Harry Joe Brown, Jr.

Harry Joe Brown Jr., 71, Innovative Developer, Dies

By Douglas Martin, for New York Times
Nov. 28, 2005

Harry Joe Brown Jr., a real estate executive whose birth into Hollywood royalty presaged the pizazz he generated by enlisting 34 leading architects to design one house each for a Hamptons residential development, died on Wednesday at his Manhattan home. He was 71.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, his family said in a statement. Mr. Brown also had a home in West Palm Beach.

In the mid-1990’s, Mr. Brown acquired 56 acres of scrub land in the hamlet of Sagaponack for $1.6 million when another developer went bankrupt. It was supposedly on the wrong side of the Hamptons’ main road, too far from the beach and too close to East Hampton Airport.

Mr. Brown, widely known by his nickname “Coco,” persuaded the architect Richard Meier to recruit a roster of top architects. Mr. Brown’s idea was that people with a certain blend of wealth, knowledge and pretension would line up for modernist houses designed by the likes of Mr. Meier, Philip Johnson, Michael Graves and Sir Richard Rogers.

Mr. Brown offered lower than normal prices for the Hamptons, less than $3 million, although he also offered less house. Rather than the 10,000-square-foot behemoths of recent years, Mr. Brown thought an exquisitely designed vacation home of 5,000 square feet, even 2,000, would be sufficient.

“I want to show that every new home here doesn’t have to be a McMansion,” Mr. Brown said in an interview with The New York Times in 2002.

The developer’s sales technique included passing out videotape clips showing the site as it might be seen from the driver’s seat of a sports car. He called the development the Houses at Sagaponac, dropping the final “k” for distinctiveness.

Mr. Brown’s business acumen was apparent in his tough negotiations over fees with architects, getting deals from suppliers eager to associate their names with the project, and overseeing construction himself to shave costs. Though some noted that his decision to build the houses first and sell them later prevented buyers from trying to negotiate their own changes with the architects, Mr. Brown countered that it saved time and safeguarded the architects’ original visions.

In the 2002 interview with The Times, Mr. Brown acknowledged that it was not easy working with celebrated architects.

“Architects can be very self-important, dressing in black like priests and making grand abstract pronouncements about how we live and how we ought to live,” he said. “They do have enormous egos.”

Still, Mr. Brown was hardly reticent in challenging architects, even Philip Johnson, who died in January at age 98. Mr. Brown told Mr. Johnson his design was too repetitive; Mr. Johnson changed it.

Thomas Phifer submitted a design that was underground, only to be reversed by Mr. Brown. Mr. Phifer said, “The new design is equally fantastic.”

One of the 34 houses was finished and sold. Eight more are under construction, and three of these have been sold. The rest of the lots have the designs completed, but no buyers yet.

The finished project is intended to give a sense of cohesiveness and community. One of the architects, Henry Smith-Miller, told Newsday in 2003 that a drive through the subdivision a decade from then would reveal an obvious “marketing coup.”

Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker, was less sanguine about the general appeal of architectural all-stars. He suggested, “The taste of people with large bank accounts tends not to be on the cutting edge.”

Harry Joe Brown Jr. was born on Sept. 1, 1934, in Beverly Hills, and grew up there. His mother, Sally Eilers, starred in movies with Buster Keaton and Spencer Tracy. His father, for whom he was named, produced many movies for RKO, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, among other studios.

The younger Mr. Brown was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Stanford and Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude, and went on to earn a master’s degree at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar.

He aspired to be a screenwriter and sold some screenplays, one of which, “Duffy,” a robbery caper, was produced by Columbia Pictures in 1970. He produced Off Broadway plays by Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett, as well as a Tennessee Williams play in London. For a time, he lived the artist’s life in Paris.

His first major real estate coup was buying 188 acres at the top of Beverly Hills, and building 115 houses there, according to The National Post, a Canadian newspaper.

In the early 1990’s, Mr. Brown scavenged through failed savings and loans for cheap properties. A tangled deal in Cape Cod resulted in his pleading guilty in 1997 to making false statements to federal regulators. He spent 27 days in a federal prison camp in Pennsylvania, The Times reported in 2004.

But, according to court records and published reports examined then by The Times, he still made $8.4 million on the transaction.

Mr. Brown was divorced from Karen Dempsey and Catherine Nelson Brown, both of whom survive him. He is also survived by his daughters, Morgan Brown and Esme Brown, both of Beverly Hills, and a grandson.