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The House on the Hill / After Four Years and $20 Million, the Famed Carolands Mansion Is Set for Another Century

The House on the Hill / After Four Years and $20 Million, the Famed Carolands Mansion Is Set for Another Century

  • Pierre Buljan
  • 07/11/07
It took nearly a century, but the historic house on the highest hill in Hillsborough is finally as resplendent as intended.
Thanks to the determination of its owners, Charles and Ann Johnson -- and more than $20 million spent on restoration -- the 98-room Carolands mansion has been saved from deterioration and often serves as the gathering place for the Johnsons and their large family. The Johnsons have six adult children (another is deceased) and 17 grandchildren, ages 2 to 16. Twelve of them live in Hillsborough and "love to come over here and run around," Ann Johnson said.
Carolands also is the site of fundraisers: The Johnsons support the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and other institutions. Last Christmas they hosted a party for children in Shelter Network, a San Mateo County nonprofit.
Ann Johnson was the driving force behind the four-year restoration project. The San Mateo County Historical Association honored her efforts by naming her its History Maker of the year in 2005. A coffee-table book, "Carolands," and a documentary, "Three Women and a Chateau," also celebrate her efforts and the history of Carolands.
Carolands is a California Historic Landmark, and it's on the National Register of Historic Places. It was even considered for a Western White House in 1939 and during the Kennedy administration.
According to the book: "Carolands was abandoned and neglected for many years, but through its recent restoration, it looks today much as it did when it was built -- making it a rarity among the houses of its class and era."
Its history is filled with dreams of grandeur, disappointments and brushes with destruction.
Around 1912, Harriett Pullman Carolan, heiress to the Pullman railroad-car fortune and a leader of the San Francisco social scene, decided to build a grand estate on more than 500 acres that she and her husband, Frank, owned in Hillsborough.
Carolan, one of the wealthiest women in the nation, commissioned celebrated French architect Ernest Sanson to design the more than 65,000-square-foot house, landscape designer Achille Duchêne to design the grounds and San Francisco architect Willis Polk to supervise construction.
Sanson's design reportedly was inspired by, but not a copy of, Vaux le Vicomte, a French 17th century chateau that was said to be the prototype for the Palace of Versailles.
Construction began in 1914 while Carolan was in Europe, where she had already bought three antique rooms in 1912. Sanson designed three spaces in the Carolands where these rooms -- complete with wall panels, ceiling, flooring and fixtures -- were installed. In the meantime, Carolan continued to buy furniture for her estate. She hoped that it would be ready in time for her to welcome friends visiting the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, but that was not to be.
While construction continued, the Carolans ran into money problems that even an infusion of cash and stock from her mother, Hattie Pullman, couldn't alleviate. Consequently, the ballroom and most of the landscaping were not completed.
The other work was essentially done in 1916. Carolan and a staff lived there for most of 1917, said Paul Price of Berkeley, an amateur historian who has studied the early history of Carolands for decades.
However, the Carolans separated in 1917. Harriett Carolan closed Carolands and never lived there except for occasional visits, including a prolonged one in 1924, Price said.
Frank Carolan died in 1923. Harriett Carolan married Col. Arthur Frederic Schermerhorn in 1925 and made a few trips to Carolands, the last in 1927.
She tried to sell the house to several prospective buyers, including Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in 1935, but she didn't succeed until about 1945, when T.I. Moseley bought it. Carolan died in 1956 at the age of 87.
Over the years, various owners sold off the grounds for subdivisions, so that by the late '40s, it was down to about 5.65 acres, its current size.
In 1950 the estate was threatened with destruction, but Lillian Remillard Dandini, a countess by marriage and the owner of the Remillard family's Bay Area brick factories, bought it. "She thought that Carolands was one of the most beautiful homes in the world," Price said in an e-mail.
She renamed it Chateau Remillard and opened it to parties and other events even though her marriage had ended. The guest list included celebrities Liberace, Hillsborough neighbor Bing Crosby, the Rev. Billy Graham and opera stars.
She lived there for 23 years but ran out of money. The house deteriorated and by the time she died, in 1973 at age 93, she was living in just a few rooms.
She willed the house to the town to be used as a cultural center, but she had included no money to support her gift, so the town sold it.
Oil and real estate heiress Roz Franks bought it for $313,000 in 1976, according to Wikipedia, and lived there for about 17 months. She lost the title in 1979 after a legal battle with developer George Benny, and he lost it to foreclosure in 1982 after being indicted on racketeering charges.
In 1985, the empty house was a crime scene: A caretaker invited two teenage girls to tour the house, then sexually assaulted and stabbed them, one fatally.
Escape Velocity Inc. bought the estate for $2.75 million in 1986. The town later rejected a proposal to remodel the mansion as a corporate think tank, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake inflicted some damage.
Businessman Raymond Hung bought the estate in 1994 and thought about living there. Instead, he sold it to developer Kevin White in 1997.
