You know you’ve reached New Albany when, about ten miles east of Columbus, you see the white paddock fence running along the freeway. It runs along most of the streets, around the schools and businesses too. Most paddock fences keep horses in. The people who live in New Albany can afford horses if they want to, but most of them are content with Range Rovers. The real countryside starts two miles past the New Albany exit. Inside the white paddock fence everyone is just playing country gentleman. Seven thousand people pretending they live in Surrey or the Cotswolds or Virginia horse country instead of the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio.
My wife and I moved to New Albany in 2005 when our daughter was barely a year old and our son was on the way. It was the classic story of new parent panic. We were convinced that our 75 year-old house in the city was too small, creaky, and drafty in which to raise babies. We knew that the schools in the area we were living were subpar. We probably could’ve dealt with all of that differently, but we didn’t want to so we moved out here.
We built our house in a neighborhood called Windsor, which sits right off the freeway. We were, in fact, the first people to move into Windsor, with our house being completed when the rest of the neighborhood was nothing more than frame-ups of future houses and a couple hundred muddy lots. Within a couple of years Windsor filled up with houses that, at least by New Albany standards, are modest and affordable, though not affordable by any objective standards. Most of them are more house than anyone needs. Moving there still requires one to join an HOA and conform in all of the ways an HOA makes a person conform. It still requires one to pay the monthly “village maintenance fee” which goes toward upkeep of New Albany’s well-manicured common areas and all of that white fence. Compared to the rest of New Albany, though, Windsor is pretty pedestrian.
When you pass Windsor you see the fire station, a gas station, and some real estate and insurance offices. Then you get to the restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques in the Village Center that is modeled after an English high street, complete with London-style street signs affixed to the sides of buildings with postal codes written on them. Beyond that you finally make your way to the country club neighborhoods where the real money is. Keswick. Ealy Crossing. North of Woods. Edge of Woods. Alban Mews. Fenway. Lambton Park. Southfield. Planters Grove. If you turn right down Greensward Drive you pass through the really swanky enclaves of Wiveliscombe, Clivdon, Tiverton, The Crescent, and Tensweep. Well, you don’t really pass through most of those, you pass by them because they’re gated. If you spend a little time in New Albany you get the hang of it. With the passage of time the neighborhood names even begin to seem a little less ridiculous, but only slightly so.
The reigning aesthetic of New Albany is Georgian mansion-meets-the-suburbs. These aren’t McMansions, really, at least not as one usually thinks of them. They’re not cheap or tacky. They’re well-built and mostly tasteful houses sitting on lots of proper scale. But while at first the houses seem imposing, eventually all of the red brick, all of the oversized chimneys, all of the circular driveways and all of the manicured hedges begin to blend together. And even if the lots are large and the lanes are grand, if you have a keen eye you’ll notice that they are, in fact, scattered on what amounts to a glorified tract pattern. Due to the sheer number of them, they seem cheaper and more anonymous with each one you pass. And, for all of the classic grandeur, most of these houses are barely thirty years old. Almost nothing here is.
That’s because New Albany wasn’t always like this. Before the 1980s it was a genuine little Ohio farm town dating back to the 1850s or so. It had a feed mill, a general store, a pizza place and a high school for the farm kids. Like so many other Ohio farm towns it was well on its way to oblivion. Then Les Wexner and the New Albany Company came.
Wexner is Ohio’s richest man and Columbus’ only billionaire. He was the founder of The Limited retail clothing empire, which, at various times, has either owned or spun off Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, Bath and Body Works and all manner of other stores that fill your local mall. Wexner decided that conquering the retail world was not enough. He wanted to make a more permanent mark and create something that would last basically forever. So he formed a company called The New Albany Company, bought up a bunch of land in and around New Albany through shell corporations, made some shady deals with the Columbus city council to get the water and sewers sent out this way and started building these faux Georgian mansions everywhere.
At the time Wexner announced his plans for New Albany he told the locals that if they put a blindfold on and came back in 20 years they wouldn’t know where they were. And he was right. A forest became a golf course and some orchards and farmland became neighborhoods. Instead of apples and soybeans, this land is now used to grow the over-privileged offspring of bankers, insurance executives and lawyers. They go to school on a campus of buildings that looks as though it was transported in toto from the University of Virginia. Leisure trails snake through the village — don’t you dare call it anything other than a village, even though legally speaking it became a city once it surpassed 5,000 residents — and connect the 600 acres of public parks and green spaces. The entire community — which was named “The Best Suburb in America” by Business Insider in 2015 — is lined and surrounded by miles of that signature white fence.
