The rumors had been swirling for years. Kids would often pass by the luxurious Santa Barbara mansion and ask, “Who lives there?” But there was no way of knowing.
No one had been seen going in or out and the surrounding trees kept the enormous, lavish, seaside mansion a secret. So who was paying the staff if no one had lived there for decades? And more importantly, why would someone do that?
The story begins with William A. Clark, a Montana senator and billionaire copper tycoon. William had a huge collection of mansions across the country.
So far, so typical of how the other half lives. But why would the family abandon their beautiful home in Santa Barbara when they had gone to such extravagant lengths to add so many sentimental touches?
After demolishing one of their New York properties, the family shipped its intricate wooden paneling and decorative flourishes across the country to the now-infamous “Bellosguardo” mansion (which means “beautiful lookout” in Italian).
This was, of course, an incredibly costly project. But sadly, the first of many tragedies struck the Clark family soon after work was completed.
When William passed away in 1925, the deeds of the estate were inherited by his wife Anna. The widow took charge of the stately home and filled it with an expertly curated collection of paintings, including several portraits of herself.
But as if the tragedy of losing the family patriarch weren’t enough, a natural disaster would soon have the family running for the hills.
The great Santa Barbara earthquake ravaged the area and shook Bellosguardo to its foundations, leading to more expensive renovations.
Anna took it upon herself to rebuild. In 1933, she finally finished repairing the 22,000-square-foot French-style mansion that sits on the grounds today. But despite all that work, the widow would soon vacate the property for good, leaving behind some puzzling instructions.
The Clarks decided to designate Bellosguardo as their vacation home. Hundreds of staff members were kept on to finish repairs and maintain the house year-round in case they decided to visit.
But the Clarks never returned. Staff followed orders diligently for years, despite the strange circumstances of their employment. Until one afternoon the head of the staff received a curious phone call.
For years, staff had only received communications from the Clark estate through a chain of lawyers. Then one day, a maid answered a phone call from a woman claiming to be Huguette Clark.
Staff were informed that the heiress had become the new owner of Bellosguardo after her mother Anna passed away. They were instructed to keep everything as it had always been – and to pay special attention to the small cottage at the rear of the property.
Andrée’s Cottage was named for Huguette’s older sister, who passed away from meningitis in 1919. Staff had assumed that Huguette had planned to visit the memorial home and so wanted it to be ready for whenever she decided to come.
But despite strict orders to keep it spotless, the reclusive artist never came. And the staff were beginning to get suspicious about the whole thing.
The staff continued to take care of the home of a person they’d never met. Maids, gardeners, cooks and craftsmen worked around the clock to keep the 27 rooms and echoey halls immaculate.
Huguette paid $40,000 a month to keep the home shipshape, all the while the mansion sat empty. More than 50 years had passed and still the staff worked with no sign of a visit. Huguette must have been in her nineties by now, they thought. Was she even still alive?
Huguette Clark was a somewhat eccentric character. Despite never returning to spend a single night at Bellosguardo, she splashed out a staggering amount of money on its upkeep.
The painter spent most of her life in a New York apartment that took up the whole of the 12th floor and had become quite reclusive after her mother’s passing. And she had a rather unusual way of passing the time.
Due to being rather “skittish around strangers”, Huguette preferred the company of her doll collection to other people.
She had been spotted at top fashion shows, but was reported to quickly rush back to her hideaway with sketches to make clothes for her dolls. It was this paranoid behavior that would eventually inform the fate of Bellosguardo.
Huguette had feared that her family was out to get her money. Her lawyers had been begging her for years to make a last will (one of whom wanted to be the sole beneficiary).
It was upon her passing that a will did indeed surface – and the details upset a lot of people. The future of Bellosguardo had finally been revealed.
The vast majority of Huguette’s money was left to various charities or people in need, and Bellosguardo was given to a board of directors with a simple instruction: that the grand mansion become a foundation for the arts.
Shortly after, the doors were opened to the public, revealing a pristine time capsule of treasures.
Guests stared slackjawed as they walked the halls of Bellosguardo to admire the priceless art and antique furniture. In the music room, a pristine 1709 Stradivari violin sat on display, looking like it had been well-loved, despite having not been played in six decades.
And that was just what was inside. It was the house itself that really left them speechless.
The parquet floors were immaculate and 100-year-old furniture and fabrics looked like they had all been restored; except they hadn’t. Staff had just kept it in perfect condition for years and no one had used it.
The single-marble-slab bathtub looked to be in such good condition, guests wanted to hop in there and then for a soak. But it was the surrounding grounds that really inspired awe among visitors.
Fountains and pools brimming with clear water. Grass and hedges trimmed with precision. And, as per Huguette’s request, the little cottage dedicated to her sister was still ready to welcome guests.
Luxury cars sat in the large garage – all with their original license plates. Despite needing a few upgrades, the classic motors were valued at $85 million. It was at this point that some disgruntled family members swooped in.
Despite the will, an incredible 19 extended family members tried to claim the fortune as their own (even though Huguette had already been massively generous with them).
The board of directors were at a loss as to how to proceed with the family claims that just kept stacking up. Then, to make matters worse, the taxman came knocking.
Everything from gifts to expenses bequeathed by Huguette had to be reviewed by the IRS. Fortunately, the money she had left to the board was more than enough to cover the liability, and the lawyers quickly saw off the distant family.
But now they had to deal with running the foundation itself. Should they sell the property and use the money to keep up Huguette’s philanthropic endeavors?
The board decided to push on with plans to keep Bellosguardo open to the public. It is currently scheduled to become “a new home for art, music, history, and culture on the California coast.”
New life will soon be breathed into the locked-away mansion with art galleries, classes, and family picnics along the extensive yard. What was once hidden will now be enjoyed by anyone that wants to visit. But not all empty mansions have such a happy ending.
There are almost 1.5 million empty homes in the United States – and wealthy coastal communities like Santa Barbara tend to have similar stories to Bellosguardo – vacation homes that have been left empty for years.
If anyone does have an empty mansion and they need a house sitter for a few decades, please let us know!