White proposed spending $20 million to convert it into 15 luxury condominiums. Doing so would require a change in Hillsborough's strict zoning ordinance, which prohibits commercial and multifamily development.
White indicated that if the town didn't approve his request, the house would be torn down.
Although the Johnsons have lived in Hillsborough since 1973, Ann Johnson had not been inside Carolands until 1991, when it was a designer showcase benefiting the Coyote Point Museum Auxiliary in San Mateo.
Preparing for the showcase had required months of restoration work by D.J. Dowling Inc., a Redwood City contractor. In keeping with an agreement that the auxiliary had with Carolands' owner, Dowling made more repairs after the showcase.
Accompanying Johnson to the showcase was designer Mario Buatta, who was decorating Johnson's Hillsborough home.
"I'll never forget walking into the library," Johnson said in an interview. She thought it was one of the most beautiful rooms she had ever seen.
Johnson had no intention of buying the house then, but she changed her mind seven years later, in 1998, when the mansion was threatened with development or destruction.
Restoring and furnishing the house took four years, with Buatta playing a major role in the decorating. The Johnsons finally occupied it in June 2002.
When they bought it, "there were garbage pails in the halls to collect the water," she said. The entire roof had to be replaced, a job that took a year. In addition, the skylights and dome were refitted with shatterproof glass.
Cracks throughout the exterior and interior had to be repaired. This work included stripping off the exterior stucco, making the repairs, then replacing the stucco. The plumbing and wiring systems were replaced. Most of the wood-burning fireplaces -- Johnson isn't sure just how many -- were converted to gas.
"There was one giant furnace" that apparently had been rarely or never used, Johnson said. It was replaced with several smaller furnaces for more efficient zoned heating. However, once the furnaces were turned on, some of the original woodwork began cracking in the drier air. Now, most of the rooms have humidifiers to help preserve the wood.
San Francisco architectural firm Page & Turnbull created a drive-through garage with space for more than a dozen cars beneath a new terrace.
British landscape designer Martin Lane Fox designed and oversaw installation of the landscaping, highlighted by a large reflecting pool and two smaller pools on the west side of the house.
Along with all of the updating and renovating, however, Johnson wanted to preserve as much as possible of the original chateau.
"We tried not to change anything. Why change anything when she (Carolan) had the best architect in the world at the time?" Johnson said. "All of the rooms are cheerful and usable."
Carolands stands 4 1/2 stories high. On the south side of the ground floor is the main entrance, opening to a tiled hallway with the women's salon to the left, the men's salon and a cloakroom to the right and -- straight ahead -- a few stairs up to the atrium and grand staircase.
A guest elevator and a service elevator also serve the upper floors.
The atrium, soaring 78 feet to a huge skylight, "is believed to be the largest enclosed space in a private residence in the United States," according to an Architectural Digest article in December about the restoration.
Looking up from the ground floor, one sees galleries supported by round Doric columns. About halfway up, the staircase diverges into two sections, each curving upward to the main floor and its public rooms: dining room, library, drawing room, Chinese room, Bordeaux rooms, loggia and ballroom.
The largest of these is the ballroom, which had only the original bare concrete walls when the Johnsons took possession. Harriett Carolan had ordered panels from Europe, but World War I prevented their delivery, Johnson said.
This room, "more than any other room in the house, was created by Mario Buatta, working with an architect," according to the "Carolands" book. Five French doors open to the gardens. Opposite them are five mirrored double doors opening to the gallery. A small stage at one end can accommodate musicians or other entertainment.
Next to the ballroom is the plant-filled loggia, where Ann Johnson likes to play bridge. The unusual yellow marble on the floor came from Siena, Italy.
The hardware in this room is from Paris, but some of it was missing, so computer simulation was used to create replacements. Double doors open from the loggia to the west terrace.
The three antique rooms from France are called the Bordeaux rooms. Designed during the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1791), they were removed by Carolan and stored in a moving-company warehouse in San Francisco in 1929, said historian Price.
In 1957, the Countess Dandini bought two of them from Carolan's estate and reinstalled them where architect Sanson had intended them to be. That same year, Carolan's estate gave the third room, called Le Pautre room, to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where it remains.
One of the reinstalled rooms is the Bordeaux salon, the round room under the chateau's dome, which was built to accommodate the curved woodwork, Johnson said. The other reinstalled room is the small salon next to it.
When the Johnsons bought the estate, half the ceiling in the Bordeaux salon was hanging down, and a third of the floor was gone.
The Chinese room, which is next to the guest elevator on the first floor, is adorned with panels from Carolan's collection of antique lacquered screens, a statue of Buddha and newly created trompe l'oeil panels.
Also on the first floor is the formal dining room. Although the long dining table in the center can seat more than 20 people, it actually is a series of five wheeled tables that Ann Johnson designed and that can be separated for smaller groups. It was custom-built in San Francisco.
