Tickets for the tours of Bellosguardo, the mysterious estate on the bluff above East Beach, sold out immediately, but more tours will be announced in coming months, so sign up as a supporter on the Bellosguardo Foundation’s website to receive updates.
If you were lucky enough to snag a spot, here’s what to expect…. An email explains that the tour runs 90 minutes, with the following rules: no one under 14; no non-service animals; no food or drink except water; and no indoor photography. Also, you can’t walk to the property—you have to drive a car, ride a bike, or take an Uber.
The driveway is one-way, and for some reason you’re directed to enter via the exit, which means you sneak up on the estate from behind instead of getting the grand, ocean-view arrival that architect Reginald Johnson surely intended. The parking area has a novel view of Cabrillo Boulevard.
Our tour was the first one, and as a result, it only had six guests, along with three docents (one from the Santa Barbara Historical Museum). After we oohed and aahed over the motor court—which surely inspired the one at 491 Pimiento Lane*—we were given a bit of back story about the house. The short version: Anna Clark, widow of copper baron William Andrews Clark, built it in 1933 as a vacation home but didn’t use it much. After she died, her daughter Huguette never visited but refused to sell (including to the former Shah of Iran and Ty Warner, according to the guides). Her wish was that it become a center for the arts after her death. (*Update 12/21: Jo says that 491 Pimiento Lane’s motor court was actually inspired by Casa del Herrero.)
For now, the tour is limited to the ground-floor public rooms, because the elevator hasn’t been fixed yet and allowing people to use the stairs when no other access is possible apparently violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. (If ever a piece of legislation needed tweaking….). Upstairs will be open someday, according to the guides, although from what I gathered, the foundation plans on offering various sub-tours, the better to get guests to go more than once.
Personally, I was satisfied with the public rooms. The carved wood paneling, in particular, is ravishing: it was taken from centuries-old European walls for the Clarks’ over-the-top New York City mansion, and then, after that was sold, moved out west to Santa Barbara. And unlike a lot of folks online, I don’t think the $100 ticket price is extreme—but then I have a thing for seeing new places, especially prominent ones that have been off-limits.
At most grand-old-house tours, the point is to experience how people lived in a given period and/or celebrate a great life. Bellosguardo, however, was occupied for a total of maybe 18 months, and Huguette Clark was a recluse who didn’t do anything notable besides paint; while she was a fine artist, her work hardly warrants a dedicated museum. Without any other arts programming besides a room of Clark’s paintings, Bellosguardo is all about the craftsmanship of the house and the antiques inside it.
After an hour, we ventured outside to explore the area around the house.
Sure, the house is magnificent, but the grounds are drop-dead spectacular. For my money, the 23-acre property makes the most sense as a civilized park—limit the amount of visitors, if you must—because the land is being wasted if it’s only enjoyed by a handful of people trickling in for a tour of the house.
The guides led us to a rose garden without roses, a lotus pond without lotuses, a tennis court gone to seed…. The grounds want restoration and will probably get it over time, but again, why bother if so few people can enjoy them? Why not make it a beautiful, living place rather than a zombie bauble?
I’m not sure whether the outbuildings were meant to be included on the tour; the organizers seem to be figuring out some things as they go. Our group was delighted by two side-by-side structures: the carriage house from the Graham family estate that preceded Bellosguardo and a remarkably stylish lathe house.
As the tour wound down, we moseyed along a road back to the house. The case for converting the estate into a park only grew more compelling. To anyone thinking of turning his or her estate into a museum: being important now is no guarantee that anyone will care about you in 50 or 100 years.
The structure below is Andrée’s Cottage, a playhouse named for Huguette’s sister, Andrée, who died in her teens. The bird refuge across the street is named for her; the Clarks donated the money to make it happen.
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