Karl Obert, from the book Empty Mansions
BELLOSGUARDO THEN: This family photo, taken in the 1940s, shows the interior of the library, including a portrait of Huguette’s sister Andrée over the fireplace. The furniture has been covered, but otherwise the rooms in the mansion remain as they were 60 years ago.
Empty Mansion Fills With Promise
Clark Estate Settles Mansion, Oceanfront Property on Santa Barbara
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Santa Barbara has a new public treasure — Huguette Clark’s former estate Bellosguardo. Now the magnificent 23.5-acre property that’s been sitting empty at 1407 East Cabrillo Boulevard for almost 60 years belongs to a specially created entity known as the Bellosguardo Foundation. With 1,000 feet of ocean frontage and only the quiet folks in the Santa Barbara Cemetery for neighbors, the spectacular mansion on the bluff above East Beach has to be the most conspicuously unoccupied private home in Southern California. Vacant except for a team of caretakers and groundskeepers since the 1950s, Bellosguardo has for many years been kept in Huguette Clark’s preferred state, which is as close as possible to the way it was when her mother, Anna Clark, lived there in the 1930s. The result is already a kind of museum, as rich in period plumbing as it is in period furniture.
Karl Obert, from the book Empty Mansions
DEBUTANTE DAYS: This photo of Huguette Clark was taken shortly after she graduated from Spence School.
What’s more, through the auspices of the Bellosguardo Foundation, this one-of-a-kind property will also belong to the city of Santa Barbara. According to the settlement, which was administered by the Attorney General of New York, seven of the 10 initial members of the Bellosguardo board will be nominated by Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider. In a statement expressing her satisfaction with the agreement, Mayor Schneider identified the foundation’s primary mission as “to open the Bellosguardo house and gardens to the public as a center that will foster and promote the arts.” In her remarks at the annual Santa Barbara Beautiful awards ceremony, held on Sunday, September 29, at the nearby campus of the Music Academy of the West, Schneider called on the community to “dream big, and dream bold” about what to do with what has up until now been a conspicuously underused asset. Many questions remain, however, not only about the condition of Bellosguardo, but also about the city’s benefactor, Huguette Clark. Why was the property empty for so long? Who exactly was the reclusive Ms. Clark?
As with so many features of Clark’s long and mysterious life, the gift of Bellosguardo to Santa Barbara presents an enigma. While she was alive, the buildings and grounds were almost entirely dormant, as were several other extremely valuable properties that she owned, including an estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, called Le Beau Château and two enormous apartments in a luxury building on 5th Avenue and 72nd Street in Manhattan. Huguette Clark inherited a fortune of approximately $300 million from her father, the copper king W.A. Clark, and she could have lived anywhere in the world, but instead she chose to spend the last decades of her life in a darkened hospital room, administering her affairs by phone, letter, and most often, personal check.
While the establishment of a center for the arts at Bellosguardo appears likely to entail some additional fundraising, it’s absolutely certain to require considerable creative thinking, as well. The task of taking the measure of Huguette Clark will render the formulation of an appropriate identity for the Bellosguardo Foundation an interesting challenge. What kind of public institution will best reflect the spirit of a woman who for most of her long life declined to go out in public?
John L. Wiley, from the book Empty Mansions
BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: The current mansion is the second home to be built on the property and was constructed in the 1930s for Huguette’s mother, Anna LaChapelle Clark.
From Recluse to Best Seller
The question of what Clark intended that her Santa Barbara property would become is only one of the many riddles addressed by a fascinating new book. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. has gotten not just Santa Barbara but all of America reading and talking about Huguette Clark. Through the popularity of this highly readable account of her life, an elderly woman has gone from her status of three years ago as an ultra-recluse, when she was nearly un-findable and living under an assumed name in a nondescript New York hospital room, to the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. And if the story of Clark’s very private life can stir so much interest, who knows what will happen in Santa Barbara when those East Cabrillo gates finally open?
Since its publication on September 10, Dedman and Newell’s brilliantly researched, tough-minded, and fair volume has spent two consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. Despite engaging a host of employees while she was alive — including doctors, lawyers, accountants, caretakers, and nurses — Clark remained an elusive figure, rarely showing more than one side of herself to any single person. Her relative Paul Clark Newell Jr. spoke to her some 50 times on the phone, and his recordings of these conversations are a bonus available with the audiobook edition of Empty Mansions. But without the skills of Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Bill Dedman, who humbly refers to himself as being a “public records reporter,” it’s unlikely that the story would ever have come together so fully or shot to best-seller status within a week of publication. An investigative specialist beautifully matched to the unusual nature of this subject, Dedman makes the stories of Huguette Clark and of her father, William Andrews Clark, a fascinating read that’s even harder to pin down than it is to put down.
Before getting too far into the story of Empty Mansions, it might be useful to review what we know about the current status of the estate. The full settlement document runs to 81 pages, but for Santa Barbara, the suspense is on page two, which includes the following clause:
That there will be formed pursuant to the Will a charitable organization (the “Foundation”) to which the decedent’s property located in Santa Barbara, California at 1407 East Cabrillo Boulevard, known as “Bellosguardo” (the “California Real Property”), and various other items of personal property and cash are to be distributed.
Credit for negotiating this extraordinary (and hotly contested) bequest and for the leading role given to the mayor of Santa Barbara in charting the foundation’s initial direction, should go to the legal team of Price, Postel & Parma partner Jim Hurley, former mayor Sheila Lodge, and philanthropist Bob Emmons. The trio formed a Bellosguardo Foundation here in California in advance of the proceedings, and even when that initial attempt to negotiate on the city’s behalf was determined by the New York court to be without standing in the case, they nevertheless managed to find a way back to the negotiating table in time to win not one but two favorable decisions — the bequest itself and control of the board.
Collection of Sheila Lodge, from the book Empty Mansions
BIRTH OF A BEQUEST: In 1988, former mayor Sheila Lodge received this handwritten note from Huguette Clark expressing her desire to preserve the house in memory of her mother.
The heavily lawyered proceedings, which took place in the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, did not leave all who were expecting something from the estate equally happy. The members of her extended family — all relations from her father’s first marriage — will split approximately $34.5 million, but Clark’s former nurse Hadassah Peri, who received millions in personal gifts while Clark was still alive, gets nothing and will have to pay back approximately one-fifth of what she was given. (New York state law treats personal gifts — especially cash — that go to so-called confidential employees such as private nurses to be tainted by default.) Clark’s extensive doll collection, which is valued at nearly $2 million and was set to go to Peri, has been reassigned to the care of the foundation. Welcome to your new dollhouse.
Some of the details of the complex financial state of affairs left behind by Clark are still not resolved. Until the Internal Revenue Service weighs in on some substantial fees due on delinquent gift taxes, it will be hard to gauge just how the foundation will afford the empty mansion. If all goes well, and at least some of the tax penalties are forgiven, the 21,666-square-foot Bellosguardo soon will be filled not only with art, furniture, and Clark’s fabulous collection of dolls but also with visitors.
While the city’s idiosyncratic benefactor was still alive, people were the single element Bellosguardo most conspicuously lacked; now, with the stroke of a pen, all of the nothing that went on in Bellosguardo for so many years is history. Clark’s legacy will deliver one of the last undivided great estates in Santa Barbara to the public for its enjoyment and edification. Under the foundation, the estate looks poised to become, like Lotusland and the nearby Music Academy, one of the city’s truly distinctive attractions.