Carolands House Visit: Part I

Forget Three Men and a Baby - it's all about Three Women and a Chateau.* The chateau in question is Carolands, a magnificent 98 room, 65,000 square foot Beaux-Arts residence commissioned by Harriett Pullman Carolan, heiress to the luxury railroad car fortune.

A bird's eye view of the atrium, said to be the largest interior space in the country

I had the enormous pleasure of a private tour of the house which is located in the tony town of Hillsborough, just outside of San Francisco, kindly given by estate manager Meg Starr.

Conceived by Harriett to be the grandest residence of San Francisco's bon ton, it was lavished with nothing but the best: from the top residential architect in France, Ernest Sanson, and the highly acclaimed landspace designer, Achille Duchêne, down to the finishing touches of firegilt hardware and parquet de Versailles floors.

The dining room and one of its Champagne fountains

Carolands cost Harriett not only most of her fortune, but her social aspirations as well. She had hoped for the chateau to be completed in time to entertain royalty attending the Pan-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, but it was not to be. Two years later, Harriett cut her losses and was back on the East Coast.

The Library

For decades the house stood empty until another fearless lady took on the chateau. Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini, whose brick company attracted the attention of a dashing Italian count "of no account," purchased a house worthy of her new title.

The Loggia - one of my favorites

The Countess was very generous with Carolands and opened it up for all manner of causes. But a house this big can swallow one up, and at the end of her life, much of her resources had been exhausted leaving her reduced to living in a small corner of the house.

The Ballroom: Meg said when the sun sets, the melon walls become infused with a rosy glow

The house went in and out of a few owners' hands, and became more and more derelict as time passed. Because of Hillsborough's town edict that all buildings must be residential, it couldn't be converted to another purpose and it was but a whisker away from the wrecking ball. Finally in 1998, the current owners, Charles and Dr. Ann Johnson, not only rescued "the last of the great homes" but restored it exquisitely AND, in a move that Harriett would have approved, engaged the BEST interior decorator, Mario Buatta.

Details from a circular room Harriett bought lock, stock and barrel and shipped over from France; the masterfully carved plasterwork depicts the four seasons

And like the Countess, the Johnsons often share the house for worthy causes. It is their intention that Carolands be preserved in perpetuity.

The extensive service rooms included a silver polishing room, a flower-cutting room, a pastry room, a fruit and vegetable room, and the laundry which houses this floor to ceiling dryer for sheets - talk about a place for everything and everything in its place!

*Three Women and a Chateau, the documentary about the house's history, is fascinating and has now gone to the top of my list as THE hostess gift to give. Click here to purchase. There is also a very thorough book on Carolands including original plans and correspondance relating to the house.

Photo credits: all photos taken by EEE except: top courtesy of Luna Films, and #2 by Eric Luse for the San Francisco Chronicle

STAY TUNED FOR PART II: Mr. Buatta's Passementerie