The first house Wexner built was his own. It’s a 22,000 square foot English-style manor house sitting on about 300 hundred acres. There was a richly detailed story about that from the late 1980s, before anyone knew what would happen to New Albany. Even today Wexner’s property — which is nothing short of a fortified compound — is pretty remote. New Albany is growing, yes, but it’s a very well-planned and restrained growth, little if any of which has reached his 300 acres. Even in winter, when the trees are bare, the only thing you can see on his property from the main road are the tops of his chimneys. When leaves are in bloom you could drive around the perimeter of the property on the country lanes which surround it and not realize there’s an estate back there at all. Unless you look closely at the white fence, that is, which around Wexner’s property is marked with signs with pictures of German shepherds on them and which read “Caution: Canine Patrolled.” Wexner likewise has 24-hour security which patrols the property and closely monitors those country lanes. Everyone who has lived in New Albany for any amount of time knows of someone who, while lost, pulled to the shoulder of Kitzmiller or New Albany-Reynoldsburg Road or who attempted to turn around in what looked to be an innocuous little gravel driveway, only to have dark SUVs descend upon them and ask them what their business was.
Until recently, the public was allowed on Wexner’s property once a year, for the New Albany Classic. The Classic was a combination of (a) a sanctioned equestrian competition where world class riders competed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money; (b) a family festival with rides, amusements, crafts, artisans, magicians, clowns, and dancers; and, to close the day (c) the “Concert at The Classic” which featured top musical performers such as Ariana Grande, the Jonas Brothers, and Demi Lovato. I took my kids to the New Albany Classic once when they were young. It was understated, tasteful and even elegant. There were no carny folk or state fair novelty foods to be seen. It put me in mind of some grand fair at a 19th century English manor where, once a year, the Earl of Shaftesbury (or wherever) would open his lands to the commoners for a grand garden party before kicking them out and closing the gates once again.
If Wexner’s compound seems well-guarded now it may as well have been an impenetrable fortress twenty-five years ago. At that point New Albany’s metamorphosis from farm town to anglophilic upscale paradise was already underway, but it had not yet reached critical mass. Some of the larger homes in the inner reaches of the country club had been built but the Village Center and the more modest neighborhoods didn’t even exist on blueprints yet. Apart from the old pizza place and the gas station there were no shops or restaurants to speak of. The only building within a mile of Wexner’s mansion was the 10,000 square foot guest house on the property, which was separately owned and deeded at the time. In 1996 its owner was Wexner’s financial manager, Jeffrey Epstein.
Wexner was Epstein’s only publicly-known client. In addition to handling Wexner’s personal finances, Epstein served as president of the real estate development company which was building New Albany and was a trustee of Wexner’s charitable foundation. He also had power of attorney and could hire people, fire people, write checks, transfer money, and basically do everything else on Wexner’s behalf.
In 1995 Epstein and his partner, the British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, met a 25-year-old graduate student at the New York Academy of Art named Maria Farmer. Epstein and Maxwell said they loved Farmer’s art and bought one of her paintings for $6,000. Epstein later hired Farmer to acquire art on his behalf. In early 1996 Farmer got a fantastic commission: the creation of two large-scale paintings that would be used in the upcoming Jack Nicholson film “As Good As It Gets.” It’d be difficult for Farmer to complete such work in her small walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village, so when Epstein offered her a place where she could more easily work on such large paintings it seemed like a great idea. That place was Epstein’s country house in New Albany.
Farmer worked on the paintings for two months in the summer of 1996. As she did so, she was discouraged by Wexner’s security staff from going outside without getting permission from Wexner’s wife, Abigail, whom Farmer says she spoke to by phone. She was told by security staff there were armed guards watching the house. The only time she left the property was when she went to the airport to pick up Epstein and Maxwell during their many trips from New York to New Albany.
