Viva Las Villa!

Suppose, for a moment, that you're in the market for a seven-figure custom house.

Nothing fancy, mind you. Just a little something for the missus and the wee tykes, now that you've outgrown that quaint pied-à-terre downtown. Something different, something fresh. Something to make your friends weep with envy.

Seeking the luxury you deserve, you head down to the seventeenth annual Parade of Homes, which opened Labor Day weekend at Daniel's Gate, a spanking-new subdivision on the southern fringe of the metro area, halfway between Highlands Ranch and the edge of reason. Sponsored by the Denver Metro Home Builders Association, the event is a promotional extravaganza, showcasing the latest in upscale housing conceits while building traffic for the surrounding development.

Of course, most of the folks milling about aren't cash buyers like you. They're proles, plebes, working stiffs. They pay their nine bucks, gawk and gape and cadge decorating ideas they can knock off for a fraction of the price, then maybe swing by the empty lots being marketed on a nearby cul-de-sac, dreaming of the day they might retire in rough proximity to such opulence. But, hey, they can dream, can't they? You're not here to rain on their parade, but to join it. This year's experiment in excess features seven big-ticket homes by six builders, each of which strives in its own way to transport you to...to...well, to somewhere else.

You might consider the charming subtleties of the Tango, which offers something called a rejuvenation room and a grand stone entry tower that is supposed to remind you of the hills of Bordeaux. Or maybe you're a sucker for the understated elegance of the Monticello, which "formally presents itself to the rest of the world," according to the official parade program, while hiding behind an "intriguing motor-court entrance."

Then there's the Tuscany, "a visual trip to Western Italy," complete with two-story rotunda foyer and open-air courtyard where you, yes you, can be sipping Chianti "and reading poetry by Dante or Petrarch." Or the Roaring Fork, with all those travertine tiles, warm earth tones -- "kisses of mercury, brick and chocolate," it says here -- and stair railings that "appear to be abstract bundles of flowing grass," or at least one blurb writer's notion of such a thing.

The Home for the Holidays house is an orgy of exposed timber and hand-hammered copper ceilings, where "the knotty pine magic of earlier times stands beside high technology's best." The Villa Il Sogno is so chock-full of Old World ambience, from the four-sided travertine fireplace to the terraced patio with six-tiered waterfall, that it's "hard to choose where to enjoy your gourmet meal." (Don't you hate it when that happens?)

But if you're a serious player -- a high-roller, an operator, a cuff-shooting guy who not only appreciates excess but understands the need to flaunt it -- then there's only one home that matters in this year's parade. That's the Villa Bellagio, a cute little number that has more of everything: more kitchens (three), more bathrooms (eleven), more space (9,100 square feet), more class. Especially if your idea of class has less do with Bellagio, Italy, than a certain Las Vegas hotel that goes by the same name.

Amid all the pricey cliches of this year's parade, from the obligatory two-story foyers and heavy-slabbed kitchen islands to the de rigueur home theaters and cavernous master baths, the Bellagio truly stands apart. It's not just the sheer size of the place or all those toilets (which suggest that the prospective owner is either planning on hosting company-wide keggers or hiring a chef who specializes in Ipecac Alfredo). It's not even the $4.1 million price tag, roughly triple the cost of the 6,000-square-foot monstrosities in this year's show.

No, what makes Bellagio unique is its wealth of over-the-top amenities and elaborate details. The grand entrance of all grand entrances, with two balconies and a massive chandelier overlooking the fray. The 27,000-gallon swimming pool with a thirty-foot "vanishing edge" that spills over to a trough below, creating a waterfall best viewed from the "casino" and wet bar on the lower level. The lavish mother-in-law apartment above the four-car garage. The Wolf stove and built-in Miele cappuccino maker (reverse-osmosis purified-water supply courtesy of Culligan), the granite counter for the outside barbecue station. The snug study with fabric window shades, perfect for a quiet consultation with the family consigliere.

Most parade homes have a giant fireplace and wide-screen TV placed side by side; the Bellagio has two such packages. Add to that the as-yet-unfinished Roman spa and arena-sized his-and-her master baths, as well as the proliferation of pillars, pedestals and impedimenta; all that's missing is the vomitorium. One procession of pedestals lines the back edge of the property, as if awaiting the arrival of busts of Caesars or perhaps CEOs, who can then gaze out across Daniel's Park, with its buffalo herd and 5,000 acres of open space, to the mountains beyond.

