She breezes around her property proudly, smiling contagiously, the vision of a Saratoga socialite in a below-the-knee brown dress with white polka dots, topped with a hat to match. “We make it so beautiful for everyone who comes to visit, the trolleys and the buses. When I’m having events and I have the red carpet out, people run up and take their pictures. It’s so cute,” she says.
The property where the Riggis’ mansion stands once housed two hotels. “They got knocked down and it was vacant land here for years and years,” Michele recounts. She and Ron owned the parcel for 10 or 15 years before deciding to build on it, she estimates. From ground-breaking to completion, the construction process took five years and was finally finished in 2003.
Michele designed the five-bedroom, 11-bath home to include features she found fascinating in the fine hotels she and Ron stay in when they travel. “I would take pictures and ideas from all over the world and bring them home,” she says.
Along with those ideas, Michele also collected treasures, which were carefully crated and shipped home. “I love Asia — Thailand, Vietnam. The handicrafts there are amazing. There’s a lot of the Asian feeling throughout the house,” she says. “I walk through each room and feel like I’m in different parts of the world.”
Michele has a story to go along with each piece: the mosaic vases she flew to Vietnam to find; the urns discovered in the rice paddies of Bali; the leather panels, once decorations in a French palace, which she uncovered in the back of a warehouse.
A GRAND ENTRANCE
A grand staircase with intricate wrought-iron railings welcomes guests to the home’s foyer. The stairs sweep up from both left and right, passing Italian marble statues and prompting visions of Michele descending in a fabulous formal gown.
On the gleaming marble floor below sits a glass table topped with an enormous fresh arrangement of white lilies, plume poppies, ferns and palm leaves. Beneath the table is an inlaid marble medallion, 9 feet in diameter; it’s one of 24 throughout the house, all designed by Michele.
A custom-made wrought iron chandelier hangs from the foyer’s domed ceiling, which is brightened with a breathtaking fresco of the sky. “The whole foyer is done in fresco. It is the most special place in the house for art,” says Michele.
The internationally known painting company Silver Hill Atelier was hired to paint the entire home. Michele rented the painters three apartments in Saratoga, where they lived for two years while they worked on the home’s frescos, faux finishes and gold and copper leafing. “There’s not one bit of wallpaper in this house,” Michele says.
Michele clicks across the marble kitchen floor in gold stiletto heals. “I love country music,” she says, above a background of steel guitars. “Want me to put something softer on?” She taps a touch pad and the music changes to a soothing symphony.
The house is a smart house, she explains. All of the systems — lights, music, security cameras and more are controlled via touch pads situated throughout the home.
“This is my kitchen that we don’t cook in,” Michele announces. “Everybody always wants to be in the kitchen, so you need to have a beautiful kitchen that looks good all the time. I’ve got everything in it, but I’ve never cooked in it because it’s so big.”
A 15-foot-long island of Rosa Verona marble dominates the space. “Marble is my favorite. There is not one piece of granite in this house,” she says. Aware that marble can hold stains, she decided to use it for all of the home’s surfaces and moldings anyway. “You know what, I don’t mind the staining,” she says. “That’s the beauty of the stone. It’s got character, like people. You can’t be perfect all the time.”
Gold leaf is everywhere in the kitchen: shimmering in beveled crevices on the cabinets, accenting the burrowed wood on the ceiling. “There’s so much gold leaf in the house,” says Michele. “Some people might think it’s gaudy, but I just love it. I think it’s the Italian and the French in me.”
The kitchen’s appliances are stainless steel, state-of-the-art. The sink’s backsplash is Jerusalem Stone, cut by water jet into intricate designs. Cabinets with glass fronts reach toward the high ceiling. Two glittering crystal chandeliers hang above the island.
“You’ve got to look at this,” Michele says, opening a small, stainless steel door above the wall oven. “It’s my steamer. I’ve never used it. Isn’t this cool?”
“What would you steam in it?” I ask.
“Fish,” she replies.
“You should try that sometime,” I encourage.
“I know, but then it stinks up the kitchen,” she laments.
We leave that kitchen for the chef’s kitchen. “It’s adorable, isn’t it?” Michele asks. “You just turn around and everything’s there. It makes so much sense for caterers.” Smaller, but equally impressive, this kitchen is a more practical space. Adorned with stainless steel and Carrara marble, it has an Italian feel to it. Both kitchens, notes Michele, were designed by Clive Christian. “The epitome of luxury is having a Clive Christian kitchen. They’re like jewelry,” she says.
A chorus of excited yips emanates from behind a closed door off the larger kitchen. It’s Michele’s 27 little dogs. She swings the door open to allow a peek at her pets, snug in their own suite. The room is compete with a grooming area, a medical table, cushioned window seats and a doggie door that leads to an outdoor dog yard outfitted with little lounge chairs and umbrellas. The canines’ capers can be observed via any of the touch screens or TVs throughout the house.
Michele’s staff includes a nanny to tend to her dogs, and others to help with security and household chores, but she doesn’t have a personal assistant, she notes. “Somebody running around after you, that would drive me crazy. After having four kids and 27 dogs, I think I can do it all,” she says with a laugh.
Beyond the large kitchen is the family room, decorated with what Michele calls an Italian-Asian theme. Stone columns flank the room’s entrances; smaller ones surround the flat-screen TV. A rug from Thailand, teeming with birds, flowers and jungle animals, sets the stage for the rest of the surroundings.
