Carolands

565 Remillard Drive, Hillsborough, San Mateo County, California

Completed in 1916, for Harriett Pullman (1869-1956) and her first husband Francis J. Carolan (1861-1923). Located twenty miles south of San Francisco, Carolands is one of just two American chateaux designed by one of France's most revered architects of its Belle Époque, Ernest-Paul Sanson. For many years, the 98-room chateau was the largest private home west of the Mississippi and its 75-foot high atrium remains the largest enclosed space in any American home. But, its beauty beguiled and eventually broke the heiresses whose hearts it captured. After a century of highs and lows, and dodging the wrecking ball, Carolands has now finally come into its own....

This house is best associated with...

Harriett Pullman

Mrs Harriett (Pullman) Carolan, afterwards Schermerhorn

1869-1956

Lillian (Remillard) Dandini

Lillian Virginia (Remillard), Countess Dandini de Cesena

1880-1973

Harriett Pullman was the prettier, favorite daughter of George Pullman who made train travel luxurious. Her father understood not only how to create luxury, but how to deliver it like few others, and he fought off the all-powerful Vanderbilt family to ensure that Pullman rail cars are still remembered and admired today. Harriett inherited her father's desire to create unbridled luxury, but having been brought up to expect $100 every time she named one of the Pullman cars, she didn't learn his ability to manage money.

In 1892, Harriett was married in the lavish Drawing Room at the Pullman Mansion in Chicago to the Californian Francis J. Carolan, a son of one of the original pioneers who sailed around the Horn in 1849 before accumulating a fortune in property in Sacramento. Principally aided by Harriett's $500,000 (topped up by another $1 million after her father died in 1897), they lived between San Francisco and "Crossways" in Burlingame where Frank introduced fox hunting and polo. Until 1909, Crossways was considered the finest estate in San Mateo, but when Harriett's friend, Mrs William Crocker, spent $600,000 on a new 67-room mansion, determined not to be outdone, Harriett set her mind towards creating something that would ignite, "the wonder and admiration of America".

Bringing Paris to California

In 1911, the Carolans took an apartment in Paris where Harriett's name, wealth, and lofty aspirations did not remain unnoticed for long. She was quickly befriended by the effete, well-connected aristocrat Boni de Castellane, who was more than eager for a new project since having romped his way through $10 million of his American wife's (Anna Gould's) money in the course of building the Palais Rose before she gave him the flick and left him without a dime! For all his faults, when it came to art and architecture, Boni had exquisite taste, an exceptional eye for quality, and always knew the right price to pay. With him at her side, Harriett was introduced to the leading art dealers, decorators, and architects in French society together with whom she began to concoct her elaborate plans.

In 1912, having purchased 544-acres at Hillsborough, an area that had become fashionable with wealthy San Franciscans establishing country retreats, Harriett succeeded in persuading Achille Duchêne - then the most highly sought-after landscape designer within French aristocratic circles - to come out to California to design the formal parterre gardens for her proposed new home. Having just finished a commission for the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte outside Paris, Duchêne used its famous gardens as his inspiration.

By 1913, Harriett had scored another home run in securing the services of the equally acclaimed French architect Ernest-Paul Sanson, the same man who built Boni's Palais Rose yet who just seven years before Perry Belmont had gone to great lengths to secure for what was Sanson's only other American commission. Following Duchêne's lead, Sanson too drew very loosely on the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte for inspiration.

Just as Horace Trumbauer had been tasked to oversee the construction of the Perry Belmont House, so it was that San Francisco's most eminent Gilded Age architect, Willis Polk, was entrusted with the task of bringing the Frenchman's plans to life in California. Work began in 1914 on the house the Carolans would name "Carolands," sited on the highest point of their estate giving spectacular views over the bay and surrounding hills.

Le Chateau Complet...

Harriett's 98-room, 4.5-story chateau was all but complete by early 1916. Standing 100-feet high, it is almost a square with two 130-feet facades and two 120-feet facades. Entering via the vaulted vestibule, the interior is centered by one of Sanson's trademark Imperial staircases that pours out gracefully as one into the marble hall, bathed in light from an atrium 75-feet above. Caroland's historian, Michael Middleton Dwyer, eloquently describes how on ascending the staircase by either of its flights, "you find yourself in a rectangle of naturally lit galleries around which the rooms of the house are arranged. The rhythm is created by layered colonnades of perfect proportions, very grand for the Piano Nobile and more diminutive for the second floor, which contains the major bedrooms". 

