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Far removed from her seaside jewel

Huguette Clark's Bellosguardo estate, perched on a Santa Barbara bluff, is worth at least $100 million. At 104, she resides at a New York hospital, possibly remembering much — or nothing —about her long-ago days at the grand home.

February 26, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Bellosguardo sits hidden on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara. By all accounts, it's been at least half a century since owner Huguette Clark last set foot there.
Bellosguardo sits hidden on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara.… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Santa Barbara — If Huguette Clark can remember her younger days, she may fondly recall the Santa Barbara estate where a private railroad car deposited her family every winter.

At 104, she may linger on memories of debutante parties and society luncheons, or of musicales featuring the Paganini Quartet, equipped with Stradivarius instruments courtesy of her mother.

Then again, she may not remember a thing. She resides at a New York hospital — her home for more than 20 years.

By all accounts, it's been at least half a century since she last set foot in the 22,000-square-foot house that for years was tended as if a telegram might at any moment signal Clark's arrival.

Perched on a seaside bluff, Bellosguardo — Italian for "beautiful view" — gazes out onto the same stunning panorama that Clark and her guests enjoyed at garden parties in the 1920s.

The 23-acre estate is worth at least $100 million. Real estate brokers who specialize in luxury properties say Clark's representatives have turned away overtures from at least two billionaires. There are rumors — maybe wishful thinking — that Bellosguardo will be given to the city, a school, a charity.

Or perhaps it will sit in cloistered grandeur — like its owner — for years to come.

Money and advisors

Huguette Clark is the daughter of William Andrews Clark, who left behind a Rockefeller-scale fortune. Her ex-husband is long gone, and she doesn't have children or close relatives. What she does have is an estimated $500 million and advisors who have been accused of mismanaging her wealth for their own gain.

Her holdings are baronial. There's a mansion in New Canaan, Conn., and two apartments — 42 rooms altogether — in one of Fifth Avenue's swankiest buildings. And then there's Bellosguardo.

Today, a caretaker and a hired landscaping crew maintain the acreage. Long ago, the hillside was humming with 25 full-time gardeners and a large household staff. For a time, cows grazed at Bellosguardo; when the Clarks were elsewhere, fresh Santa Barbara butter was flown to them.

Barbara Hoelscher Doran, who lived in a house on the estate until she was 12, remembers those days well. The daughter of the property's former manager relishes her memories of Huguette: "She'd call and ask my mother, 'Can Barbie come over for tea?'"

Delighted, the little girl would run up to the big house, past rose gardens, fresco-adorned walls and a reflecting pool. To avoid marring the parquet floors inside, she would don special slippers — "the kind of things surgeons wear."

Here was the music room, with its two gold harps and back-to-back grand pianos; there, the fan room, where Huguette Clark's mother, Anna, showed off ladies' fans she had collected from around the world. The dining room walls were intricately carved — all from a single tree in the Black Forest — and, when pressed in the right places, would open to reveal shelves of fine china.

On the patio, Doran would take tea, often going home with exquisite dolls, children's books in French and other gifts from Huguette and Anna.

"They were the most lovely, kind, soft-spoken ladies," said Doran, who, four decades later, manages an interior design business in Montecito. "It was idyllic; I just didn't realize it at the time."

A tycoon's bauble

Long before Bellosguardo became a little girl's enchanted playground, it was a bauble for William Andrews Clark — a mining tycoon with a much younger wife, eight children from two marriages and a larger-than-life love of luxury.

Already 84 when he acquired the grand home in 1923, Clark was accustomed to the finer things. His main house, on New York's Fifth Avenue, had 121 rooms, Turkish baths, art galleries and a railroad spur for coal cars.

By comparison, Bellosguardo was a shack — but one where his wife could entertain in high style. To celebrate the arrival of relatives, she once threw the house open for a lavish midnight dinner — but Clark sat in his study, "scowling like an ancient bird of prey," according to local author Marshall Bond Jr.

Just two years after buying Bellosguardo, he died. His obituaries recalled his one term as a U.S. senator from Montana, pointing out that he secured it with gifts to legislators that included cash stuffed into monogrammed envelopes. "I never bought a man who wasn't for sale," he once said.

Though corrupt, Clark was generous. He donated priceless paintings to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His son William Andrews Clark Jr. founded the L.A. Philharmonic and gave UCLA a rare-book library named for his father.

After Huguette's sister died of meningitis, the family gave Santa Barbara land and money for the Andree Clark Bird Refuge.

Even Bellosguardo became an exercise in philanthropy.

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