America’s Downton Abbey
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
When Chateau Carolands was built in 1915 in Hillsborough, California, it was one of the largest private homes in America. Its story is a window into the last 100 years of American history. It is a tale of fabulous wealth and financial disaster, of great loves and betrayals, of wars, earthquakes, a murder, and most of all, about beauty, refined taste, art, and architecture.
Chateau Carolands, the historic, 98-room, 65,000-square-foot mansion that rests on the highest plateau in Hillsborough, California, 20 miles south of San Francisco, has morphed many times in its near-century existence.
It has often sparkled like a splendid jewel. “It is like a great work of art that has remained in one spot for a century,” said one admirer. But it has also suffered neglect, its facades visible through chain-link fences topped with razor wire, making the empty, crumbling Chateau look more like nearby Alcatraz prison.
The home, twice eyed by the government for a western White House, has endured wild rumors. Neighbors once declared it haunted or cursed. It was, in fact, the scene of a bloody murder in 1985 that left one teenage girl dead. The convicted killer remains on death row at San Quentin today.
Its reputation has been burnished and blighted, extolled and forgotten. The Chateau has escaped the wrecker’s ball several times, and survived a 1989 earthquake that left its finely decorated stone walls and Gothic columns cracked and smashed. It earned theignominious title, “The doomed Chateau.”
The documentary, “Three Women and a Chateau,” shown to 250 people at the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, tells how one wealthy woman – Harriet Pullman Carolan, heiress to the Pullman railroad car fortune – brought Chateau Carolands into being, and two other ladies saved it from destruction.
“I was very excited about being able to fix it,” said Dr. Ann Johnson, who, with husband, Charles, chairman of the board of the mutual fund company his late father founded, bought the blighted building in 1998 for $6 million, and went on to spend $20 million for renovations and restoration. “I felt the home was like a beautiful lady who never had a nice dress to wear,” Ann added. “I just wanted to make it look pretty.”
Beauty was not on the mind of one detractor who said the Chateau looked like “a wart on the end of somebody’s nose.”
That’s not what Harriet Pullman Carolan set out to do. But even after it was built – late and over budget – it never really developed a “home sweet home” demeanor until the Johnsons, their six children (one is deceased) and 17 grandchildren – one for each of the Chateau’s guest rooms – took residence.
The grandeur of Chateau Carolands was clear from the start. Trappings included a two-story library, exquisite dining area, four kitchens, a Blue Salon, a Bourdeax Salon, a Chinese Lacquer room, a ballroom, solarium and rooms specifically for flower arranging, vegetables, gift wrapping, linen storage and Christmas trees. There are secret passageways, round rooms and a special bath chamber with room for madame’s clothing, complete with storage space and a secret hallway for her attendant.
French architect Ernest Sanson was commissioned to design plans for the estate. A renowned local architect, Willis Polk, was hired as construction supervisor. French landscape architect Achelles Duchene designed the gardens, which originally included a tea house, picnic ground and bandstand.
Harriet and husband Francis J. Carolan lived in the home only occasionally after it was completed around 1916. They moved out and divorced, leaving the Chateau vacant for more than two dozen years.
Offered for sale, the building was rejected by several influential suitors, including Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. T.I. Mosley purchased the structure in 1945. Five years later, when destruction seemed imminent, Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini purchased it. The countess – titled by dint of marrying Count Alessandro “Alex” Olioli Dandini – turned the Chateau into a party house and hosted charitable and social gatherings. Guests included Liberace, neighbor Bing Crosby, the Rev. Billy Graham and a host of opera stars.
When the money stopped, so did the music. The countess shrank her world into a few rooms of the Chateau until her death in 1973. She bequeathed the structure to the city of Hillsborough for a library, but didn’t include any money for books and supplies. As a result, city fathers put it on the auction block.
From there, the home changed hands several times, often landing in the grip of neglectful owners who could not afford the upkeep. In 1994, developer Kevin White bought the Chateau, and by 1997, gave Hillsborough officials an ultimatum: Approve a permit to convert it into 15 condominiums or he would leave it a pile of rubble.
The Johnsons came to the rescue. They had visited the mansion during a charity event in 1991, but didn’t put their names on the bill of sale until 1998, after the developer’s threat. After four years of restoration and interior decoration work led by designer Mario Buatta, the Johnsons finally occupied the house in 2002.
“Wherever possible, the original features were preserved and restored,” said the doctor. “The fresco in the Blue Salon, the solid block wash basins, the crystal beaded chandelier, the moldings, carvings and hinges, right down to the golden grapes on the candelabra.”
The Johnsons turned the home and furniture over to a nonprofit foundation in late 2012. Giving the Chateau new life, she said, “was a labor of love. It was the culmination of a 100-year-old dream that never died.”