The parade program calls the Bellagio "a kaleidoscope for your senses" that will "speak to your heart of opera and classical Italy." But despite all the imperial touches, the villa speaks to a different sort of sensibility, more Lake Mead than Lake Como, more Tony Soprano than Enrico Caruso. (One of the arias piped into the place is the same syrupy tune Tony's wife, Carmela, listens to during idle moments on the hit HBO drama.) From its mirrored bar to its handsome stonework and crown moldings, from the painstakingly copied mosaics to the gewgawed billiards table, the villa is a stunning homage to the Hotel Bellagio -- one of the most luxurious Strip resorts, to be sure, but a mélange of styles just the same. It's a piece of Vegas on the prairie, right down to the actual Bellagio soap and shampoo in the powder rooms (complimentary to hotel guests) and the Ocean's Eleven poster outside the home theater.

The creation of Dorian Homes, the Villa Bellagio is largely the personal vision of Dorian's 48-year-old president, Paul Lambert. A former restaurateur who's been building custom and semi-custom homes in the Denver area since 1989, Lambert is also an enthusiastic patron of Vegas's Bellagio; he and his wife, Liza, held their wedding there two years ago. He's seen the remake of Ocean's Eleven, which was filmed there, five times, and he enlisted several artisans involved in the resort's construction to bring its look to Douglas County.

"I love the architecture, the mosaics, the gardens," Lambert says of his villa's Vegas counterpart. "I love the quality of construction. The idea was to give the place a resort feel outside, so you would never have to leave home -- to make it real nurturing and real custom. Many people have said it's the best parade house they've ever seen. I've heard that 25 times. It's gratifying, especially since we did it in five months instead of eighteen."

Not everyone has been bowled over by the villa, particularly in this economically troubled, drought-ridden season. But Lambert defends the house with paternal pride: "A swimming pool -- are you ready for this? -- takes 18% as much water as grass does," he says. "We used companies that offer top quality and are environmentally sensitive, too."

Yet for all its size, there is something oddly cramped and oppressive -- not to mention disorienting -- about the Villa Bellagio. Considerable space was sacrificed to the huge foyer; once you get past the grand view from the entrance, the thrill shrinks. You can play handball or slaughter cattle in the baths, but many of the rooms turn out to be relatively small, their dimensions diminished further by all the overstuffed furniture and high-end electronics, like the pop-up wide-screen TV at the foot of the master bed. The two upstairs bedrooms and the mother-in-law apartment are reached by separate staircases, like individual suites for Frank and the boys. Enough patio furniture to seat a platoon crowds the pool area, leaving little room for kids to romp. The entire affair sits on a half-acre lot, a puny estate for such a proud palazzo.

Lambert says the small lot is a fair tradeoff for the spectacular view of Daniel's Park and the Front Range. The floor plan, he adds, reflects the kind of owner he had in mind -- a family with older children who value their privacy. In fact, Lambert originally planned for his own family to occupy the villa.

"We could have connected the upstairs, but then it wouldn't have made for as grand an entry," he says. "Because our kids are older, we felt separating it was better. My kids love it. They're going to kill me if I sell it."

But Lambert says he has several prospects interested in the villa and is now "100% certain" that he will sell it. Like a lot of builders, Dorian Homes has been struggling through the economic downturn of the past year, and selling the villa will help extricate Lambert's company from certain financial difficulties.

Not that those difficulties are, by Lambert's account, all that worrisome. He has 27 lots in Daniel's Gate slated for semi-custom homes in the $400,000-$600,000 range, and his brochures stress Dorian's reputation for high standards and personal service. "Dorian Homes takes the extra time to make a home 'feel right' by managing the construction process closely and making sure all the pieces fit together flawlessly," one blurb proclaims. "Although other builders may try to imitate Dorian, there is no substitute for passion and excellence."