Sanson's plans incorporated three 17th & 18th century rooms bought in their entirety from chateaux in Bordeaux on the advice of Boni de Castellane. Complete with delicately ornate plasterwork ceilings, wall-panelling, and parquet floors, the rooms were shipped to California and blended in seamlessly by Polk. Today, only two remain after Harriett willed "Le Pautre Room" to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where it can still be seen today. Other rooms and features of note here include the wood-panelled library lined with 10,000 antique volumes; the milky-glass ceiling in the kitchen; a room dedicated solely to the cutting of flowers; a pastry room; elegant, unobtrusive elevators; and, the stables where Frank kept his pack of foxhounds and no less than 94-horses!

... Le Fait Accompli

Helped out by her mother, $3 million later Harriett had - for the most part - realized her dream. But, in doing so, she not only all but depleted her fortune, but arguments over spiralling costs left her marriage on a knife-edge. The ballroom was never completed and the grand plans laid out by Duchêne that intended the use of thousands of trees and shrubs - with fountains, statues and promenades interspersed throughout - also failed to come to fruition as a result of ebbing funds and disagreements between the Carolans. By 1917, these 'disagreements' culminated in separation and from the following year Carolands was left empty as Frank returned to Crossways and Harriett left for New York.

Frank died just five years later in 1923 and in 1925 Harriett married into the old Knickerbocker aristocracy when she wed Colonel Arthur Frederic Schermerhorn whose grandfather was a first cousin of Caroline (Schermerhorn) Astor, aka "The Mrs Astor". They lived between New York City and Spring Lawn in Lenox, Massachusetts, making only sporadic trips to Carolands. In 1928, Harriett removed all the furnishings and took them east while placing the three Bordeaux Rooms into storage in San Francisco.

An Unwanted White Elephant

In 1939, the U.S. government considered buying Carolands for use as the Western Summer White House, but nothing came of it and by the 1940s Harriett was actively trying to sell. One prospective buyer was Barbara Woolworth Hutton, but by 1945 Harriett admitted defeat and succumbed to the offers held out by developers. Its new owner, inventor Tomlinson Irving Moseley, subdivided and developed the lion's share of the 544-acre estate. He was also the first to host a benefit evening at Carolands, raising money for the Stanford Convalescent Home which was photographed by Life Magazine, and on another occasion he allowed the Burlingame High School seniors to hold their prom here, reviving a glittering candlelit evening reminiscent of its albeit momentary former grandeur.

In 1948, Moseley sold the house and its surrounding 25-acres to Mrs Sada Coe Robinson (1910-1979) who within two years had carved up what remained of the estate. In 1949, she placed the house and its last remaining 5.65-acres on the market but there was little interest and by the early 1950s she considered its demolition. But, her purposes were not selfishly driven to line her own pockets. The money she made from Carolands was used to buy back her family's cattle ranch and in 1953, she donated it to Santa Clara County. Named for her father, it is known and enjoyed today as the Henry W. Coe State Park.

Countess Dandini & Chateau Remillard

In 1953, the chateau was pried from the jaws of demoltion when it was purchased by Lillian Remillard, a wealthy divorcée who continued to style herself "Countess Dandini" since her brief foray into marriage with a scientifically-inclined, but otherwise altogether disreputable Mexican-born Italian aristocrat.

Lillian's father came to California from Quebec in 1854 and having made "a snug sum" mining gold, he eventually took control of the brickyard in which he was afterwards employed. Joined by his two brothers, he incorporated the Remillard Brick Company in 1879 and after his death in 1904 the firm was successfully continued by Lillian and her mother who saw their fortunes rocket after the Earthquake of 1906. By 1932, Lillian was very wealthy, a more than capable businesswoman, but 52-years old and yet to be married: cue 33-year-old, silver-tongued aristocrat! The Count's passions were - in no particular order - science and women, both of which required money that he did not possess. 