The trompe l'oeil wooden ceiling, featuring a blue sky and birds, is original, as are the sconces. A former owner had removed them but returned them at Johnson's request.
Working fountains in two corners were meant for hand-washing but now serve as giant ice buckets for wine.
Next to the dining room on the east side of the house is the pantry, which has a 20-foot ceiling, allowing for a balcony. Whereas many other rooms in the house are filled with antiques, this room is utilitarian yet handsome with its walls of white cabinets, the upper ones glass-fronted.
The original icebox serves as a wine cooler. Delft tiles around the sink and elsewhere are original.
In the first-floor corner of the house opposite the loggia is the drawing room, a high-ceilinged yet cozy, light-filled room where Johnson sat down for an interview, accompanied by her two poodles, Shadow and Peek-A-Boo. French doors open to a terrace overlooking an expansive lawn.
Next door to the drawing room is the library that so enchanted Johnson when she first saw it.
That's where the Johnsons and their family gather, where they open their Christmas presents. It's like their family living room.
On its two exterior walls are more French doors bringing in natural light to offset the room's oak paneling. Glass-fronted bookcases line the interior wall below a catwalk. A narrow, curving staircase in one corner goes up to the catwalk and more bookcases. Ornamental details on the railing match those of the original chandelier.
The Johnsons' family quarters are on the second floor. Besides the master suite, there are two guest rooms, a media room with exercise equipment, a kitchen-sitting room and home office. "It's like a self-contained apartment," Johnson said.
Former servants' quarters on the top floor have been converted to guest and staff rooms.
Above the Bordeaux salons on the west side of the chateau is a mezzanine lined with small, round windows. Architect Sanson created it "to compensate for the difference in ceiling height between the rooms immediately beneath and the loftier rooms surrounding them on the first floor," the "Carolands" book says.
Back on the ground floor opposite the main entrance is a series of utilitarian rooms that are light filled, thanks to a dry moat outside. These rooms include the kitchen; silver polishing room, used as a gift-wrap area; flower-arranging room; vegetable room; servants' dining room, used as a home gym; and laundry room, which doubles as a playroom. The laundry room still has the original dryer compartment, which was heated by a coal stove.
The kitchen comprises another series of rooms. The main kitchen has the original eight-burner stove, two new dishwashers and a walk-in refrigerator. Johnson uses the adjacent meat kitchen for assembling family albums. Next to that is the baking kitchen with marble countertops and flour bins beneath the counters.
The men's and women's salons opposite the main entry both have large anterooms plus two lavatories and two toilet closets. While the women's salon has a feminine flair, the men's salon features hunting prints and a wonderfully whimsical touch: a life-size butler mannequin holding a silver tray.
Although the Johnsons have occupied the chateau for five years, Ann Johnson plans some improvements, such as a dining room carpet to reduce noise and more tapestries for hallways. She bought many of the furnishings at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions.
Maintaining Carolands requires the services of six people, led by Meg Starr, estate manager. The staff also includes a maintenance man, two sisters who do the cleaning, a cook and a housekeeper.
Independent contractors maintain the grounds and landscaping.
The Johnsons have been married for 52 years. Charles Johnson serves as chairman of the board of Franklin Resources, the giant mutual fund company founded by his late father, Rupert Johnson Sr., and headquartered in San Mateo. Ann Johnson is a retired Burlingame psychiatrist with a specialty in psychopharmacology.
Although Hillsborough zoning is as strict as it was when the Johnsons bought Carolands, town officials share the Johnsons' goal of trying to preserve the chateau for posterity.
To do so, Ann Johnson wants to establish a foundation with an endowment. One possibility she envisions is to use the mansion as a school where artists and architects could study the Beaux Arts style during short-term stays. She also hopes that it would be open to the public perhaps once a year, and "it should be used to have fundraisers," just as it is now, she said.
Besides heeding zoning rules, Johnson also wants to be considerate of her neighbors by limiting traffic to the estate.
Her primary goal, though, is to preserve the chateau and allow it to be appreciated. "I think it's important for our heritage. I want to keep it for our children and grandchildren," she said.
"The house now stands as one of the very few truly great houses in America where both the interior and exterior have been restored to their original state," the "Carolands" book says.
It concludes: "It is now recognized as one of the great architectural masterpieces in America, a testament to the genius of those who designed, built and furnished it, and a tribute to the will, ingenuity and determination of those who cared for it and restored it."


"Carolands: Ernest Sanson, Achille Duchêne, Willis Polk," by Michael Middleton Dwyer with a note on the decoration by Mario Buatta; published by San Mateo County Historical Association with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America; $75; order from Acanthus Press, (800) 827-7614, www.acanthuspress.com; or the San Mateo County History Museum, (650) 299-0104.
"Three Women and a Chateau," documentary produced and directed by Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg of Luna Productions, Berkeley. Not currently available because it is being screened at film festivals.
For more information about the book and documentary, visit www.carolands.org.

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