"I would say I'm the best in town," Lambert boasts. "[Tom] Martino used to rave about me on the radio." (Consumer reporter Martino says he doesn't remember ever mentioning Lambert or his company on his radio show: "I don't recall him at all. There could have been a problem, and I called and he took care of it. When people do that, I try to thank them on the air.")

But not all the raving about Lambert and his company is complimentary. A less flattering version can be found in court files in two counties, where Dorian is being sued by various subcontractors and suppliers for money owed to them, and in the accounts of several unhappy homebuyers, who claim they've had problems with defects in their dream homes, problems getting warranty work performed or, in one case, a problem getting a $30,000 deposit returned.

"Here he's building a $4 million home, and he was telling us he didn't have any money," says Maggie Stover, who lives down the street from Lambert in a subdivision filled with Dorian homes. Stover and her husband filed suit against Lambert over a dispute concerning her sewer line, a case that was resolved last year. "He's my neighbor, but he doesn't talk to anybody. He just threatens you with his lawyers and tries to intimidate you."

Lambert says that he's working out his debts with subcontractors and that the complaints about him are unfounded or overblown. He sees himself as a maverick champion of quality homes, taking on the big boys like Richmond and US Homes and outdoing them.

"I think we've been really responsive," he says. "This market is the toughest I've seen, but we're still building houses. And compare my houses with US Homes houses. My designs are more creative. I can give better prices. I inspect every house. I check every phase of construction. Do you think [Richmond president] Dave Mandarich goes and checks out every house? It would be a shame just to have these cookie-cutter houses, where there's no attention to detail."

Quality, Lambert insists, is a passion with him. "People are putting their life savings into these houses," he says. "They have a right to expect it to be done right."

Paul Lambert got into the homebuilding business as a disgruntled consumer. He started Paul's Place in 1979, a popular fast-service restaurant featuring Chicago-style hot dogs and gourmet hamburgers, and expanded to four stores by the time he sold his controlling interest in the operation in 1987. Left with time on his hands and a no-compete clause in his sale agreement, he began looking for something to do -- and found it in the housing market.

Lambert and then-wife Doron visited the 1988 Parade of Homes and wound up purchasing a custom model from Bainbridge. It was not quite everything he'd hoped for, an experience he recounts in one of his company's sales brochures: "After months of searching, our excitement turned to disappointment as we realized that a high-end custom home usually meant an increase in square footage, but not in quality or craftmanship," he writes. "It became evident that my concept of how the ideal home should be constructed was much different from that of the homebuilders I encountered."

In 1989, Lambert built his first spec home, in the Falcon Hills section of Highlands Ranch. Three years later, he had his own award-winning entry in the 1992 Parade of Homes at Rock Creek. The Denver economy was starting to shake loose of its late-Eighties malaise, and demand for luxurious custom and semi-custom homes on the fringes of established suburbs was increasing.

Lambert never looked back. He had a knack for sensing where the market was going, lining up the essential financing and persuading developers to sell him the choicest lots in the most desirable areas. It was a necessary set of survival skills, he says.

"The hard part for a smaller builder is finding the right land," he says. "The developers would rather sell to Richmond, where they know they've got the cash. Look at Daniel's Gate. It's not a great group of builders, to be honest with you. But it's who the developer decided to go with -- except for me. I was able to get in here because I had some great contacts."

Just how successful Lambert's business was became a contentious issue when Doron filed for divorce in late 1998. The case evolved into a bitter and costly battle that has stretched on for almost four years. Initially, Lambert claimed his gross monthly income was around $7,000; Doron, who was not directly involved in the operation of Dorian Homes, claimed that her husband had boasted of making between $700,000 and $1 million a year, and she produced bank statements showing that he withdrew between $20,000 and $50,000 a month.

Lambert responded that he'd received $59,000 in wages and $256,290 in "loan guarantee fees" in 1998, fees that were "typically offset by the loans he owes Dorian Homes for monies advanced to him to meet his monthly debt obligations." But as more financial details became known -- many of them now sealed in the court file -- Doron's monthly payments for maintenance and child support were increased from $4,500 to more than $12,000.

