Where: KQED, Channel 9
Produced and directed by: Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, Luna Productions
Documentary's website: lunaproductions.com/the-heiress-and-her-chateau
Running time: 56 minutes
As an Englishman in California, one of the things I miss is historical buildings. Living just outside London, I could visit a number of great houses, a palace (or two), and numerous ancient abbeys and churches. So I was surprised to learn that there is a great house right here on the San Francisco Peninsula. Though only 100 years old, Carolands was designed and built to the specifications of a French chateau, and through meticulous attention to detail, it could easily pass for the home of a count and countess in the land of frog legs and garlic.
If you've ever hankered after a "fur room," "flower arranging room," or "silver cleaning room," then Carolands is the place for you. Though not quite Downton Abbey, it is certainly imposing from the outside, and lavishly restored on the inside.
As you enter the front doors you are greeted in the entrance hall, where Harriett Carolan would have descended the grand staircase. Staircases are a feature of Carolands. Large and small, each was designed with both utility and beauty in mind. On the ground floor resides a kitchen that would make Gordon Ramsey proud. Walls and ceiling are covered not in tile, but with white or milk glass, which is easier to keep clean. The large center island range must have been a hive of culinary activity during the many dinner parties marshaled by the cook and her copious staff.
The butler, of course, had his own kitchen and serving area, where the food was brought up from the main kitchen. This was where the "annunciator" resided. An electrical version of the bell pull, buttons were in every room so that the residents and guests could summon a servant from anywhere in the house. The current owners decided not to restore this, as they reasoned that "there would be no one to answer it." Seems fair.
Harriett Carolan (1869-1956) was the second daughter of the "Palace Car Prince" George M. Pullman of Chicago. After extensive travel in France she had been dreaming for many years of building a house and a garden that would excite the "wonder and admiration of America," and in 1912 she and her husband Francis Carolan of San Francisco bought 554 acres of land in Hillsborough. The gardens were designed by the famous landscape architect Achille Duchene, and the house by the equally famous Ernest Sanson. Although Duchene travelled to California to supervise the construction of the gardens, at 77 years old Sanson decided to design and plan the house from the comfort of his home in France, using the skills of a local architect to supervise the actual building.
Construction took some four years and about $1 million ($40 million in today's currency), and in 1916 Harriet moved in. But she only enjoyed the house for another 11 years. After Mr. Carolan died she moved to New York. Or was it to the other country house in Lenox, Massachusetts? Either way, she never saw Carolands again and sold her dream house to a developer in 1945. The house went into decline and was nearly demolished a number of times. Fortunately the present owners, the Johnsons, bought the house in the 1990s and rescued, restored and preserved it. It was actually considered by the U.S. Government as a Western White House twice. Once in 1939, and again during the Kennedy administration.
Harriett's favorite room was the library. An avid collector of first editions and other rare books, Harriett spent much time here and in the adjoining rooms with their large folio tables which folded up into the walls. A beautifully carved staircase leads up to the second level of books and the view to the gardens is glorious, even though they are much smaller now than they were originally.
It used to be said that the higher up the aristocratic scale a family had risen, the further apart a husband's and wife's bedrooms were. Harriett and her husband's bedroom suites take up the whole of the back of the house, with one bedroom at each corner and a lovely shared sitting room between. Harriett had access not just to a dressing room, but to her own dressing floor, a mezzanine floor with very short ceilings which housed her closets, shoe display cases, and of course the essential fur room, lined with cedar, which moths can't stand.
The house has more than 90 rooms, and even in 60 minutes of a press tour, we only saw a fraction of them. Did I mention the elevator? That's one thing Downton doesn't have! It went from the first floor (the "living" floor to just outside Harriett's bedroom. Handy after a long night of partying.
On the press tour we were privileged to have the art historian Paul Price as our guide. What he doesn't know about Carolands isn't worth knowing. "The Heiress and Her Chateau Carolands of California" premieres on KQED at 7 tonight. It should be provide fascinating insight into an American Downton Abbey.