“These are my most prized possessions,” Michele says, lifting the cover off one of two enormous, rich red, cinnabar urns from China that flank one doorway.
A large mosaic of Vietnamese field workers is mounted behind the family room’s ornate bar. The mosaic, Michele notes, is made entirely from eggshells. Two horse figurines from Thailand stand sentry beside the gas fireplace. Huge arched windows, dressed with iron scrollwork, lead out to the veranda and private backyard.
The hall at the top of the grand staircase has Venetian plaster walls flanked with faux-finished columns. It’s bright with gold leaf accents and crystal chandeliers. The turret at the end of the hall holds a table atop which live orchid plants bloom. A floor-to-ceiling fresco transforms a nearby wall into a stone veranda with a view of rolling Italian countryside.
Michele’s favorite space is the upstairs master bedroom suite. A princess bed was specially designed for the sleeping chamber, so 12 of the Riggis’ dogs could sleep along with them. “It’s 9 foot by 9 foot, but I don’t have much space. There’s not one place I can move my legs that there’s not a dog,” Michele says.
The suite includes Michele’s office, where she often does work for local charities. “I am busy, with my fundraising and honorary committees here and there,” she says, noting with pride that she is the president of the National Museum of Dance. Her home, she adds, often serves as a site for events to benefit organizations that involve dance or children.
Upstairs is also a Balinese spa where Michele gets her massages. “People from Thailand came and thatched the roof, and there’s a saltwater tank with fish swimming in there. You walk in and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I could live in this room forever,’ ” she exclaims.
The staircase to the basement has a custom-made banister; its intertwined wrought-iron tendrils give rise to tropical flowers and figs. The cellar floors are marble, the theme of the space, African. A bowling lane immediately catches the eye, the pins like teeth for the mural of a gaping lion’s mouth that dominates the end wall.
Tucked in an alcove is an ornate bar from an English pub, inlaid with walnut and cherry wood, and three matching wine cabinets, fully stocked. A working antique English phone booth, which Michele repainted and decorated with leopard-print material, stands nearby.
Not far from the bar is a claw-foot gaming table, a row of slot machines and a pool table, its legs the shape of elephants’ heads.
The basement also houses a spacious, fully-equipped fitness center with an attached steam room. “We’re a very athletic family. We work out every day,” says Michele. “To keep up with our social life, going out all the time and eating and drinking, we have to keep everything balanced.”
Large windows in the fitness room let in lots of natural light. “I hate to feel like I’m in a gym inside a building where you can’t see anything,” says Michele. Including windows in the subterranean space meant first building a limestone retaining wall several feet from the foundation, a costly project. “My husband was not too happy about that,” Michele admits.
The basement bathroom is as luxurious as any of those upstairs. It has walls faux-finished to look like red onyx and is lit by chandelier.
Twin leopard statues guard the door to the home theater, also in the basement. It looks like a miniature of an old movie house, with a burrowed wood ceiling and gold leaf accents. Twelve red velvet recliners and one doggie-size easy chair sit in descending rows, facing a red velvet curtain that hides a 10-by-15-foot screen. There’s even a snack bar, “with real, live candy!” Michele exclaims playfully. And sure enough, every snack bar standard is there, from Raisinets to Junior Mints, and there’s a popcorn machine, too. “What’s your favorite candy?” Michele asks. “Reeses Pieces,” I reply. “Then you must take a box home,” she insists, sliding back the glass display panel.
As an afterthought, Michele had a pedicure station and tanning machine installed in the basement’s boiler room. “Every inch of this house I used,” she says.
Every inch of the yard was put to use as well. The marble veranda off the family room includes a full outdoor kitchen and a seating area with a built-in gas fire pit. Steps lead down to a modest stretch of verdant lawn, an Italian fountain and gardens of lilies and coleus. Iron greyhound statues sit here and there. “They’re protecting my Chihuahuas,” Michele jokes. “I plan on getting one for every dog and putting them around the property.”
Tucked in one corner of the yard is a pool and hot tub, encircled by statues from Italy. Adjacent urns spout water by day and flames by night.
Seventeen enormous white, onyx and orange koi fish meander beneath the lily pads in the backyard koi pond. Michele points out certain ones by name: Moby Dick, Goldie, Sir Winston.
The pond is spanned by a walkway that leads to a spacious outdoor pavilion. Open to the yard on two sides, it has a soaring cathedral ceiling held up by antique beams. The space is furnished with furniture from Thailand and massive mosaic vases from Vietnam. A large flat-screen TV hides behind a painting of a blue heron. “My husband loves to come out here and watch his Yankees. He’s out here all the time,” says Michele.
Surveying her property, she insists she’d never change a thing. “I love it to death,” she says, but then admits she would like the yard to be a bit bigger. “I would like to have more gardens and more eating area outside and just more to be able to enjoy. It’s so beautiful. I would really like to elaborate more on it.”
Someday, she’d like to own a property where there’s room for an aviary and maybe a little chapel. But for now, she’s happy to stay put and enjoy what she has. After all, there’s no more need to travel to stay someplace fabulous. “I want to be home because home is beautiful,” she says. “Who wants to go away when you live like this?”