Harriett Pullman Carolan Builds Carolands Chateau In San Francisco Bay Area
Taking nearly two years two complete with construction finishing in 1916, Carolands was the ambitious creation of Harriett Pullman Carolan who was brought up in the large mansions and summer homes of her parents, George and Harriet Pullman. Whether it was the family home in Chicago on Prairie Ave, the summer home Fairlawn in Elberon, New Jersey, Castle Rest in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, or trips to (and schooling in) Europe, the younger Harriett grew up with an appreciation of fanciful architecture.
After numerous relationships over a several year period, Harriett would marry Francis (Frank) Carolan, a Polo player, in 1892, shortly after the death of her paternal grandmother. The wedding would take place at the Prairie Street home in Chicago which had just finished a substantial addition in time for the wedding which would be small on account of the recent passing of her grandmother.
The couple would settle out west in San Francisco. After moving a few times, one of which was reportedly due to a visit from Mrs. Pullman who was not pleased with her daughter living in inferior settings, Mr. Pullman apparently would rectify the situation, for the time being, with the writing of a check as Harriett wouldn’t be able to access her fortune held in a trust until she turned 35.
After all, Mrs. Pullman was the mother who, nearly two decades later, would have the mansion built in Washington D.C. for Harriett’s sister Florence and husband Frank Lowden. Frank, a rising star in politics, didn’t necessarily need a 54-room mansion, but Mrs. Pullman would see to it that he would get one befitting of the name Pullman and the term “Presidency” – going so far as to use the same architect who built the West Wing of the White House. The irony here is, neither the mansion in Washington, D.C., nor the soon to be built Carolands, would receive much use from the Pullman daughters at all.
In 1912, a now 43-year-0ld Harriett would purchase over 500 acres in Hillsborough, California, said to be located on the highest parcel of land overlooking the San Francisco Bay in the neighborhood. Her intent: to erect a chateau that would be a blend of her interests and architectural inspirations, resulting in the Pullman name yet again equated with grandeur. To accomplish this, Harriett would hire one of France’s foremost architects, Ernest Sanson, to design what would become a Beaux-Arts Classical 98 room chateau – the largest mansion west of the Mississippi.
Sanson would never visit the site, being 76-years at the time, and local William Polk would be hired to ensure the work was carried out to Sanson’s plans. Carolands’ grounds would be designed by another leading French architect, Achille Duchêne, who would work onsite to lay out the gardens.
While Carolands would be completed in 1916, the marriage between Harriett and Frank would be nearing its end by the time they moved in that fall. The following year, Harriett would officially separate from Frank, close up Carolands and move to New York City. Frank would stay in California where he would pass away several years later in 1923 at the age of 62.
Two years after Frank’s death, Harriett would remarry, this time to Colonel Arthur Frederick Schermerhorn in 1925. It would be another three years before Hattie would remove the furnishings from Carolands and put it up for sale. It would sit abandoned for the better part of 25 years, though the United States Government considered purchasing it, twice in fact, as a “Western” White House, once in 1939 and later again during the Kennedy Administration. During this time, the land would be subdivided and sold off.
In the 1940s, Carolands came very close to being demolished and was saved at the last minute when Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini stepped in to purchase it and effectively saving it in the process, making it her home in 1949-50. At the time, the land accompanying the mansion had been reduced to a mere six acres of land. Upon her death in 1973 at the age of 93, Dandini left Carolands to the town of Hillsborough for use as an arts center, but the town declined as no provisions were made for the costly up-keep, an issue Dandini herself fell behind with. Carolands would be added to the National Register of Historic Places two years later.
Below: short promo for the documentary, Three Women and a Chateau, aka The Heiress and Her Chateau: Carolands of California, nominated for Two Emmys and produced by Luna Productions.
During the proceeding years, Carolands would fall into disrepair and become not only an eyesore for the neighborhood, but the setting of an adult film and the scene of a horrific crime during the 1980s. According to Pullman Videos YouTube channel—
By the early 1980s, the mansion was virtually abandoned which allowed adult filmmakers to gain access to the site where they produced the 1982 film All American Girls. These excerpts contain no nudity or pornographic images. These are some of the earliest interior video images of the historic mansion that exist.”
The clip can be viewed here.
In 1985, two high school girls, Jeanine Grinsell and Laurie McKenna, had heard that a security guard on-site would sometimes give “unofficial” tours of Carolands. They decided to make the drive up and the security guard, a twenty-three-year-old David Allen Raley, convinced them to park their car around back and out of site since they could all get in trouble. What happened next turned Carolands into a house of horrors as the two were kidnapped, raped, tortured and locked in the trunk of Raley’s 1973 Plymouth until his boss showed up to relieve him. Only one, Laurie McKenna, would ultimately survive the ordeal.
Some of the history of Carolands with plenty of photos and the details of the murder are presented in the Once Upon A Crime Podcast below (clicking on it will open a new browser.)
Despite their being several owners over the next decade plus, Carolands would continue its decline that began back during Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini’s ownership. Once again, the estate had plans for demolition in its future as a local developer wished to subdivide the property even further.
Things looked bleak with no alternatives until Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Johnson purchased Carolands to preserve the Chateau and restore its gardens. A reconstruction effort at the cost of an estimated $20,000,000 would take four years and be completed in 2002, at which time the Johnsons moved in and used it as their personal residence.
In 2012, the Johnsons would donate the Chateau to Carolands Foundation to preserve it for charitable purposes. Today, the foundation offers small tours to the Chateau and gardens, via tour lottery, for which more information can be found here.
1 Review on “Carolands Chateau (1916 – Present)”
Incredible post! Can’t wait to go through all the documentaries. I would love to somehow get on a tour.