AKA: Carolands, Hillsborough, CA

Structure Type: built works - dwellings - houses

Designers: Buatta, Mario, Interior Designer (firm); Duchene, Achille, Landscape Architect (firm); Passot, Felix, Interior Designer (firm); Polk, Willis, and Company (firm); Sanson, Ernest, Architect (firm); Mario Buatta (interior designer); Achille Duchene (landscape architect); Felix Passot (interior designer); Willis Jefferson Polk (architect); Ernest Sanson (architect)

Dates: constructed 1914-1915

4 stories, total floor area: 46,050 sq. ft.

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565 Remillard Drive
Carolands, Hillsborough, CA 94010-6739

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A symbol of elegance and excess, the 65,000-square-foot mansion known as "The Carolands" was devised by a French architect, Ernest Sanson, working with San Francisco architect Willis J. Polk in 1914-1916. The mansion's immense cost, scale and pretension caused a rift between the couple that conceived it, the heiress Harriet Pullman Carolan and her husband Francis J. Carolan. Harriett and Francis separated in 1917 and neither inhabited the dwelling by 1918. Between 1918 and 1950, the Carolands remained vacant, save for caretakers, and between 1930 and 1950, a handful of buyers sub-divided the estate's 554 acres. The Countess Dandini became the house's most stable inhabitant for twenty-three years, until 1973. During the period from 1973 until 1991, various owners tried to manage the sprawling mansion, most unable to support its extensive needs. Some sought to transform it into apartments, others wanted to demolish it, but during this period, it remained uninhabited, a haunting and extravagant folly located on some of the most desirable real estate in San Mateo County. Its renovation began in 1998, when the billionaire Charles Bartlett Johnson and his wife Ann Lutes Johnson purchased the estate and set about its restoration. They moved into the restored chateau in 2002, and donated it to a charitable foundation in 2012.

Building History

Heiress Harriet Sanger Pullman Carolan (1869-1956), daughter of George M. Pullman (1831-1897), the fantastically rich railroad sleeping car inventor and manufacturer, married the son of a hardware merchant Francis J. "Frank" Carolan (1861-1923) in Chicago, IL, on 06/07/1892. Within two years they directed the construction of Crossways Farm, a large mansion set on thirty acres in Burlingame, CA.

George Pullman passed away in 1897, bequeathing a trust worth $1 million to be turned over to Harriett when she turned 35. This funding would become available to her in 1904. She began to tap into this money when she purchased 554 acres in Hillsborough, CA, in 1912.

In order to design a truly outstanding second house within the welter of new country estates being erected in San Mateo County's wealthy northern suburbs, Carolan retained a noted Parisian architect, Ernest Sanson (1836-1918), then at the twilight of his career. He was best known for his production of fashionable, urban residences or hôtels for wealthy Parisian families beginning in the 1880s until his death in 1918. He also designed country houses or chateaux in France and dwellings for clients outside the country in Belgium, Spain and Argentina. The Carolands was one of his last, and most extensive residences.

A Francophile, Harriett Pullman Carolan also secured three eighteenth-century, panelled rooms obtained from a mansion near Bourdeaux, France, that was being renovated to serve as a school. Sale of these three rooms, designed by architect Victor Louis (1731-1800), raised approximately $50,000 for the school's endowment, (equivalent to over $1 million today) and served as the heart of the new Carolan mansion being designed by Parisian architect Ernest Sanson (1836-1918). The Carolands Foundation said of these three imported rooms: "The exquisite carving of the boiseries and that of the original marble mantles was noted by curators in France who studied and published them. Mrs. Carolan was advised in this major purchase by the famous antique dealer Boni de Castellane. She made the decision to buy the rooms before the house was designed, so in effect the house was planned by Sanson to accommodate these important rooms and respect their proportions and arrangement from the 18th century. The circular Large Salon was considered the Drawing Room of the house. The more elaborately carved Small Salon was an ideal space for a private conversation. The intricate original ceiling roundel of the Large Salon has at its center the face of Apollo the Sun God, an important decorative element in classic French design." (See The Carolands Foundation.org, "A History of Carolands," accessed 04/02/2021.)

