The House on the Hill

Posted online: August 2010

Picture 4

by JOSH CONVISER

Every town has its house on the hill. In Santa Barbara, it’s the mansion on the point. Bellosguardo may be the least-visited and most-whispered-about landmark in the city. Built by copper mining heiress Anna Eugenia Clark in 1936, and now owned by her daughter, 103-year-old Huguette, it sits high on the bluff overlooking East Beach. Despite its prominence, the most passersby see of the mansion are its rusted, locked gates just beyond the volleyball courts and the Private Property signs on Cabrillo Boulevard.

An impenetrable secrecy hangs over Bellosguardo, a privacy so total that only vague rumors broach those gates: that its owner has rejected multiple $100 million offers for it from the likes of Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner and a Middle Eastern prince, yet has not walked its grounds in decades; that it receives no visitors; that a large staff stands by, day in, day out—polishing the silver, dusting priceless antiques—catering to no one.

“Satellites and airplanes are about the only ones who know what really goes on there,” says the estate’s lone neighbor, Santa Barbara Cemetery manager Randy Thwing. “Everything else is just hearsay.”

For half a century, the estate has stood frozen in time, as dedicated to the past as the gravestones it gazes upon. To clear back its cobwebs is to delve into an epic family saga of hardscrabble beginnings and far-reaching ambition.

Montana’s “copper king” as U.S. senator, circa 1904.

Montana’s “copper king” as U.S. senator, circa 1904.

Long before the Clarks arrived, the site that would become Bellosguardo was a Chumash village named Swetete. In 1887, Civil War veteran George Booth built a small cottage on the land, which became known as Booth’s Point. Oklahoma oilman William Miller Graham and his wife, Eleanor, then purchased the point in 1902. Architect Francis Wilson designed their home, which was completed in 1904. The Grahams named it Bellosguardo (“beautiful lookout” in Italian) and it quickly became a prime stop on Santa Barbara’s social circuit.

Today, only ghosts peer onto Bellosguardo’s 23-acre grounds. On the western end of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, past the monuments and headstones, a weather-beaten concrete wall runs from the bluff’s ridge down to Cabrillo Boulevard. With gnarled rebar poking through and a chain-link fence running atop, only the haphazard swatches of bougainvillea hint at the curiosity that lies beyond: On the far side, eucalyptus trees sway with the breeze and a perfectly manicured lawn leads back to the residence itself, a 42-room mansion built in the late 18th-century rural French style.

Clark’s Folly,” the $6 million Manhattan apartment, in 1927

Clark’s Folly,” the $6 million Manhattan apartment, in 1927

In 1923, William Andrews Clark, one of the “copper kings” of Montana, purchased Bellosguardo from the Grahams with a “take it or leave it” offer of $250,000. An imposing figure with thick grey hair and a bushy, if supremely coiffed, goatee, William was not born to such opulence. The son of Scotch-Irish parents, he was born in Pennsylvania in 1839, then followed his family to Iowa. He emerged from adolescence with a keenly honed intelligence and an apparently insatiable drive. Despite his northern roots, William fought for the Confederates in the Civil War. How he managed to part ways with an army that shot deserters is a story left to be told, but by 1862, he was headed West to make his fortune.

After mining quartz in Colorado, he followed the gold rush to Montana and found that more money could be made supplying miners than in mining itself. He drove mules across the West, trading in eggs, tobacco, and anything else that he could buy low and sell high. He then shifted into banking, repossessing claims when miners defaulted, all the while fattening his own accounts. William defined the notion of a self-made man: He accepted no partners and sold no shares, single-handedly taking on the world. While he soon possessed the world’s largest private mining concern and ranked among the richest men in America, William’s appetites were far from sated. He yearned for a seat in the United States Senate. The machinations by which he reached the position were so Machiavellian that they would forever cast a pall on his reputation and spark the ire of Mark Twain himself. By William’s example, Twain expounded, “He has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.”

Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, named for Huguette Clark’s older sister.

Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, named for Huguette Clark’s older sister.

Forever isolated by his voracious ambition, William took little notice of such sentiments. Instead, he continued to build, not just a railroad and mining empire stretching throughout the West, but also an East Coast monument to his own success. In New York, at the heart of Fifth Avenue’s “Millionaires’ Row,” he set out to create the finest house in America. The shower of wealth he rained down on the endeavor was torrential—the equivalent of nearly $180 million today. The result, popularly lampooned as “Clark’s Folly,” was magnificent in its flamboyance: With 121 rooms (some, such as the Louis XIV salon, imported in their entirety from France), the house also boasted a $1 million art collection housed in four galleries, a 500-seat theater, and a dining room with a 15-foot-long marble mantelpiece rising up to a ceiling made from 2,000-year-old oaks logged from Sherwood Forest itself. The exterior was no less ostentatious, with its wedding cake columns, copulas, and cornices. “[The house] would have seemed the ideal dwelling to the late Mr. Barnum,” sniffed Collier’s Weekly. “It looks like a compromise between a state capitol and a Hindu temple.”