The acrimonious wrangling over money and parenting issues involving their three children dragged on for months. Early on, Doron obtained a temporary restraining order against Paul, claiming that "he is unwilling to voluntarily vacate the marital residence," that "there have been physical and verbal altercations" and that "Respondent has threatened to kill Petitioner and threatened to break her legs." For his part, Lambert denied any bad behavior and claimed that he'd been forced on at least one occasion to defend himself from his wife, after she'd hit him "more than twenty times with her fist."

The voluminous divorce file is teeming with ugly accusations about everything from concealed assets to denial of parenting time. Both sides have sought contempt citations against the other; after two years of litigation, Doron was sufficiently concerned about Paul's supposed depletion of marital assets through new car purchases, gambling excursions to the Bellagio and other Strip hotels, and "lavish and lengthy vacations" with his new girlfriend, 31-year-old Liza Robillon, that she asked the judge to limit Paul's spending to $20,000 a month. The judge complied -- and ordered both parties to "stop making derogatory comments about each other" and "stop discussing the divorce with children."

A final divorce decree was issued in July 2000. Doron was awarded the couple's $830,000 house in Falcon Hills, $12,250 in monthly expenses and child support, and the Lexus SUV. Paul kept Dorian Homes and the Mercedes. But the case continues to this day, with recent filings over parenting issues, motions for contempt, a hearing set this fall, and legal fees now stretching well into six figures.

Lambert's personal travails appear to have had little effect on his business -- or on his plans to build a dream house for his children and Liza, whom he married shortly after the divorce became final. Over the past few years, he's built dozens of homes in Province Center and Carriage Club Estates, two well-situated subdivisions in the thriving southeast corridor. He was within days of breaking ground for his villa in Carriage Club Estates, he says, when he learned that the Parade of Homes organizers had decided to switch the 2002 site from a development in Aurora to Daniel's Gate.

Lambert had acquired lots in Daniel's Gate last fall, in the wake of the real-estate slump triggered by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Recognizing that a home in the parade would help build traffic for his lots down the street, an area known as Topaz Vista, Lambert scrambled to build the Villa Bellagio in five months.

"I was the last one to get started," he says. "What delayed us was all the tile from Italy. Some of it was stuck in Customs."

Three weeks after the parade began, the villa still wasn't quite finished. It may be the first time in the history of the tour that paying customers have had the opportunity to peep into a master bath or Roman spa and glimpse workmen laying tile or sealing fixtures. But Lambert regards the entire effort, from assembling the financing to marshaling hundreds of artisans and laborers for months of painstaking, twelve-hour workdays, as his greatest triumph. In a time of tight money and lean budgets, he threw the dice on the ne plus ultra of parade homes.

It's a huge gamble, but one that could pay off handsomely. The sale of the villa and the properties he plans to build in Topaz Vista will go a long way, Lambert acknowledges, toward correcting his company's recent cash-flow problems. The shock waves of September 11 rattled housing markets across the nation, and Denver was no exception. Dorian's sales, like those of many upscale builders, dropped off dramatically; within weeks of the attacks, the company had five cancellations.

In recent months, several subcontractors and suppliers -- companies dealing in lumber and roofing, drywall and foundations, doors and floors -- have gone to court to collect on hundred of thousands of dollars' worth of mechanic's liens filed against Dorian properties in the Carriage Club Estates. In some instances, Dorian has worked out payment plans, but others are still pressing for reimbursement.

Although he's clashed with some of his subs over the sums involved or the quality of work performed, Lambert says the situation is largely a result of his resources getting stretched by the post-9/11 downturn. "I did fall behind, and it definitely hurts," he says. "The liens are basically past-due bills from my subs. But as these houses sell, they're getting paid off. In the last few weeks I've sold two of them, and I've got two left to go."

A recent flier on the two homes remaining in Dorian's Carriage Club development stresses that the models are available at "closeout pricing." The less expensive of the pair, the Suffolk II, comes with four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a four-car garage, "gourmet kitchen with bayed nook and adjacent butler's pantry" -- all for $630,000, price slashed from $649,646.

A few months ago, Hugh Devlyn took his wife, Lori, and their children to Carriage Club to see the lot where their future Dorian home would soon be built. The experience was a memorable one: Devlyn had scarcely emerged from his car when some of his prospective neighbors on Dacre Place showed up -- not to welcome him, but to try to discourage him from moving there.

