On the highest privately owned peak in the Bay Area, just east of the Napa-Solano line, John Roscoe, the Libertarian entrepreneur who founded Cigarettes Cheaper, built an abode of jaw-dropping distinction.
Designed by an architect who can trace her influences back to Frank Lloyd Wright, the house has views of downtown Napa, the skyline of San Francisco, the snowy peaks in the Sierra Nevada. When it rains, the home is one with the clouds.
The three-bedroom, 13,600-square-foot house was finished four years ago. The price, including 1,700 acres: $17 million. “We didn’t set a budget,” Roscoe said. “We were rich at that time.”
Roscoe, a vigorous 77-year-old, is rich no longer. His trophy house, with 160 acres, is on the market for $19 million. If you want the entire estate, including views of two 60-foot waterfalls in Green Valley, the price is $39.5 million.
“We’re really looking for someone who wants to own the whole thing. It would be a shame to split it up,” Roscoe said. “That’s why we have the pop-up.”
The pop-up? A three-dimensional representation of the house pops up when you open the sales brochure for Tawantan, which Roscoe insists is Miwok for “the house above the morning clouds.”
The paper model captures two of the distinctive features that earned the house features in Architectural Digest and Wallpaper magazine: the cantilevered swimming pool that shoots off the side of the hillside (an infinity pool that truly stretches to infinity) and vast expanses of interior and exterior glass walls, suggesting Tawantan is Miwok for “house of Windex.”
The pop-up was crafted to catch the eye of the world’s super rich. Maybe a hedge fund manager in Manhattan. A big name Hollywood star. “People who have money and don’t mind spending it,” Roscoe said.
As spectacular as the house appears by daylight, it’s even more dazzling at twilight, he said. Frameless windows 15 feet high wrap 360 degrees around the main floor, refracting the setting sun into a half-dozen or more sunsets. “There are no bad seats,” he said.
Although the house cost a fortune, “it’s a simple house,” Roscoe said. The main floor is essentially one large circular room, with a glass atrium at the center that opens to the sky.
From the kitchen, where she cooks virtually all the meals for her husband and herself, Marilyn Roscoe said she enjoyed the unobstructed views, inside and outside. Most of the whole house is open to scrutiny when she stands at the stove.
The lower floor, which is built into the mountainside, houses more intimate spaces, including a book-lined study and a three-bay garage with modern art on the walls.
“My favorite part is the pool,” said Kathy Luebcke, the broker with Show Napa Inc. who has the listing for the house. With the press of a button, a glass wall retracts, merging interior and exterior pools. A swimmer faces an apparent precipice.
To help market the house, the Roscoes have built a helicopter pad. Anyone who can afford the property can afford a helicopter, Roscoe said.
Prospective buyers who arrive at Tawantan by car will pass through a savanna dotted with camels, rhinos, elephants and a 71-foot dinosaur cut into three parts.
These life-size, fiberglass creatures once greeted customers at one of Roscoe’s earlier ventures, the Cheaper convenience store chain. The dinosaur was a traffic stopper outside the Cheaper on Interstate 80 in Dixon.
The Roscoe house has a personal back story as compelling as its architecture. Eight years ago when the Roscoes hired architect Helena Arahuete to build their dream home, Cigarettes Cheaper, a single-product successor to Cheaper, was flying high.
Offering smokes at a discount, Cigarettes Cheaper was a retail juggernaut. It would grow over six years to 850 stores in 40 states, capturing 4 percent of U.S. cigarette sales. John Roscoe and his son Ned had plans for another 4,000 outlets.
Cigarettes Cheaper’s collapse was more swift than its rise. First the company was sued by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for selling “gray-market” cigarettes from unauthorized sales channels. The Roscoes countered that Reynolds had engaged in monopolistic practices to try to force them out of business.
Cigarettes Cheaper lost a 2004 jury trail in Chicago. The judge wouldn’t admit their best evidence, Roscoe said. The family appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in February.
It was a tough loss, said Roscoe, who said he racked up $19 million in legal expenses going up against the tobacco giant. “It would have been $100 million to $1 billion if we’d won,” he said.
It wasn’t R.J. Reynolds, but lenders who delivered the fatal blow, calling in $40 million in loans for Cigarettes Cheaper inventory, Roscoe said.
Cigarettes Cheaper might have survived if he had been willing to take in partners, but he had wanted to own it all, Roscoe said. “I’ve never been good at having partners,” he said.
When it became apparent that they would have to sell the house, the Roscoes began offering it for weddings, special events and photo shoots for luxury products and services.
It costs $3,500 a night — two nights minimum — to sleep in the master bedroom where the TV drops out of sight so as to not block night view of twinkling Fairfield. The basic wedding rental is $10,000.
Companies such as Toyota, Armani and Kodak have used the Roscoe aerie with its ultra-modern, uncluttered spaces for photo shoots.
“They say it’s the inspiration. You can’t get this inspiration in the studio,” Roscoe said. A one-day shoot involving 30-40 production employees and a catering company has reportedly cost as much as $350,000, he said.
The finished ads sometimes show so little house that the Roscoes hardly recognize the setting as their own. A recent issue of The Economist featured their home on the back cover in an ad for Credit Suisse. The photographer had inserted the New York skyline in place of the natural horizon.
Roscoe says no one should feel sorry for his reverse of fortune. “We’re used to hardship,” he said. “Life is a process. It’s up and down. It’s never easy.”
The Roscoes are planning a business comeback. They have begun selling the electric roll-your-own cigarette machine.
“We think this is the big deal of our lives,” said Roscoe, who pulled out a Fresh Choice Electric Cigarette Maker, poured in a bag of tobacco and was soon churning out ciggies.
The Roscoes commissioned the invention of the machine, which retails for $449. By saving smokers $20 to $30 a carton, it quickly pays for itself, Roscoe said. A proficient user should be able to make a pack in two minutes, he said.
When Tawantan sells, Roscoe will use some of the profits to boost marketing of his roll-you-own machine. “We will do with it what we were going to do with Cigarettes Cheaper,” he said.