What to Expect on the Bellosguardo Tour

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?

The garden had marvelous character, even if not much is living there besides kiwi plants, of all things. Love the wooden gates….

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.

We got to peek inside the carriage house, currently used for storage and as a workshop, but the no-photo rule applied.

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.

We got to exit via the scenic route, pausing to snap photos along the way….

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Comment:

18 Comments

Celeste

Hugette’s story is so bizarre. So lonely and sad to me. Empty Mansions is a fabulous read and reveals so much about her story and her wealth. Another Gilded Age tragic tale.

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SARI

How utterly and heartbreakingly sad; this property was left to basically rot all these years and the foundation set up to make this place available to our twon does nothing but collect money and sell her dolls, or so it seems.

I drive by there often in the evenings and have seen cars come and go, this was before the tours opened, and wonder why the lights upstairs were on – what is really going on? I wonder but will wait for my turn at a tour at what was once a gem in our midst.

Perhaps the foundation should connect with the folks at Lotusland or Casa de Herrera or someplace similar to see how to make this accessible and restore the former glory.

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Alice

Bravo! Excellent idea! These people have had years in dealing with historical properties. You don’t just want to open it up as a “civilized” public park. It needs to be preserved.

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Monica

In the late 80’s, my cousin was one of the groundskeepers. I’m bummed I was a silly teenager then and didn’t realize how cool this property was. I only met him at the entrance, I should have driven up. I missed out!!

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Leslie Westbrook

“Her wish was that it become a center for the arts after her death.” So why isn’t this happening? Our http://www.LatinxArtsProject.org board would be happy to help with this – – and in an inclusive manner! Leslie A. Westbrook

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Christine_Z28

TYVM for taking the tour and sharing here! Wow! It’s surely a bit heartbreaking to see the grounds in such poor shape. What’s been going on there all these decades? And to now open it to the “public” – without even cleaning out that tennis court or powerwashing the brick walks? Just makes me scratch my head about what condition the inside of the buildings are in. Again – I thought this place has had keepers? Seems like all that’s been there is an inexpensive and fast “mow and blow” service.

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Jo Thompson

Love the story, and thank you for sharing the many pictures! You mentioned that the inspiration for the motor court at 491 Pimento must have come from Bellosguardo….the motor court at 491 was inspired by Casa del Herrero many years ago, when the 491 property was first developed. The black stones were a popular paver back in the day and still make a dramatic impression. I like your idea of using the estate for more than a museum. Think about Huntington Gardens, for example, where the entire estate and out buildings work together for a variety of educational and cultural experiences. We have a ” jewel” we need to recognize and value.

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michelleroo

Thanks for the great photos! I love going on house and garden tours, but I didn’t want to support an organization that has made so little progress (and is so opaque) to meet the intentions of Huguette’s will. I felt like I would be supporting the salary of that guy currently in charge instead of the skilled laborers need to restore the place.

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Stephen

Had the terms of the Clark gift to the city permitted the sale of Bellosguardo to the highest bidder the city could have avoided the work & expense of making the property compliant with a multitude of regulations and instead have established an arts endowment in perpetuity.

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Bill Dedman

Stephen, you have it backwards. She did not leave Bellosguardo to the city, but to a private foundation. The city has incurred no expense. The foundation has applied to the city for permission to open for public tours.

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Danielle

We know you made plenty of money off her death and are just covering for those who are dishonoring her wishes to mine their own pockets.

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Doug B

Huguette Clark’s will states that the Bellosguardo Foundation’s primary purpose is “fostering and promoting the arts, for the benefit of the public.” Now, after eight years of doing nothing, they’re offering those “lucky enough to snag a spot” a limited tour of the grounds for $100 a pop?
Her will also directs the foundation to make grants that support arts organizations. I’ve checked the last seven years of public filings, and the total amount of grants made is ZERO.
The late Ms. Clark would surely be unhappy with the leadership of her foundation. Until the current president and his cronies on the board are replaced, I won’t be supporting it.

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Doug

Santa Barbara has a critical need for Visiting Artist Housing, all kinds of artists, actors, designers, directors, stage crafts, musicians. Why not the place?

If it purposes is in support of the Arts, Housing for Artists would meet an urgent need. Theaters and Arts Organizations and comply with the mission

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SH

If entering the property from the driveway closest to the beach, there is a cluster of small buildings at beach level, below the estate driveway. Are these structures associated with the Clark estate? If so, what is/was its purpose?

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Bill Dedman

Yes, the Clark beach house and cabanas are part of the Bellosguardo property. They were used at times by Clark family, friends, and staff.

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SH

Thanks Bill! Would love to know more about these structures. I don’t believe I read about them in your book.

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