Stanford Universsity architectural historian, Paul Venable Turner, surveyed the importance of the Carolands in 1975: "The architectural significance of the Carolands is two-fold: first, as a reflection of the aspirations of a social class in turn-of-the-century America, and, secondly, in its own right, as one of the purest examples in America of the French Classical style of architecture. The house was planned faithfully on the model of royal French chateaux, with none of the compromises to American traditions which are usually found in homes of this type. For example, the monumental stair-court (which here is the most spectacular architectural feature of the house) is seldom found on this scale in American mansions, probably because its original function (derived from the processional rituals of Baroque royalty) was unrelated to American lifestyles even of the wealthy. In this and other respects, the Carolands represents this Royal Chateau type in a purer form than virtually any other American example.” (See Paul V. Turner, National Park Service.gov, "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: The Carolands," p. 6, submitted 07/24/1975, accessed 04/05/2021.)

Sanson began designing the house in 1913, supposedly modeling its design "...after a prototype design for the Court of Versailles," although this is not certain. (See "A Mansion Is Restored And Opens As Exhibit," New York Times, September 19, 1991, section C, p. 10.) Turner believed that the house reflected the Beaux-Arts' educational method of synthesizing precedents to form something new, rather than slavishly copying a model. He wrote: "Sanson, expert in the tradition of French Classicism from his training in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the mid-19th century, produced a design which is remarkably fine in its own right. It is not a ‘copy’ of a specific chateau, as local legend has it (no respectable Beaux-Arts architect would merely copy), but is a composition of elements drawn from various sources. These sources are mostly 17th-century chateaux in the Ile de France area around Paris— two of the major ones being Louis LeVau’s chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte (as seen in the oval projection in the center of the garden facade), and Francois Mansart’s chateau of Maison (as in the motif of the columnated projections on the ends of the garden facade.) But the various elements were all skillfully combined by Sanson— and produce what is in fact one of the most successful examples of true French Classical architecture in America.” (See Paul V. Turner, National Park Service.gov, "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: The Carolands," p. 6, submitted 07/24/1975, accessed 04/05/2021.)

San Franciscan Willis J. Polk (1867-1924) was brought into the design team in 1914 to supervise construction of house and grounds. At the time, Polk had developed a high profile for himself in the Bay Area, having worked as an advocate for D.H. Burnham's San Francisco City Plan following the Earthquake and Fire of 1906 and been named the chair of the architectural planning committee for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). In addition, two other French designers had a hand in the chateau's appearance: landscape architect Achille Duchêne (1866-1947), who created the specifications for planting 32,000 trees, bushes and shrubs on the 554-acre grounds and Félix Passot, who assisted in the design of interiors. (See Countess's Chateau in Peril," San Francisco Examiner, 04/27/1975, p. 3.)

According to one source, Harriett Carolan built the lavish residence, in part, to entertain European artistocrats visiting teh Bay Area during the PPIE. The Bakersfield Californian reported in 1950: "There in the 96-room mansion, with rooms for 40 servants on the top floor, Mrs. Carolan prepared to entertain the royalty of Europe expected to visit the Panama Pacific Fair." (See "14-Carat Gold Bathroom Fixtures Now Available, Bakersfield Californian, 01/24/1950, p. 11.) World War I intervened, hwoever, and stopped trans-Atlantic tourism for Europe's upper classes.

Sanson never traveled to the Hillsborough, CA, site, and relied on topographical maps and his local associated architect, Willis Polk (1867-1924), to interpret his drawings. Landscape architect Achille Duchêne (1866-1947) laid out the elaborate French gardens for the Carolands which, due to the cost of the house and the marital instability it caused, were never completed.

The Carolans separated in 1917, only a year after their giant French chateau had been largely completed. Disputes over the cost of the residence contributed to their break-up. He resettled at the familiar Crossways Farm, she transplanted herself to New York, NY. In 1923, Francis died at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, while in 1927, Harriett married the wealthy insurance broker Arthur Friedrich Schermerhorn (born c. 1859 in NY). Their habitation of Carolands was sporadic after 1927. A year later, she withdrew most of her furnishings from the Carolands, including the three antique French rooms purchased in 1912. They were packed away and stored in San Francisco.

During the period 1930-1945, about sixty-four of the house's original 554 acres were sold to developers. Just prior to World War II, the US Treasury Department considered transforming the Carolands into a western White House for President Roosevelt's use. In 1940, the Burlingame Country Club, established in 1893, toyed with idea of using the chateau and its grounds for its clubhouse and golf course, but decided against it. During its formation in 1945, the United Nations also considered using the facility as its San Francisco meeting spot and as a permanent headquarters, again, deciding against it.

