December 19, 2006

A Bit of Kanawha Valley in California; Mansion Built on Memories From Home

By Sandy Wells

[email protected]

On Saturday mornings, he watched cartoons and westerns at the Rialto Theater. He hung out with classmates at the Blossom Dairy. He bowled at the lanes on the Boulevard.

"I had a great time growing up in Charleston," he said.

And so, when Frank Pritt designed his $75 million mansion in California, he put a slice of his hometown inside it.

His oceanfront Portabello Estate in Newport Beach, the third most expensive property on the U.S. market, was featured recently on the Oprah Show.

The mansion includes all the outlandish amenities you'd expect in a spare-no-expense kind of place. Three saltwater pools. Eight bedroom suites. Automobile showroom. Heated kitchen countertops. Executive office with leather floors.

But the software tycoon spent a chunk of his mint on some nostalgic fun stuff inspired by his boyhood in Charleston.

He re-created a Charleston street scene.

The Oprah Web site commentary on Portabello calls the basement recreation area the mansion's most spectacular feature:

"Can you imagine having the money and the imagination to re- create the street scene from your hometown? That's exactly what Portabello's original owner did. Inside the home, there's a replica of a street from his hometown, Charleston, West Virginia."

Pritt's memory lane includes a compact version of the Blossom Dairy on Quarrier Street complete with the distinctive art deco sign, a round booth like the ones he sat in as a kid and a collage of Charleston landmarks painted on the wall. He re-created the old Rialto Theater on Summers Street with motorized velvet drapes and a concession stand; a Kay Jewelers like the old one on Capitol Street for displaying family heirlooms; and a bowling alley like Alex Schoenbaum's Boulevard Recreation Center with two regulation lanes, a bar and shoe rental.

"I knew I was going to put in a theater and a bowling alley, and I wanted a cafe and rec room for the kids," Pritt said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington state. "One thing led to another and I wound up with a whole streetscape."

A 1958 graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School, Pritt grew up on Jane Street on the West Side. His father, an artist, owned a sign and display business. "Remember the floats for the North-South football games? He designed those.

"We weren't rich, but we weren't poor," he said. "I had a reasonably nice life."

He enjoys going back to it. Old friends and a batch of cousins pull him home. "I was in Charleston the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving," he said.

He visited 93-year-old Elaine Bird, a "second mother" who still lives in the house beside the one where he grew up. "Our house at 714 Jane St. looks just like it does in the collage at my Blossom Dairy in Portabello," he said.

He didn't visit the Blossom Dairy. He wants to remember it the way it was, he said. "West Side kids went to the Valley Bell Dairy beside Lincoln School, but anytime we went uptown, we had to go to the Blossom and get a chocolate malt milkshake. I understand they've turned it into a more sophisticated dinner and lunch place."

Memories of Saturday morning movies at the Rialto - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and his favorite, Hopalong Cassidy - inspired him to duplicate the theater at Portabello. But the Virginian or Custer theaters would have worked just as well.

"I remember Gene Autry coming in person to the Virginian with his horse. He had this big old horse right in the middle of the theater."

Sometimes, he skipped the Rialto westerns on Saturdays to accompany his older brother to the horror movies at the Custer beside Bream Church on the West Side. "I'd get so scared, I'd have to leave and get a bus to go home."

Kay Jewelers fit perfectly into his streetscape concept, he said. "Kay is my wife, Julia's, middle name. Kay Jewelers was a big jewelry store chain on Capitol Street. I wanted a jewelry store in the streetscape so I'd have a place to put jewelry and memorabilia from my mother's house."

Memory lane ends with a swanky garage for his collection of 15 cars. "The sign over it says Frank's Motor Works. There wasn't one of those in Charleston."

He hired Theo Kalomirakis of TK Theaters, the country's premier home-theater designer, to design the streetscape components. TK Theaters highlights Pritt's 2,500-square-foot entertainment area on its Web site.

Pritt commissioned an artist to paint the 5-by-10-foot collage of meaningful Charleston landmarks behind the circular booth in Portabello's Blossom Dairy. He collected photos of favorite '50s- era landmarks - Rock Lake Pool, the state Capitol, the C&O Depot, Stonewall Jackson High School, the Greyhound Bus Station on Summers Street - then arranged them on paper for the artist to duplicate in the mural.

"Rock Lake was the only place to swim when I was growing up," he said. "You couldn't swim in the river then. The rockscape at Portabello, the slides and waterfalls, were all inspired by Rock Lake."

He built the mansion in 2002 and put it on the market last spring. Now the Pritts live in a homey 3,000-square-foot house in Seattle where they moved to be closer to their children. "You can't enjoy a mega mansion much after the kids are gone," he said. "So now we spend 30 percent of our time in Washington and 30 percent in California."

While he waits for a buyer to fork over $75 million, he will use Portabello as a family retreat. They plan to spend Christmas there.

"We have two other houses in southern California, the beach house and the bay house. So if I sell the place, I still have a couple of homes I can hang out in in warmer months."

He sold his business, Attachmate Corp., in April 2005 and bought a house in Maui, Hawaii. "It's an older house that needs remodeling. I'm a project guy. I'll spend the next couple of years fiddling around in Hawaii and getting the place the way I want it."

It took him four years to build Portabello. He bought three oceanfront homes for about $13 million, then tore down the houses to accommodate a 30,000-square-foot mansion.

A nautilus shell inspired the mansion's rounded shape and ocean theme. Amenities include a master bedroom the size of an average home, a swim-up bar, a winding tunnel slide from the second floor into the pool, a gym and wine cellar, an upper-level whirlpool that resembles an aquarium from below and a glass wall that opens to an outdoor Jacuzzi by pressing a button. Furniture, included in the price of the house, was specially designed to fit the curved architecture.

Pritt earned his fortune by developing a mainframe interactive software program for desktop personal computers on the brink of the PC boom. He started with $100,000, using retirement money from his work as a salesman and product manager for a computer-marketing firm. He once used his Visa credit card to meet the new company's payroll.

Fascinated with electronics since boyhood, he recalls rigging a way to patch into telephones to tape conference-call conversations with junior high school buddies. "Gaston Caperton was a good friend in the ninth grade. The next year, he went away to a private school. I would send these conversations over to his school. So yes, I tinkered with things all over the place.

"There was a little electronics school in St. Albans. I started going there at night and really got interested in it."

He left Charleston after high school to attend Center College in Danville, Ky., earned a bachelor's degree in electronic engineering from Northrop University in Inglewood, Calif., then worked here for Union Carbide and IBM before moving to California in 1970. In 1974, he signed on with Harris Corp., the computer-marketing company, and resigned in 1982 to market his software product.

He stays in touch with several close friends from Charleston, he said. "Do you know Mary Townsend and Jerry? Mary got me through high school. Without her, I wouldn't have made it past garbage man."

At 66, he stays busy in retirement. Along with the house project in Hawaii, he found a new hobby to challenge his creative inclinations. "I've taken up bronze sculpturing. I want to get to the point where I can build something on a computer and make a clay model that I can get into bronze or stone. I'm learning how sculptors get something from their head to a piece in bronze."

He enjoys his money, he said, but he would be just as happy without it. "It's great to be rich, but it would be just as great if I wasn't. There's a lot of responsibility that goes with it."

To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, use e-mail or call 348- 5173.

(c) 2006 Sunday Gazette - Mail; Charleston, W.V.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.