While few could match a man of such expansive aims, Anna Eugenia La Chapelle fit the bill. After his first wife died in 1893, William became one the most eligible bachelors in the country. Many vied for his attention, but it was this precocious blonde who would capture his heart. The charismatic daughter of French-Canadian parents, young Anna moved with her family to Butte, Montana, from Michigan. Driven to forge a better life for his family, her father abandoned his past occupation as a tailor and opened shop as a physician. But failing to get his medical license, he veered into the occult, peddling potions to all comers while her mother opened a boarding house.

Bellosguardo’s manicured grounds once hosted beachball-tossing youngsters

Bellosguardo’s manicured grounds once hosted beachball-tossing youngsters

It would follow that Anna, an aspiring actress in her teens, was determined to escape the grinding poverty that defined her parents’ lives. After her father’s untimely death, she wrangled a meeting with William that led him to take her on as his ward. Did William see something of himself in Anna’s gumption? Was he smitten from this first meeting? Whatever his motivation, it cast their fates. The following year, Anna attended a girls’ seminary in Deer Lodge, Montana—with William footing the tab—then moved with his sister to Paris, where it wasn’t just her education that flowered. Far from prying eyes, William and Anna fell headlong for each other.

In 1902, Anna gave birth to their first child, Louise Amelia Andrée Clark. Known to the family as Andrée, her existence stayed a closely guarded secret for years. Finally, to thwart family embarrassment, William and Anna revealed to the world (and his three adult offspring) that they had been married in France years earlier, though a document has yet to surface that backs up the union.

Of course, the announcement of both a new stepmother and sibling shocked William’s family to the core. William tried to soften the surprise, referring to the marriage as an “alliance” in a letter to his son. He promised that Anna would not step into his late wife’s role or share in the bulk of the family fortune, nor even live in the New York house. Though he did eventually allow Anna to live at the Fifth Avenue address, a cool reception would not have been lost on her. In any event, she chose to spend most of her time in Europe, where Huguette Marcelle Clark was born in 1906.

huguetteOf Huguette’s early years, little is known. At age 13, however, tragedy struck. Her outgoing and vivacious sister, Andrée, suddenly died of meningitis. As William was a man of restrained warmth at the best of times, one can imagine that Anna and Huguette turned to each other for solace. While Anna held deep respect for William, their 39-year age difference and his endless business commitments could not have made it easy to cultivate an emotional bond. Beyond that, Anna would always feel an outsider among the Clarks, a situation his other children did little to ameliorate.

William Andrews Clark died at age 86, just two years after buying Bellosguardo. He left behind a sprawling empire, his New York edifice, his prized collection of paintings, and a legacy of utter isolation. Notes biographer William Mangam: “Always he walked a way of his own choosing in a deep and narrow world of his own.”

Architect Reginald Johnson, maestro of the mansion’s 1930s remodel.

Architect Reginald Johnson, maestro of the mansion’s 1930s remodel.

While William’s death was surely a blow to Anna and Huguette, it brought new life to Bellosguardo. It was then that Anna abandoned the gilded catastrophe of the New York house for a fresh start in Santa Barbara.

For Anna and her daughter, it proved a happy time, filled with social events and plans for the future. Newspapers chronicled the two partaking of tea parties and debutante balls. In 1927, Anna spared no expense on Huguette’s wedding at Bellosguardo to William Gower, a New York investment banker who had once worked for her father. The same year, Huguette donated $50,000 to break ground on the Ralph Stevens-designed Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, naming it after her beloved sister. It was Anna who had approached the city park board regarding the odorous marsh across the street from their home. Anna also began improvements to Bellosguardo, hiring architect Reginald Johnson, designer of the Santa Barbara Post Office and the Biltmore Hotel, to add a new wing. With the Great Depression bearing down, Anna saw the impact that jobs from her construction project had on the community. To create more, she had Johnson tear down the entire house and start afresh. While no expense was spared on its reconstruction, she veered from the excesses of her husband’s tastes, opting instead for staid elegance.

Johnson designed Bellosguardo on a modified I plan. A guest would arrive at the ocean-side court and ascend a grand terrace to enter the residence. Once inside, a central hall led to the main rooms, staircase, and courtyard. The dining room and library were transplanted in toto from the New York house. To the west, a terrace contained a fresco by noted California artist Margaret A. Dobson. The eastern courtyard centered on a black-tile reflecting pool. As described in a 1928 Santa Barbara News-Press article, orange trees bordering the pool blended “with the coloring of the building” and the estate’s gardens, a mix of severity and restraint, ranged from “a formal rosery to wild, semitropical ‘jungles.’”

