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‘Let me tell you about the very rich’

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POSTED February 21, 2014 12:21 a.m.

It draws attention.

It captures the imagination.

It is a landmark.

It shouts excess.

It reflects prosperity.

And it is stands as a monument to the folly of overextending one’s self financially.

No wonder the Bulletin’s social media was abuzz with comments regarding Richland Communities pondering a housing plan for the 184 acres the firm bought on the courthouse steps that calls for demolishing the Hat Mansion.

The 30,000-square-foot mansion was first and foremost the dream of a local boy make good.

Michael Hat built the home. The 1972 Ripon High graduate was on top of the world when construction started in the early 1990s. California wines were soaring in popularity. Money was flowing. And business and farming savvy Hat was one of California’s most successful grape brokers.

When the home started rising among almond orchards south of Manteca in alignment with palm trees that run along Palm Avenue west from Highway 99 toward the Altamont Pass, rumors started flying.

The most persistent was that Garth Brooks was building a mansion in Manteca.

The fact rumors were rampant underscores the fact that despite his growing wealth, Hat hadn’t exactly been flashy. It was inconceivable to almost everyone that someone who had local ties could possibly be in a position to erect such an opulent mansion that could be seen on a clear day descending from the Altamont Hills more than 25 miles away.

But by the time the mansion was completed in 1995 things started going south in the wine grape industry.

There never were grand parties at the Hat Mansion. The 36-car parking garage beneath the mansion was never filled with Mercedes, Corvettes, Lamborghinis, or Bentleys of party guests. 

And it never got on the radar of Robin Leach’s TV show “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” despite the fact the property also hosted arguably the most unique home office in America. 

A Butler-style steel building near the helipad looks like a typical farm equipment shed. But inside there was a stylish office, a virtual residence, and a wine cellar. What made it unique, though, was with a James Bond-style push-of-a-button the metal doors would roll up revealing a panoramic glass window wall. It provided a sweeping view of the mansion and 184 acres of Chardonnay grapes from behind a massive desk.

Hat filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

When the mansion and land were listed for $12.2 million in 2003 it garnered legitimate interest. The only problem was being overbuilt for the neighborhood.

That meant farmers were the ones most likely to pay top dollar for the land. Not only was its 184 acres of top quality farmland but it was already planted in grapes.

The problem was what does one do with the pesky mansion?

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District board pondered purchasing the property. They envisioned building a new corporation yard and possibly converting the mansion into headquarters as part of their plans to expand into retail power. They looked at the feasibility of building a water holding reservoir for the irrigation system and considered the financial dynamics of leasing or selling the balance to farmers.

But even if the price per acre was a steal and the numbers penciled out well in the long run, the SSJID board considered such a plan ill-conceived because of the wrong message converting the opulent mansion into district headquarters would send.

There are a handful of more low key 15,000 plus square-foot homes in the South County.

The Hat mansion wasn’t even the first mega home built in the area with a helipad. A high rise steel contractor with extensive projects in the Bay Area had built a modernistic 3,500-square-foot single-story glass, concrete, and steel two-bedroom home designed for entertaining complete with a separate 2,000-square-foot guest house and gym along with a helipad between Escalon and Manteca.

But unlike the Hat Mansion, it was masked by surrounding almond orchards and only visible after driving down a dirt road, passing through a gate, and driving behind a metal building that houses the guest home and gym.

There is no doubt Hat wanted the entire world to see how successful he was.

It was quite a statement in Manteca that seemed at the time hell-bent on becoming the City of McMansions.

It is why the mansion stands as a monument to caution people of the dangers of overshooting the runway. Hat landed back on his feet eventually after his grandiose plans came crashing down after a financial bump turned into a sinkhole. It isn’t unlike what happened to countless neighbors whose eyes and appetite were bigger than what their wallets could reasonably sustain. The housing crash was just like the mansion — built on the rickety foundation of assuming the good times would keep rolling.

It’s ironic in that the mansion meets all the criteria of the elusive focal point Manteca has been searching for since PG&E in a gesture of community support shelled out $10,000 for Manteca leaders to hear destination guru Roger Brooks tell them that location never draws people.

The fate of the Hat Mansion that is no longer surrounded on all side by grapes is now in the hands of Richland Communities. It is the same developer whose failed Lathrop housing project meant Lathrop High had to truck their sewage for years.

It could be restored as a clubhouse for an age-restricted community or it could be torn down with hundreds of McMansions rising from the ruins.

And until it does, the mansion will fuel rumors just as the mythical Great Gatsby did in the words penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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