This postcard-perfect town near Boston was where the first patriots died in the Revolutionary War.It was also where Charles Ponzi, the financial con artist who pioneered the category of swindle that now bears his name, made his last stand.
Mr. Ponzi, a hardscrabble Italian immigrant whose fraudulent scheme allowed him to guzzle cash and briefly taste luxury, was only a short-term resident of Lexington, buying a mansion here in 1920 just weeks before his arrest.
The mansion at 19 Slocum Road – a three-story residence in the colonial revival style, with stately balusters and a circular porch, alongside a porte-cochère leading to a carriage house in back – sat privately owned for decades.
But on Sunday, the house opened to the public for the first time in memory, allowing curious neighbors to explore its many rooms and marvel at its Art Deco flourishes. Some who visited were drawn by the legend of Mr. Ponzi, whose particular brand of trickery became known to a wider audience when Bernard L. Madoff admitted in 2009 to perpetrating it on a far larger scale. Others simply wanted a peek inside one of the most distinctive houses in the area.
Rick Friedman for The New York TimesThe current owners of the mansion at 19 Slocum Road are seeking to sell it for $3.3 million.
A dandy and a charmer, Mr. Ponzi enjoyed a glowing media spotlight during the period when his scheme – which paid earlier investors with money gathered from the newer victims – was active. He lived in the house with his mother and his wife, Rose, who decorated it lavishly.
The current owners, Ofer Gneezy and Christine McLaughlin, a husband and wife who bought the property in 2000, are seeking to sell it for $3.3 million. In the future, the only access to the house will be through private showings to interested buyers.
This weekend, however, the Lexington Historical Society was able to bring hundreds of curiosity seekers inside as part of a paid tour of 12 notable homes in the area.
“The thing that surprised me when we bought the house was that he was a real person, with a first name,” said Ms. McLaughlin, 61, a graduate of Harvard Business School who once worked at the Bank of Boston.
Rick Friedman for The New York TimesThe Lexington Historical Society brought hundreds of curiosity seekers inside as part of a paid tour.
Some of the original touches remain. In the living room, two five-armed chandeliers with lusterware art glass, in an ornate expression of Art Deco, still hang from the ceiling, accompanied by matching sconces on the walls. The balusters on the staircase – a variety of turned, fluted and rope designs – are also said to be original, as are the dumb waiter and the zinc sink in the butler’s pantry.
The Ponzi décor that does not survive was a ghostly overlay on Sunday’s tour. A bearskin rug once lay before a black marble fireplace in the living room, which also contained a Victrola above a tiger skin rug, according to the Lexington Historical Society. The only wall-hanging in the room at that time was said to be a portrait of Rose Ponzi that evoked the Mona Lisa.
Upstairs, the original master bedroom is now used as a guest room, with the current master suite situated in a sumptuous addition that was built in the late 1990s. Throughout the house are vintage telephones, an old switchboard and other antiques, which, though they conjure up Mr. Ponzi’s era, were placed there by the current owners.
During tours, much of the chatter on Sunday focused on Mr. Ponzi and his life and times.
“It’s a good conversation piece,” said Mr. Gneezy, 62, the owner, who sold a company he founded, iBasis, which carries voice over the Internet, to the Dutch telecommunications group Royal KPN. He said he would hold business meetings in the house. “I was the C.E.O. of a public company. So it was always a chuckle.”
The house was built roughly a decade before Mr. Ponzi bought it for $39,000 (about $462,300 in today’s dollars). A big part of the payment was in the paper from his fraud. To some visitors on Sunday, the association was chilling.
“I wouldn’t want to live here,” said Joan Galgay, 66, a retired bank worker. “It’s gorgeous, but all this money was stolen from people.”
Others were captivated by Mr. Ponzi’s mystique.
“I grew up in New York City, and I saw people doing three-card monte,” said Haskel Straus, 64, who is retired from teaching business people a communication technique known as neurolinguistic programming. “I don’t know, but for some reason the concept of people who rip people off for a living …” he added, implying that he found those people fascinating.
Mr. Ponzi “was the anti-Madoff,” said Van Seasholes, 81, a former principal of Lexington High School who is on the board of the Lexington Historical Society. “People liked him even when they found out he was a crook.”
One specious rumor seems to refuse to die.
“I still think there’s money buried in the backyard,” said Gerry Boncoddo, 62, a retired state government worker who lives in the area.
“I think it’s in the mantel,” said Ken Nill, 74, a serial entrepreneur with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All we have to do is take it apart.”
Mr. Gneezy tried to set the record straight. “I tell them, you still don’t understand what a Ponzi scheme is,” he said. “There is no money.”
After Mr. Ponzi’s arrest, his wife remained in the house until 1923, when it was bought through the Ponzi bankruptcy by John H. Devine, a lawyer. The Devine family owned the house until 1994. During that period, the property included an adjoining acre with tennis courts.
“The Devines were the social set in Lexington,” said Helen Lee, 85, who said she had lived in the neighborhood since 1966. “They did a lot of entertaining.”
To the public, however, the house remained closed. Clare Gillis, 68, who formerly worked in the legal department of SunGard, said her daughter would sometimes stay the night at the Ponzi house. “We’d walk by and say, can’t you imagine playing on a grass tennis court there?”
He was no Samuel Adams or Thomas Paine, heroes of the American Revolution. But Mr. Ponzi does capture the imagination of Lexington’s residents. Because his fraud happened so long ago, “it doesn’t feel as awful as Madoff,” said Ms. McLaughlin, the owner.
“Even though Ponzi was a crook,” she said, “he was Lexington’s crook.”
The New York Times