Phil Donahue is accustomed to applause. But this month he really brought down the house, and no one was cheering.
The house in question is—was—an ultramodern concrete-and-glass structure, considered by many an architectural masterpiece, adjacent to the Westport, Conn., mansion that Donahue and wife Mario Thomas call home. As far as Donahue was concerned, it was an eyesore and a security risk. Never mind that local historians regarded the “Labyrinth House,” designed by the internationally acclaimed architect John Johansen, as one of the more significant pieces of architecture in town. Donahue bought the house and its seven-acre parcel for $6.8 million in March. (The land alone was worth $6 million.)Then the talk-show host, famous for his receptivity to all points of view, tuned out his critics and bulldozed the house.
“It’s like a death in the family,” says Johansen, 72, who was commissioned to build the house in 1963 by surgeon Howard Taylor. The house looked out on Long Island Sound from Westport’s “Gold Coast,” which is lined with multimillion-dollar dwellings, many of them summer homes. “Mr. Donahue has a right to his taste,” says Johansen. “But ownership is a responsibility and not a power over everything. If it were the Mona Lisa and he didn’t like it, he would have had it destroyed. He’s known on TV as Mr. Sensitivity, but I find it difficult to reconcile his image in public and his performance in private.”
Willis Mills, president of the Connecticut Society of Architects, tried to dissuade Donahue from demolishing the 3,130-square-foot home by explaining “what made the house special,” he says. Mills told Donahue that architects made pilgrimages from all over the world to see the house’s curved forms and revel in “its rich juxtaposition of surfaces”—the contrast of its rough concrete exterior and its seamless seashell-smooth interior. “It was no use,” says Mills. “He found the house to be ugly and overly modernistic. In the midst of the conversation, I felt like he had a microphone in his hand. He had it in a tight grip and he wouldn’t release it.”
Donahue remains unmoved by the furor. “That house was on the market for a long time,” he says, “and nobody wanted to buy it. I’m prepared to respect people who say it’s a masterpiece, but it was maladapted to the area. It looked like an avant-garde bomb shelter. It was surrounded by an empty lot, and it was a home for vagrants, lovers and other strangers at midnight. There were beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers. I don’t want to live next door to an empty house. Where were all these caring people when the building was empty? I’m supposed to have some moral obligation to a house nobody wants to buy?”
Westport residents insist that the house did not harbor intruders (it had a burglar alarm), and that it would have been sold and occupied had Donahue not snapped it up.
Donahue, whose more pressing fight is with Oprah Winfrey in their War of the Nielsens, dismisses this contretemps on the homefront with humor. “When they pass out the scandals,” he has said, “I’ll take this one.” Still, his reputation in Westport may have taken a beating. “I’ve heard that he wants to get into the yacht club,” says Johansen, the architect. “He won’t make it now.”