Picture 13

A veritable fleet of gardeners have tended to the estate’s vast expanse of law

Such a setting would beg entertaining, and the 1930s marked Bellosguardo’s heyday. According to an account written some years ago by Barbara Hoelscher Doran, daughter of former caretaker Albert Hoelscher, who managed the estate for 50 years, “Mrs. Clark sponsored the Paganini Quartet, and concerts were given in the music room with its harps and back-to-back grand pianos. There were 25 gardeners and a large staff of maids supervised by Morton, the English butler.… Armstrong, the Scottish chauffeur, looked after the cars: a 1922 Rolls Royce, a Pierce Arrow, a Cadillac, and a Chrysler convertible coupe with a rumbleseat.” Amid all the grandiosity, foreshadowing of Bellosguardo’s future began to appear. The cars were soon “up on blocks,” continues Doran, “protected by huge dust covers.”

So began the era of silence and secrecy at Bellosguardo. It crept up seemingly without incident, though Huguette’s marriage to William Gower lasted only two years and ended in a Reno divorce. Around this time, Anna and Huguette’s activities in the New York Times trailed off, then vanished completely. Clark family biographer Mangam describes the two women as living in “luxury and ease” in 1941, dividing their time between New York and Santa Barbara, but notes that “their social contacts in these communities are rather desultory, and they seem now to live largely for each other.” Never enmeshed in the larger Clark dynasty—and walled from general society by their wealth and William’s notoriety—Huguette and Anna seemed to retreat ever deeper into their own world.

During World War II, the estate served as the district air-raid headquarters. The sentries walking its bluffs would be some of Bellosguardo’s final guests.

An aerial view of Bellosguardo in 1994.

An aerial view of Bellosguardo in 1994.

As the years wore on, mother and daughter spent less and less time in Santa Barbara. Anna’s death in New York in 1963, reportedly at age 85, must have been a crushing blow for Huguette. Without her mother, partner, and confidant, she seems to have shrunk into a life of insular extravagance. Though she was the daughter of two conspicuously ambitious parents—both with penchants for grand gestures—Huguette turned from the spotlight. It is said that she has not visited the estate since her mother’s death, preferring to live a very private life in New York. (All attempts to contact her for this article went unanswered.)

Despite the absence of its mistress, Bellosguardo has not suffered from a lack of attention. Longtime Santa Barbara resident Marie Carty, 79, saw the caretaker’s house during a visit to the estate in the late 1970s. “It was all quite backstairs—but a very high-class backstairs,” she says of the structure. Carty’s recollections of Bellosguardo also include a barn with 10 bedrooms, an elaborate cabana, and a huge playhouse for Huguette—a Cotswold-style cottage complete with thatched roof. “And there were a fearful number of gardeners,” she says. “They were constantly taking out and putting in a tree. I don’t know if it’s a tiresome job or the job of the century!”

The estate’s current caretaker, John Douglas, who is largely responsible for the estate’s overtly pristine condition, declines to discuss the grounds, citing an agreement with his employer. But Paul Newell, Huguette’s San Diego-based cousin, who has visited in recent years, attests that “the property is very much in mint condition—almost as if it has hardly been used at all.” That said, he, too, remains circumspect. “I think there are very few people who have had the privilege of going through it,” he adds.

And so we are left with a view of Bellosguardo from afar, peering in through the veil of history and a chain-link fence. The rumors persist, as does the endless speculation. With Huguette now in her second century of life, questions continue to arise about the estate’s future, though there are few answers to be had. “I don’t think that anybody in the family is informed about that, myself included,” says Newell. “Ms. Clark is an exceedingly private person.” And yet what truly lies behind Bellosguardo’s gates may already be apparent. Could it be that Huguette, at least in one regard, took after her parents after all?

An aerial view of Bellosguardo in September 2008 as captured from a helicopter 500 feet offshore by the nonprofit California Coastal Records Project.

An aerial view of Bellosguardo in September 2008 as captured from a helicopter 500 feet offshore by the nonprofit California Coastal Records Project.

His grandiose gestures and achievements notwithstanding, William Andrews Clark is all but forgotten compared to the other titans of his time. Not even his bequest to the Corcoran brought him the immortality he sought. “He was a perfect barometer of what money—big money—was drawn to in his generation when it was left unguided by superior knowledge or serious ideas,” wrote the New York Times in a 1978 review of his beloved art collection. “Ownership rather than connoisseurship was Clark’s forte.”

The New York house that Huguette’s father built as a monument to himself endured for a mere 25 years. Sold in 1927 for a third of what he paid, it immediately fell to the wrecker’s ball. Huguette, however, has refused to let Bellosguardo succumb to the same fate. The estate indeed floats in limbo, suspended between a prolonged past and an inevitable future. Under Huguette’s hand, the Santa Barbara manse that Anna Clark built stands in silent perfection, protected and maintained. When time does catch up with Bellosguardo, so may go one of the most extravagant and quietly touching memorials in the history of this country.

Click here to see a recent update on Huguette Clark’s condition, courtesy of the Today show.
Also, click here for an additional look into the life of Huguette Clark, provided by MSNBC.

Leave a Comment