The grand staircase, ca. 1920, is the central architectural element around which the 98 rooms in the house were arranged. The painted wrought-iron balustrade is embellished with flowers and foliage in embossed and gilded sheet iron.
Owner Harriet Carolan bought three 18th-century Neoclassical-style Bordeaux rooms, two of which are shown here. They were incorporated into the design of Carolands two years later. This circular room has a 13 ft. radius and is 13 ft. tall.
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San Mateo County Historical Association, San Mateo, CA, with The Institute for Classical Architecture & Classical America, New York, NY; 2006
216 pp.; hardcover; 250 color photographs (and 80 duotones and floor plans); $75
The Carolands, a majestic château on the outskirts of San Francisco, could be compared to a handsome man who dated many women before finding the right wife. Though conceived in the Belle Époque, a time of great prosperity, it came to existence in a most difficult period in history – between the two world wars. Only after changing hands several times and undergoing an extensive recent renovation has the mansion finally achieved its original potential. That potential has been captured in breathtaking detail in Carolands, a painstaking chronicle of a true American landmark. With Carolands, architectural historian Michael Middleton Dwyer has published a masterpiece about a masterpiece.
Although the house was conceived without a budget in mind, the lady who envisioned it, Harriet Carolan, never quite had the fortune to complete her initial plan. Harriet was the daughter of George Pullman, who made his fortune in super luxury railway cars, the only way the wealthy traveled. While the seats or sleeping cars of common train compartments were made of hardwood, the eponymous Pullmans were made of inlaid and carved wood, with upholstered armchairs and beds, where one could enjoy an excellent trip or a restful night. (An original Pullman car is currently on display at the newly renovated Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.) In 1892, Harriet married Frank Carolan, from San Francisco. Her father gave the couple $35,000 to build a house. When George Pullman died in 1897, he left $1 million to his daughter, most of which she used to build the Carolands.
In 1912, Harriet started construction of her project, which was to be the grandest house in all of California. Declared by The Oakland Tribune in 1907 "the real leader of our society... the undisputed queen," Harriet spent a lot of time in Paris, where she had an apartment, a literary salon and a number of famous friends. One of them, a somewhat disreputable dandy, the Count Boni de Castellane, had built with his wife's fortune a palace on the avenue du Bois (today avenue Foch), where he entertained royalty. In June 1912, Boni gave a dinner for the Carolans, attended by an impressive array of aristocrats. He also introduced Harriet to the architect and the landscape architect of his Palais rose, Ernest Sanson and Achille Duchêne. These two Frenchmen would design the Carolands in conjunction with Willis Polk, who acted as construction manager.
In August of 1914, Harriet was shopping for furniture in France when the war broke out. Having bought, among other things, three entire rooms with their paneling and floors from a château in Bordeaux, she was lucky enough to escape to London and to get all her acquisitions back to San Francisco.
Unfortunately the Pullman stocks had declined during the war and the family money that Harriet was counting on to complete her house was never sufficient. Correspondence between Harriet and her mother shows that Mrs. Pullman, while anxious to help, was afraid the huge project was a drain on her faltering fortune.
The house is indeed huge. Conceived in the Beaux-Arts style, it has 98 rooms and is 65,000 sq.ft. The Classical façades and the slate mansard roof sharply contrast the quiet low-key surroundings of Hillsborough, with their shingled houses. One drives up to a gated and cobble-stone porte cochere, then enters the home through a Doric portal and a vaulted vestibule that leads to the grand staircase with a magnificent wrought iron balustrade and three-story volume. Walking up the staircase, you find yourself in a rectangle of naturally lit galleries around which the rooms of the house are arranged. The rhythm is created by layered colonnades of perfect proportions, very grand for the piano nobile and more diminutive for the second floor, which contains the major bedrooms. You look up and see through the skylight. The strong California sun enhances the architecture with shade and shadow.
Harriet Carolan sold the house in 1947 – with less than one quarter of the original surrounding real estate – to the Countess Dandini, who had more love for the house than means to upkeep it. Several subsequent owners, while keeping it alive, let it decay. The house also suffered greatly from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It was falling apart, with cracked facades and holes in the roof. The Carolands would probably be no more if it wasn't for one expert eye.
Its lucky day came when it was used as a decorators showcase in 1991 and architecture enthusiast Ann Johnson visited. Possessing a beauty that rivaled the most famous movie stars, Ann was also a doctor of chemistry and the wife of the very successful investment banker Charles B. Johnson. Known for their generosity, the Johnsons had made a big charitable gift in 1997, establishing a Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services at the Lucile Packart Children's Hospital in Palo Alto. Now, Ann wanted to recreate a Californian estate that they would, in due time, donate to some worthy institution. Having heard that Carolands was in danger of being demolished, she returned to see it in 1998 with her decorator, Mario Buatta. She estimated that it would be a five year, $20 million restoration, and bought the house.
Johnson and Buatta completely restored and decorated the house and gardens. (In the postscript to Carolands, Buatta writes that it "will always be the most extensive project I have ever completed.") The limestone and tapestries of the entrance are impressive and austere. The floor plan is very formal: the grand ballroom at the north, with five windows leading to the parterre, serves also as a theater or a conference room; the oak-paneled library is at the south, and the adjacent dining room at the east is entirely painted in trompe-l'oeil. Two of the three Bordeaux rooms, purchased in 1914, remain and have been restored. One is a beautifully carved circular room, painted yellow and white, with a rare white marble mantle and inlaid wood floors, all of which are 18th-century originals. On the second floor, the master suite is all flowers, with painted paneling in the 18th-century style. Among the furniture selections are a pink and gold duchesse brisée (lounge chair) for reading in front of the window and a pair of tapestry chairs depicting a prince playing the lute for his princess. The bathroom is in the pale blues and the bathtub carved from a single block of white marble is set into a pale blue faux-painted elliptically arched niche.
The gardens, planned by Duchêne, were completed for the first time by Johnson. On the west side, a rectangular pool, neatly surrounded by a simple lawn, reflects the facade of the house. To the east is a French parterre garden. Original urns by Duchêne punctuate the balustrades.
Carolands not only features magnificent photos of the restored house and gardens, but it also guides the reader through the different steps of its construction and restoration. The initial plans, historical photos and sketches are there, along with the history that surrounded the architectural and landscape planning. Carolands has finally assumed its place as one of America's most spectacular mansions, and now it has the book to match.
Andrew Skurman is a San Francisco, CA-based Classical architect specializing in custom homes. While most of his work is located in California, he has also designed projects in New York and France. He is a member of the board of the Northern California chapter of The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.
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