A Perfect Villa for Obama Peace Talks

By: Garrett M. Graff

Jimmy Carter came up with the Camp David Accords. Bill Clinton did the Dayton Accords. Could Barack Obama give us the Borgo Accords?

When it comes time for Obama to seek out an exclusive retreat for a high-level summit, he need look no further than his traveling aide and spokesperson, Linda Douglass, whose husband, John Phillips, has spent the last seven years sprucing up a Tuscan villa.

The Borgo Finocchieto, outside the town of Buonconvento, was the last stop on a two-year search by Phillips—whose grandparents emigrated from Italy and whose name traces back to “Filippi”—for the perfect property to tie him to his Italian roots. When he first saw the five-acre spread, he was struck by the silence and the misty hills and vineyards it overlooked—a view, he says, that hasn’t changed much in the 1,000-year history of the estate. It took two years of negotiations with the Italian government before he could begin restoring the abandoned property, once an estate home for 60 people.

 

Seven years after he bought it, the Borgo is ready for occupancy. While Phillips, a lawyer who has spent his career arguing cases on government fraud that allowed him to keep a chunk of the money recovered, won’t say how much the project cost, estimates place it in the tens of millions of dollars. “Every 400 years, a place needs to be redone,” he says.

Renovations were painstaking because he could restore only what already existed on the site; a new gym and spa had to be built within the side of a hill to preserve the landscape. He hired many local artisans to work on details and imported others from Eastern Europe.

The finished 30,000-square-foot operation has 22 bedrooms, a winetasting room, conference facilities, an 18-car garage, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and satellite TV—although not in the bedrooms, which are designed for relaxation and escape. A local chef, Luigi Ricci, has the run of a stunning kitchen. “Any great chef coming in, I wanted them to say, ‘This is the kitchen I’ve always wanted,’ ” Phillips says.

And key for any future Obama visit? There’s a full basketball court.

Given the size of the facility, Phillips has little interest in using it as a family getaway—it’s just too large for a handful of people, he says. Instead, he hopes to establish the Borgo as a center of conversation and dialogue for the world’s top thinkers, much as the Aspen Institute and the World Economic Forum play host to high-level gatherings.

“You connect in different ways in a setting like this,” says Phillips. “I want it to be seen as the place for arts, culture, policy, and ideas.”

His next restoration project is easier for Washingtonians to view: He’s converting an 1881 brick mansion on the edge of Dupont Circle that once belonged to Senator James Blaine into offices and a house for him and Douglass.

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This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.