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What Mysteries Are Inside This Abandoned Mansion of a Reclusive Heiress?

Bellosguardo opens its gilded doors to the public for the first time.

Heiress, painter, and philanthropist Huguette Clark lived the popular French saying: Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés. To live happily, live hidden.The daughter of one of the wealthiest magnates of the Gilded Age, she was born into unimaginable wealth. But despite her seemingly endless fortune, she spent the last 20 years of her life as a hermit, choosing to live in a private hospital instead of in her magnificent mansions.

Clark’s opulent, 21,000-square-foot summer mansion, which sits atop one a prime slice of California real estate–a bluff overlooking East Beach in Santa Barbara–sat untouched, frozen in time, since the day Clark last visited in 1953.

In 2023, however, the mansion reopened its grand doors to visitors looking to learn more about Huguette, a woman who embodied the sad little rich girl stereotype when she gave up on public life and became a storied recluse.

When Huguette Marcelle Clark was born on June 9, 1906, in Paris, France, her father, William A. Clark (1839–1925), had already amassed his incredible fortune. Known as the “Copper King,” he owned copper mines, electric power companies, newspapers, and railroad lines.

When he died in March 1925, his millions were divided equally among his five surviving children. Huguette, his youngest child, later received a bonus inheritance: Bellosguardo, “beautiful lookout,” a gem of a mansion built by her mother, Anna Clark, in 1936.

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LA Light Photo/Todd Goodman, courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

In the Victorian era, Santa Barbara established itself as a spa resort destination 90 miles north of Los Angeles on California’s central coast. Then came the early film stars, who set up camp in the town that set the stage for the world’s largest silent movie studio, Flying A Studios. These early visitors noted the Côte d’Azur feel of the seaside gem—its mild, sunny weather, stunning mountain backdrop, pristine stretch of oceanfront, and incredible wine produced in the mountains and valleys just outside town—and gave it the moniker America’s Riviera. Today, downtown Santa Barbara’s Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean Revival architecture sets the historic city apart from other California coastal cities.

Pasadena-based architect Reginald Johnson designed Bellosguardo with the 18th-century French Riviera in mind. (Johnson is the same architect who designed another contested area property, the Santa Barbara Biltmore). Featuring 27 rooms, including a music room reverberating with Huguette’s two grand pianos and harp and a library packed with leather-bound books, the lavish interior dazzles with intricately carved wood accents, ornately painted ceilings, and sparkling crystal chandeliers.  

Huguette married, but the romance was short-lived. After just one year, she divorced her husband, William MacDonald Gower, in 1930. Huguette moved back in with her mother, and though the pair spent most of their time at their primary residence on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Bellosguardo was their getaway of choice.

“Huguette had a fairy-tale checkbook, one that was refilled whenever it ran out of magic beans,” explained Bill Dedman, who profiled Clark in his best-selling book, Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.

But despite her incredible wealth—when she died, her fortune was over $300 million—Huguette had few friends and was “skittish around strangers.” She spent much of her time at Bellosguardo painting alone in her artist’s studio. 

When her mother died in 1963, Huguette gave her staff a standing order: Bellosguardo should remain exactly as it was, frozen in time. The caretakers who lived on the estate followed Huguette’s request, though she never visited again. Eventually, they covered the furniture and artwork in sheets; linens were wrapped in paper. Even her 1933 Chrysler Royal Eight convertible and sleek black 1933 Cadillac limousine, both sporting 1949 license plates, were covered in cloth; they would sit parked in the garage for decades.

Huguette’s distrust of outsiders grew, and she became even more reclusive, worried that people were only after her money. She even preferred speaking French to her few friends and associates, hoping to hide her personal life as much as possible.

When she was admitted to the Upper East Side Doctors Hospital in 1991 for cancerous lesions that left her face disfigured, her physician noted that she appeared like “an apparition…like somebody out of a concentration camp.” A nurse said that she lived her life “like a homeless person—no clothes, not in touch with the world, had not seen a doctor for 20 years, and threw everyone out of the room.”

Huguette, left, with her father and sister.Courtesy Santa Barbara Tourism

Huguette would never again leave the hospital, even though her doctor “had strongly urged that she go home.” She refused visitors. Her only social interactions were with her private nurses or physicians. Bellosguardo would sit empty for 70 years, puzzling Santa Barbara’s residents as it remained shrouded in mystery, just as Huguette puzzled her family and former acquaintances with her secretive life.

When she died on May 24, 2011, just two weeks before her 105th birthday, 19 distant relatives of Clark, many of whom had never met her, laid claim to the estate. 

And when her will was finally settled in 2013, the Bellosguardo Foundation was established. Still, it wasn’t until 2018, seven years after her death, that the mysterious mansion was transferred to the foundation.

Bellosguardo finally unveiled the long-covered decor, still pristine after so many decades, in 2023 and began welcoming guests back to the opulent estate with small, docent-led tours.

Huguette’s personality shines through on the tours, guiding visitors through the massive mansion’s first floor. Perhaps the most interesting room on the tour is Huguette’s former art studio, where French and Japanese dolls—she collected them later in life—sit lifelike on their doll-sized chairs, and 40 of her own paintings, including a few poignant self-portraits line the walls.

Tickets are released via email every few months. Add yourself to the Bellosguardo Foundation email list by signing up to support the foundation’s efforts. Tickets tend to sell out quickly. The Bellosguardo Foundation is waiting on the City of Santa Barbara to approve a Conditional Use Permit, so expect more frequent public tours, including tours that extend up to the long-shuttered second floor and events by early 2024.