Two decades after luxury real estate development swept the valley, a grandiose island estate on Flathead Lake remains up for grabs

Story by Dillon Tabish
When a prospective buyer calls, whether it’s a Hollywood movie producer or a wealthy European businessman, Dawn Maddux has the difficult task of describing the scale of Montana and everything it encompasses.

After all, this is Big Sky Country. The scope of the Treasure State’s vast landscape exceeds most imaginations. Try explaining the towering mountain ranges, the wild forestlands or the sweeping ripples of Flathead Lake without infusing some level of hyperbole.

You have to see it to believe it.

The same goes for Shelter Island Estate, a 22,000-square-foot manor on a private island perched off the western shore of Flathead Lake near Rollins. It’s the most expensive piece of luxury real estate on the market in Montana — $29 million for 22 acres — and its character is as uncommon as the natural wonders surrounding it.

In a real estate market often defined — sometimes stereotypically — by the Western style, Shelter Island is an outlier, a stone-and-copper castle in a world of mountain mansions.

“This is not a typical Montana property,” said Maddux, the property’s listing broker with Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty in Missoula. “I list many beautiful houses and most have that rustic Montana style. This is very much like a castle.”

Those distinctive attributes have made the estate both mysterious and majestic, yet controversial, from the beginning.

Its grand inception came in the midst of the Flathead Valley’s luxury real estate renaissance in the 1990s and early 2000s. Two decades ago, Montana, and the Flathead in particular, became a main attraction among celebrities, and the high-profile influx grabbed the attention of major media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, “Celebrity Land Rush On In Montana;”

Baltimore Sun,  “Stars Are Crowding Big Sky Country’s Empty Landscape;” and New York Times, “As Logging Fades, Rich Carve Up Open Land In West.”

Like wildlife viewing, celebrity sightseeing became a spectator sport in the quiet confines of the Flathead Valley — Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Phil Jackson, Drew Bledsoe, John Lithgow. The cast of luminaries was extensive.

It was in this environment that two of Montana’s most extravagant residential enterprises surfaced on Flathead Lake.

The first emerged on Cromwell Island, originally known as Papoose Island, located between Wild Horse Island and the small town of Dayton. In the early ’90s, Robert M. Lee, a reclusive multi-millionaire and famed sportsman and art collector, built a $25 million, 30,000-square-foot concrete fortress on the island. At the time, it was believed to be the largest home in Montana. Armed guards were regularly seen patrolling the second largest island on Flathead Lake.

Lee died last year. A Nevada-based trust company set up by Lee before his death has taken ownership of the property.

In the shadow of Cromwell Island to the north, another island became the subject of a significant makeover. In a bay sheltered from the notorious storms of Flathead Lake, this quiet isle was where Indian tribes would historically gather for its healing powers. It was here, as legend goes, where a fisherman in the early 1900s swam to safety and found refuge after his boat capsized. From then on, the locals began calling it Shelter Island.

Don Abbey, the real estate mogul who founded The Abbey Co., arrived from California with an ambitious vision for this scenic haven. He purchased the private island for $1.76 million in 2000 from the Baldwin family.

Construction of the grand estate began in 2001 and materials started arriving by the barge load, from African mahogany to Carrara marble. Every aspect of the three-story, five-bedroom main house, from the copper observatory overlooking the lake to the great hall with its 45-foot ceilings, was custom designed with craftsman skill. The commercial-grade gourmet kitchen could satisfy any top chef and the wine cellar could house the world’s finest spirits. There’s an indoor shooting range downstairs. The boathouse, at 2,600 square feet with two granite fireplaces and a steam room, could hold four boats and a family. More than 200 people, including several local subcontractors, were hired to build the decadent property, which has a helipad for year-round access.

"Everything about it grand," says Shelter Island's listing broker, Dawn Maddux.

“Everything about it grand,” says Shelter Island’s listing broker, Dawn Maddux.

But almost immediately, Shelter Island was beset with trouble. Throughout the 10 years it took to build the grandiose estate, Abbey sued 16 subcontractors, eventually winning a $12 million judgment in Flathead County District Court due to costs exceeding expectations. Abbey’s original business partner, Brendon Retz of Whitefish, sued Abbey, who countersued after alleging that Retz was using company money to splurge on expensive items such as helicopters. Later, one of his own lawyers sued Abbey for allegedly not paying $230,000 in attorney fees.

Most recently, Abbey fought the state of Montana over his property taxes, protesting the appraised value of the island and its manor. His attorneys claimed the property was worth $9.8 million for tax purposes and wanted Abbey’s 2014 property tax bill of $367,696 lowered by two-thirds. Abbey lost his bid in 2015 after the state’s Tax Appeal Board upheld the original value of $41.8 million.

Throughout this saga, Shelter Island has been on the market, waiting for a purchaser willing to turn the page on its tumultuous origins and begin a new chapter. Abbey has turned the property over to Second Step Holding Company out of Maryland. Multiple luxury real estate companies have tried to seal a deal, originally listing the property for $78 million, then $59 million and now $29 million.

While Shelter Island awaits a new suitor, several other high-end properties that emerged in the Flathead’s boom years of the ’90s and 2000s are also for sale. Including Shelter, five of the seven most expensive listings in the state are in the valley. Four are tucked along Whitefish Lake.

Bill Foley, the majority owner of Whitefish Mountain Resort, Glacier Restaurant Group and a new NHL franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, has listed his 21-acre ranch with an 11,500-square-foot lodge-style home along the northern end of Whitefish Lake for $26.7 million. Next to Foley’s estate, the Swift Eagle Ranch is listed for $20 million and boasts more than 500 feet of lakeshore frontage. The 35-acre enclave includes 4,868 square feet of living space surrounded by a mountain spring that feeds into ponds on the property.

The Golden Bear Ranch, sitting on 5.5 acres of forested lakeshore property, is listed for $10.5 million. Actress Julia Roberts and her then-fiance Kiefer Sutherland built this estate in 1990. With a total of 11,000 square feet of living space, it was fully remodeled in 2015 and boasts a 9-hole disc golf course, hot tub and 2,220-square-foot guesthouse.

And at the northern end, where Smith Creek feeds into the lake, another waterfront estate situated on 10 acres adjacent to the Point of Pines is listed for $15 million. This expansive property includes five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a billiard room and theater inside 9,740 square feet of living space.

Maddux regularly hears from prospective buyers around the world who are interested in the mysterious Shelter Island on Flathead Lake and its location in Northwest Montana.

“It’s hard to describe — everything is gargantuan,” she said. “Everything about it is grand and you have to take a few minutes and absorb it all … I don’t think there is anywhere else quite like it in the world.”

“I really do anticipate that we will get it sold this year,” she continued. “We’ve definitely had some qualified buyer interest.”

And who might be that perfect candidate, someone who could find sanctuary in this quiet bay, a shelter from the storm?

“That’s the $29 million question,” Maddux said.