New York-based celebrity interior designer Tony Ingrao bragged in the May 2014 issue of Architectural Digest that his St. John mansion was “sympathetic with the landscape” of the surrounding National Park — even though park officials had repeatedly warned him that his construction was destroying the area’s natural resources.
On Monday, the environmental enforcement section of the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil claim against Ingrao, asking a judge to order him to pay for “the destruction of, loss of, and injury to soils, plants, and other natural resources within the Park,” according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
While Ingrao’s dream Caribbean home — the second St. John property he’s acquired and remodeled for himself in the last 25 years — was feted by fellow luxury designers, the construction wrought havoc on the local environment, causing a landslide and fundamentally changing the infrastructure of the roadway, according to government attorneys.
The case began in May 2003 when Ingrao acquired a 0.33-acre parcel in Estate Denis Bay, Maho Bay Quarter, located along Susannaberg Road. He subsequently acquired an adjoining 0.24-acre parcel in 2011 under “Denis Bay Properties, LLC,” and also owns a third adjacent parcel, according to property records available online, which show Ingrao owns a total of about one acre of land, surrounded on all sides by National Park property.
Ingrao began construction on the property in 2006, and the National Park received a complaint on June 4, 2012 that the construction was damaging park land, according to the complaint.
The following day, a park employee saw signs that soil and plants had been removed and redeposited on park land around Ingrao’s property, according to the complaint.
Between January and August of 2013, Ingrao continued unauthorized construction that “injured, damaged and destroyed over thirteen acres of Park resources,” according to the complaint.
The complaint itemized some of the damage employees observed, including:
• Construction of concrete structures on Susannaberg Road and park land “including a large planter, entry gate, cistern foundation, paved parking area, and large power vault.”
• Use of a backhoe to excavate “tons of soil” from the road bed, which “substantially increased the grade of Susannaberg Road,” portions of which “now lie as far as fifteen feet below its original altitude.”
• Removal of trees, plants, and “tons of soil” from park land that created a 30- to 40-foot exposed slope along Susannaberg Road.
• Removal of more trees, plants, and soil, that were replaced with “exotic vegetation” planted “over native vegetation” that had been covered with fill material to widen Susannaberg Road. “Disturbance caused rock slide, resulting in further destabilization and injury” of park land.
• Construction of a concrete retaining wall on Susannaberg Road that caused more disturbance to soil and vegetation.
• Construction of unspecified “engineered structures on Susannaberg Road,” which collapsed during a rainstorm on May 10, 2013, “causing a substantial landslide” onto park land.
The complaint lists eight separate dates on which park employees observed “substantial injuries” to park land caused by the construction activities, and lists “at least” four dates between March and May 2013 on which “Park employees notified Defendants that the construction activities caused, and were continuing to cause, substantial injury to Park resources.”
Federal environmental law requires the government to repair the damages, and is asking a judge to order Ingrao to pay those unspecified costs.
A designer-to-the-stars feted internationally for his multimillion-dollar luxury renovations, Ingrao and his spouse and business partner, Randy Kemper, led a reporter and photographer for Architectural Digest on a tour of their “private retreat in the Virgin Islands,” which was published in the magazine in May 2014.
The reporter began by noting that “Americans are accustomed to taking liberties, especially when it comes to architecture,” before launching into a breathless account of Ingrao and Kemper’s Caribbean dream realized — interspersed with anecdotes about their frustrations designing for the climate.
“We had a real learning curve in handling the conditions here,” Ingrao said. “There are times of the year when the sun, wind, and rain can be formidable. We once put down a bunch of great North African carpets and returned six months later to find that they’d been devoured by insects.”
Ingrao replaced the rugs with “unpalatable” silk carpets by Stark, according to the article.
The adjoining lot “is now home to a garden and a caretaker’s cottage” and “hugging the hillside, the vertically oriented residence is composed of two independent double-level structures — local building codes restrict dwellings to two stories — connected by alfresco stairs,” according to the article.
“We wanted everything we used to be sympathetic with the landscape—nothing white or stucco,” Ingrao said, according to the article. “This house is elemental. It feels like it’s growing out of the park.”
The reporter concluded by comparing Ingrao to “master of organic architecture” Frank Lloyd Wright, who “once opined that a house should never be on a hill but of the hill, each living together in perfect accord. With their dazzling Caribbean getaway, Ingrao and Kemper have established a personal cloister that is spectacularly and blissfully of the island itself.”