On their final visit that summer Farmer alleges that Epstein and Maxwell called her up to their bedroom where they sexually assaulted her. After the assault Farmer fled the bedroom to her own room where she called 911. She was first put on hold and then hung up on. Then she called the Sheriff’s Department but was told “we work for Wexner.” Which they did, as part of Wexner’s private security was contracted out to the Sheriff’s Department who provided off-duty deputies for patrols. She claims she was then told by Wexner’s security staff that she could not leave, with a guard telling her “you’re not going anywhere.” It took her father driving to the estate in person to get her 12 hours later before she was permitted to leave. When she returned to New York she filed a police report and contacted the FBI but nothing ever came of it until, years later, Epstein was prosecuted in an unrelated case. Famer’s allegations of what happened in 1996 only became public last year when she executed an affidavit in support of a civil suit against Harvard University professor and Epstein friend and attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has been alleged to have been involved in Epstein’s illegal sex trafficking ring.
The Wexners have denied any knowledge about Farmer’s allegations and claim to have no recollection of her staying on the estate that summer. Those familiar with Wexner’s security protocols have cast doubt on Farmer’s claims that she was held there against her will, but Farmer relayed those claims to friends at the time they happened and based on how tightly access is guarded to the property in the normal course, they seem credible. I have no actual knowledge of what Wexner’s security guards did or did not say or do, or how much freedom of movement Farmer might’ve had on the Wexner property, but based on geography and based on the character of Wexner’s estate, I don’t think it would even require such acts by the security team for Farmer to feel like a prisoner there. Even today, if you were on that property and wanted or needed to leave, it’d be a a good mile and possibly two mile walk, depending on which of the estate’s gates you exited, down dark country roads to the nearest business of any kind. And that’s before you account for the armed guards and canine patrols.
Epstein, who had purchased the guest house from Wexner for $3.5 million in 1992, sold it back to a holding company controlled by Wexner for $8 million in 1998 even though the county auditor currently taxes it based on a value of around $3 million. Whatever accounted for that rapid inflation in price that 1998 sale was then, and still remains, the most expensive property transfer in the history of Franklin County, Ohio. Epstein was arrested in 2006 and was credibly accused of sexually abusing scores of minors. The charges were reduced to two state prostitution charges to which he pled guilty in a sweetheart deal that gave him only 13 months prison during which he was allowed to leave each day to go to work. On July 6, 2019, he was arrested again and was accused of masterminding a large-scale international sex trafficking ring. He was denied bail and, seventeen days later, was found hanged in his jail cell. For the next year Ghislaine Maxwell’s whereabouts where unknown, but she was arrested in July of 2020 for her part in Epstein’s crimes.
Les Wexner cut ties with Epstein after his 2006 arrest and then, as now, disclaims any knowledge of his activities, either on his property in New Albany or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the adverse publicity in the wake of Farmer’s allegations coming to light last year and Epstein’s reemergence into the public eye, combined with poor performance of his company, led to Wexner’s retirement as its CEO in early 2020. His name still graces the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, its Wexner Center for the Arts and a Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and his money and influence continues to power an untold number of other businesses, political initiatives, charities, foundations and other pursuits.
And, of course, there is still New Albany. The village he planned and built. The village where he remains a respected figure. The village whose residents refer to him as “Les” whether they know him personally or not. The village where, if you’re up early enough on Sunday mornings, you might see Wexner driving around in his Bentley or one of his other rare or classic cars. Or, more likely, where you may see the his helicopter flying overhead, ferrying him or someone else from his estate to a board meeting or to the airport or someplace else beyond where the white fences run.
Sixteen years later and I’m still in New Albany. I don’t live in the same house I built back in 2005, but I still live in Windsor, having downsized to a townhouse up by the front of the neighborhood, closer to the freeway, after my wife and I split up. She moved out of New Albany and I didn’t want to disrupt my kids’ lives any more than they were already being disrupted, so I stayed in order to keep them in that school district which lured us here in the first place.
Between changing careers and my divorce, my life and my values are very different now than they were sixteen years ago when I first came to New Albany. At the time I didn’t look too hard at what this place was all about but now I can’t walk around America’s Best Suburb without seeing it with very different eyes than I did when I first came here. I see those faux Georgian mansions as mini Wexner estates and wonder if, like the actual Wexner estate, their gates conceal crimes. Crimes which will also go unpunished because of the wealth and status of those who live inside.
(photo by Lisa Hinson, donated to the New Albany Community Foundation, and licensed via Wikimedia Commons)