Phantom of Whitefish Lake

$30-million mansion has locals asking ya-who?


It’s a fabulous $30 million mansion in the sky for the founder of Yahoo! Or at least that’s the rumor. And it’s all the buzz even in world-weary Whitefish, which has understandably grown a bit blasé about celebrities and ostentatious displays of wealth over the years. After all, how could anything ever compete with the day Gomer Pyle moved to town?

Be that as it may, what’s become known as “the Yahoo mansion” is so extravagantly over-the-top even for Whitefish that it’s Topic A in bars and diners and coffee shops all over town and beyond. Fueling the talk are the carpenters, roofers, plumbers and plain laborers who are building the home overlooking Whitefish Lake, and who descend the mountain every evening to spread new and more astonishing tales of opulence.

“It’s like a castle,” said one worker, Paul Krause, his voice filled with awe.

Krause was sent there by his employment agency to clear snow from the work site just before Christmas. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I thought I was lost going up there. I kept driving and driving and finally I came to the top of the mountain and there it was. It’s a huge mansion, man. It’s way cool.”

By now, everyone knows of the home’s many noteworthy amenities—the underground racquetball court, the handgun shooting range, just to name two. There’s not one but two security gates blocking the winding road to the mountaintop. And oh yes, a new bridge over a railroad right-of-way gives the home exclusive access to Whitefish Lake. That, locals say, cost a million dollars just by itself.

The full cost of the estate is definitely $30 million, everyone is sure. To begin to appreciate the immensity of that figure, consider that Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione’s six-story Beaux Arts mansion in Manhattan—complete with Roman-style pool, Georgian pine-paneled library, gym and wine cellar—was on the market for a mere $29 million last year.

But while everyone seems to know a lot about the mansion, if you press for the name of Whitefish’s newest tycoon-in-residence, the typical response is somewhat vague: “You know, the Yahoo guy.”

So in the public interest, the Independent decided to do a little digging. A tip led to Whitefish architect Scott Eldon, who admitted, “I designed a home and I’m pretty sure it’s associated with this Yahoo rumor,” but would say little more. “I’ve been asked to be as discreet as possible,” he confided.

Asked whether the mansion really cost $30 million, Eldon replied: “Nah,” but then stopped and zipped his lips. “You’re not going to crow-bar anything out of me,” he said.

Undeterred, we went to the public records. And there, buried in Flathead County’s tax filings—surprise!—was the identity of the mystery owner: not either one of Yahoo’s founders, David Filo or Jerry Yang, but a relatively obscure and secretive prospector in the dot-com gold rush—a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Michael Goguen.

Goguen is a partner in the giant firm Sequoia Capital, which backed the Internet portal Yahoo (probably the root of the rumor’s confusion) as well as software maker Oracle and Internet equipment-maker Cisco Systems. Sequoia even owns a sizeable stake in Google, the Internet search engine that’s planning an initial public offering that could value the company at more than $15 billion.

One of Goguen’s associates at Sequoia, Mark Kvamme, already has a home at Whitefish Lake. They join a growing community of very wealthy people that now includes actors Kiefer Sutherland and Emilio Estevez, NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and Hollywood producer Burt Sugarman and his wife, Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart. Of course, Jim Nabors, aka Gomer Pyle, has long owned an estate on the road to Big Mountain.

All these pricey homes are driving up property taxes for ordinary Montanans lucky enough to have bought land on the lake back in the day before the celebrities rushed in. Which is the complaint that you hear in the Whitefish coffee shops as soon as the talk turns from the latest progress in the construction of Goguen’s outlandish mansion.

A modest home with 75 feet of lake frontage appraised for around $120,000 only seven or eight years ago, according to people who live there. Now, that property would be worth at least $270,000, with taxes of more than $5,000 a year.

“It’s changing the social fabric and it’s pushing Montana residents off of land that they’ve held in their families for generations,” said one lakeshore resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending neighbors. “The average Montana family cannot afford $5,000 or $10,000 a year in property taxes for a home on Whitefish Lake.”

The resentment was palpable when Sugarman and Hart tried to acquire 50 acres of state land adjoining their 130-acre Whitefish Lake spread last year. They dropped their plans after locals bombarded them with nasty mail.

“Go back to where you came from,” one letter read. Another likened “wealthy out-of-staters” to an “insidious virus.”

It’s just a guess, but maybe that’s why Goguen isn’t especially anxious for his name to become known in Whitefish. Sorry, Michael.

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