"We had three different people come up to us on the street," Devlyn recalls. "One guy said he was ready to go to litigation because his house leaks every time it rains. He said, 'You guys don't want to go forward with this. If I had it to do over again, I never would have done it.'"

One of the homeowners who approached Devlyn that day was Richard Hallett, who'd moved to Dacre Place in 2001 and soon discovered water seeping into the house around windows during spring storms. Dorian resolved some of his complaints during his one-year warranty period, he says, but the leakage problem persists.

"If we get a hard rain, I have to put towels by the door," Hallett says. "There are some windows, the paint along the windowsills is chipped off because water comes in around them."

Dorian provides one-year warranty service to homebuyers through an independent company, which evaluates claims based on accepted industry standards. (The company also offers a limited ten-year warranty that covers major structural defects but excludes many other items.) Hallett says he was caught in a frustrating loop in which Dorian referred his complaints to the warranty company, which sent him back to Dorian, telling him they were having difficulty getting subcontractors to work on the Dacre Place homes.

"I don't think there's anybody in the neighborhood who has anything good to say about Dorian," Hallett says. "They all love living here because it's a beautiful area. But the way Paul has handled things wasn't even close to being professional. In that price range, you'd think you'd get a little bit of customer service."

Lambert insists he provides an extraordinary level of customer service; his sales literature boasts that Dorian's warranty service and followup was rated tops in the business by an independent survey. It's unfair, Lambert says, to focus on a handful of malcontents when the vast majority of his buyers are delighted with their homes. "There are always certain issues," he says. "Some people will take a magnifying glass to the house, and some people are never satisfied."

Hallett's complaint is particularly surprising, Lambert says, because his superintendent, Larry Mitchell, made numerous visits to Hallett's house over the course of the warranty period. (Mitchell confirms this; he says he hasn't heard from Hallett for months and was under the impression that all the problems had been resolved.) Hallett says that Mitchell was "somewhat sympathetic" but told him that many of his problems were "maintenance" issues rather than construction defects.

"Here we are, three months into a new home, and water's pouring through," Hallett says. "But he said it's up to the homeowner to maintain the windows and caulk them regularly. I'd been in there ninety days, and I'm supposed to caulk these picture windows that are thirty feet off the ground?"

Lambert says he's aware of one other home on the block with leaky windows, and his people have made several trips to resolve that problem as well. "I do have a problem with one homeowner who's been really awful," he says. "He's the one who yelled and screamed at the Devlyns...I see my homeowners as my kids. If someone acts really bad, I'm not the type to stop him. I put him on the end of my list, like a bad-acting kid. The kids who act good, I reward them. There's only one homeowner on that street who's really, really bad, and I won't return his calls."

Also low on Lambert's list are Calvin and Maggie Stover, who bought a Dorian home on South Kittiwake Street from its first owner in 1998 -- the same block to which Lambert himself moved following his divorce. In 1999, the Stovers' sewer began to back up, flooding their basement three times in fourteen months. Plumbers who inspected the line told the couple that their sewer line had been improperly installed, resulting in a "negative slope" that would cost thousands to repair.

Although the warranty period for the house had expired years before, the Stovers claimed that the problem was a construction defect and contacted Dorian Homes for relief. The couple says Lambert responded with a message on their answering machine: "You can write me as many letters as you want. You can write me 8,000 letters, but I am still not taking care of them, because the problem is not covered under warranty."

Last year the Stovers filed suit against Dorian and Lambert, representing themselves in the lawsuit. "Most people don't sue their builder because it costs so much to hire a lawyer," Maggie Stover says. "The cost exceeds the repair. I was told in my case that a lawyer would cost me $80,000 and up."

Although he lived down the street from them, just serving notice of the suit on Lambert was "quite a challenge," Maggie says. "I knew he wouldn't answer the door. He would just look out the window. But he parks all his cars outside, so I parked my car close to his BMW and went to the door and said, 'I hit your car.' He ran to his car, and my friend served him with the papers."