They married in 1932 and divorced by 1939, during which time Lillian had brought him in as a co-owner of Remillard. During those few short years, the young Count not only conducted a string of public affairs but he embezzled over $50,000 of the company's money that coupled with a charge of tax evasion saw him jailed in 1942. This episode of his life was not recorded when his third wife endowed the Dandini Medal of Science at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) for her late husband, "the acclaimed scientist, industrialist and inventor," but remembered by everyone else as, "assistant to the DRI's president". 

Her brush with marriage may have been a disaster, but she took from it what she could (the title!) and enjoyed the elevated position it gave her in society that was only topped by her new role from 1953 as the Chatelaine of the house she adored and renamed "Chateau Remillard". In 1958, she bought back the two remaining Bordeaux Rooms from the Pullman estate and had them re-installed at the chateau as found today.

The Countess was a generous hostess, liberally opening up her vast halls for charity events, most notably in support of the Opera League of Oakland, when her lavish parties were attended by the likes of Valentino Liberace and few did not include her neighbor, Bing Crosby. Through her generosity and the expense of maintaining both her societal position and the chateau itself, her once immense fortune slowly dwindled and when she died here in 1973 she was reduced to living in just one small room of her 98-room chateau.

Another Heart Captured, Another Heart Broken

Lillian left Carolands to the City of Hillsborough to be used as a museum for her two passions: music and art. However, without an endowment fund to support her good intentions the city had no option but to sell. Fortunately, by its own law, it had previously decreed that all houses must be kept for residential use only, and so again it managed to hold on in defiance of the wrecking ball. An auction was held and in 1976 for $313,000 it came into the possession of a less publicized heiress, but another heiress nonetheless: Rose 'Roz' Franks, whose fortune is said to have come from oil and real estate.

Ms Frank's short tenure was marked by a legal battle that she lost in 1979 to developer George Benny. Heartbroken to lose the chateau, she did not have to wait long to get some sense of revenge: In 1982, Benny lost his $200-million real estate empire - and Carolands with it - by foreclosure, before being sentenced to 30-years in prison for racketeering.

A Dark Decade

Once again, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece found itself neglected and forlorn, but its great husk still evinced fascination, just sadly the wrong kind. In 1984, a film crew gained access and made a pornographic movie, All American Girls and the following year things took a dark turn when a caretaker at the property invited two girls in for a tour before sexually assaulting them and leaving one dead. In 1986, it was sold for $2.75 million to Escape Velocity Systems Inc., but their idea to use it as a think tank was rejected by the council. Still empty in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake took its pound of flesh when it left the chateau with multiple 6-8 inch cracks throughout, but still it held on. 

In 1994, Raymond Hung purchased Carolands with a view to making it his home. But, perturbed by the scale of the necessary renovations he sold it on just three years later to yet another developer, Kevin White. Despite Hillsborough's single-family residential law, White proposed spending $20 million converting Carolands into 15 luxury apartments and threatened to tear the house down unless his terms were agreed to. Step in, the Johnsons...

The Johnsons: Its Knights in Shining Armor

On hearing of Carolands' plight, Charles Bartlett Johnson - investment banker and principal owner of the San Francisco Giants baseball team - and his wife, Dr Ann Demarest Lutes, were two of 68,000-visitors who came to see the house. They purchased Carolands in 1998 for just under $6 million and then spent the necessary $20 million on extensive renovations over the next four years. Just as Harriett Pullman had brought in the best in the world, so too did the Johnsons: Mario Buatta (aka "The Prince of Chintz") oversaw the works to the interiors; Martin Lane-Fox, former Vice Chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society, completed the gardens as per Duchêne's original plans; and, Page & Turnbull designed a drive-through 12-car garage beneath a newly constructed terrace.

In 2002, for the first time in its history, Carolands and its gardens were complete to the original designs laid down by Harriett Pullman and the Frenchmen a century before. The Johnsons also continue in the traditions set by the Countess by lending their home for charity fundraisers and other worthy causes. Carolands today is a California Historical Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2006, a feature-length documentary film made in association with the San Mateo County Historical Association entitled Three Women and a Chateau related its history, winning Best Documentary (Grand Jury Award) at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. 

In 2012, the Johnsons donated the chateau to the Carolands Foundation which conducts small group tours without charge. It is not available for corporate or personal use, but can accommodate 175 guests for Receptions, Dinners, Concerts, Seminars and Lectures.

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 27/10/2018 and last updated on 05/07/2021.

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