In oddly worded filings prepared by Maggie, a Romanian immigrant, the Stovers claimed various damages as a result of their sewer problem: "Plaintiffs are still sustaining damages from the hidden defect of their house, especially stress because they currently cannot use the toilets for pooping." Dorian's lawyers denied that the problem was a result of improper installation and were successful in getting most of the Stovers' claims dismissed. Ultimately, the case went to mediation, and the Stovers received a modest cash settlement.

Lambert says that the case was "completely unreasonable" and that the Stovers were simply trying to extract cash from him. "My warranty company paid them $2,000 to get rid of them because they were such a complete nuisance," he says. "I had all the engineering to prove I was 100 percent right, that there was positive slope."

But the Stovers insist they were in the right. "They tried to say things like, 'Well, your foundation shifted and the pipe rose,'" says Calvin Stover. "That was bogus. You'd see cracks in the foundation if that was the case."

"For one year, we had to poop in bags," adds Maggie. "It was a pretty horrible year."

As for Hugh Devlyn, he's had a few uneasy moments himself since he put down a $30,000 deposit for a Dorian home on Dacre Place. Following his encounter with Hallett and other residents of the block, he met with Lambert to discuss the complaints he'd heard. "Paul said there were some nuts on that street and he was going to get a restraining order against one guy," Devlyn recalls. "He made a good case that there are two sides to every story."

But shortly before Devlyn was scheduled to close on his new home, the financing fell through on the sale of his old house. According to his attorney, David Schlachter, the deposit Devlyn had paid Dorian was "earnest money, subject to financing. If he didn't get the financing through a particular lender in thirty days, it was refundable. It was pretty straightforward. The lender actually gave a written response that said he didn't qualify."

Devlyn's deposit didn't go into an escrow account-- although, Schlachter says, "there were representations made that it would." And when Devlyn tried to get his money back, he was directed to another lender chosen by Dorian.

"Paul said I had to talk to his financing guy," Devlyn recalls. "It was some guy at Wells Fargo who wanted me to do a one-year balloon and take out a second mortgage and a bridge loan -- it was like three loans, and my payments would have been more than my net take-home pay. It made no sense. I said, 'Why would you want to give me money that I can't pay back?'"

Devlyn filed suit against Dorian, Lambert and the property's real-estate brokers in August, seeking the return of his earnest money. Lambert says that while he's had people get cold feet and forfeit a deposit before, Devlyn's position regarding his contract to purchase a home is almost unique in his experience.

"I never have and never will put money into an escrow account," Lambert says. "It was never in my agreement. All the funds we get for deposit go right to our corporate account, and we can use it any way we want. Other builders operate the same way. This has nothing to do with escrow. Sometimes people want to get out of a contract, and they'll use the thirty-day contingency clause as a reason. They'll have a bogus letter written to me by a mortgage company I've never heard of."

But Lambert says he has formally agreed to refund Devlyn's money. The deposit was on his best lot in Dacre Place, he says, the one he was planning to build the Villa Bellagio on in the first place, and "I have other people who are interested in paying more money for that lot than he paid."

In Lambert's world, there is always another customer at the gate. Things may have slowed down since 9/11, but there is still a hunger for high-end, wallow-in-luxury properties on the frontiers of suburbia. And Dorian Homes is poised to accommodate them, Lambert says. Temporary cash-flow problems, some grousing from a few dissatisfied customers -- what is all that compared with the legacy of stunning-craftmanship-with-two-story-entry homes he's built across the metro area?

Compare his homes with any of the pricier models offered by the big boys, he suggests, all those numbingly identical McMansions and blown-up tract homes. Judge his work side by side with the stuff cranked out by builders who don't give a damn about quality or customer satisfaction. Take a good look at the Villa Bellagio, and find one home in the show that has a fraction of its daring, its wow factor, its one-of-a-kind dazzle.

In fact, building the villa has opened new vistas for Dorian Homes. Lambert says he's getting more inquiries about high-end custom homes now and may concentrate on that end of the market rather than the Topaz Vista/Carriage Club customer. Instead of models in the $400,000-$700,000 range, he's thinking tonier dream homes, tailored to the buyer's needs.

It may be tough to let the Bellagio go, but Paul Lambert is ready to sell it and move on. "You know, if it helps my business and cash flow and gets rid of all these liens, then I'm going to do it," he says. "I can always build it again."

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