Following the UN's consideration in 1945, at least two other sales occurred. On 08/06/1945, the Lang Real Estate Company sold a over 300 acres to San Francisco investors seeking to sub-divide the property, and, again on 08/16/1946, realtor Gus Lang sold two investors, Tomlinson Irving Moseley (1902-1997), electric toothbrush inventor and owner of Dalmo-Victor Manufacturing Company of Redwood City, CA, and a partner, accountant Arnold Reuben Ternquist (1901-2001), (and their wives), purchased a parcel of 150 acres. This second sale "...was the forerunner of an intensive subdivision activity and the building and sale of country estates valued from $20,000 to $75,000. Plans call for two-acre sites with land values running from $5000 to $7500 per acre, Lang said. Restrictive building clauses will call for homes ranging upwards from $20,000. Work on the improvementsm utilities installation and initial part of the subdivision will get underway shortly...." (See “$650,000 paid for 150 Acre Tract To Be Cut Into Small Estates,” San Mateo Times, 08/16/1946, pp. 1-2.) The house, by the late 1940s, had become a magnet for local teenagers seeking to have parties in a vacant mansion.

Moseley sold the residence in 1949 to the Bay Area landowner, Sada Sutcliffe Coe Robinson (1910-1979). She was the daughter of rancher and real estate investor Henry W. Coe, Jr., (1860-1943), and the donor of the 12,230.55-acre Pine Ridge Ranch near Morgan Hill, CA, to be renamed Henry W. Coe State Park. Sada Robinson owned the Carolands for only a short time, before selling it to demolition contractor W.C. Thompson in late 1949. (See "Carolands to Be Subdivided," San Mateo Times, 01/24/1950, p. 2.)

By 1950, newspapers reported that the Carolands would soon be demolished. The San Mateo Times stated on 01/24/1950: “W.C. Thompson, the San Francisco contractor who will do the wrecking, indicated that he paid less than $200,000 for the four-story building that once represented the largest part of the $3,000,000 invested in the estate by Mrs. Harold Pullman Carolan Schermerhorn, heiress to the Pullman sleeping car fortune.” (See "Carolands to Be Subdivided," San Mateo Times, 01/24/1950, p. 2.) The lavish fittings and materials of the house were to be harvested and sold to offset the purchase price. (See "14-Carat Gold Bathroom Fixtures Now Available, Bakersfield Californian, 01/24/1950, p. 11.)

Not wanting to see its destruction, Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini (born c. 1880-1973), heiress of the Remillard Brick Company fortune, bought the chateau and its remaining six acres in 1950, and lived there for the next twenty-three years until her death. In 1956, Countess Dandini obtained two of the three Victor Louis-designed boiseries and had them reinstalled. The Carolands Foundation.org web site stated: "When Harriett removed her furnishings from Carolands in the late 1920s, she had the panels, mirrored doors and mantles carefully taken out of the Château and stored locally. After Harriett’s death in 1956, Countess Dandini purchased them from Harriett’s estate and had them reassembled piece by piece within the exposed brick walls. This 30-year absence of the panelling added to the rumors that the house had not been completed." During this time, the Countess Dandini entertained frequently, and offered the house to accommodate charitable events. Additionally, potential buyers ranging from President John F. Kennedy to Bing Crosby inquired with her about the property's availability. (See Countess's Chateau in Peril," San Francisco Examiner, 04/27/1975, p. 3.) While the Countess bought two of the three rooms imported by Harriett Carolan, the third had been donated to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The Countess's funds did not last, however, and, at the end of her life, she offered the property to the City of Hillsborough for use as a library or arts center but, could not include a maintenance endowment. Due to the exorbitant costs of renovating and maintaining the house, the city declined.

For much of the 1970s-1990s, the house was vacant and occasionally inhabited by trespassing teens, transients and thrill-seekers. A pornographic movie was shot at the chateau in 1982. It also became a crime scene. Three years later, two high-school-aged girls were raped and stabbed at the Carolands by a 23-year-old security guard, David Allen Raley.

A series of owners followed during this two-decade span, none of whom could maintain or restore the house. Periodically, new owners attempted to sub-divide the house to make it a multi-family property, forbidden by Hillsborough laws. Others wished to tear the house down and build a number of other luxury homes on the site. Newspaper articles during the 1980s and early 1990s discussed the mansion's miraculous scale and extravagance and the oddity of its being abandoned.

A turning point came in 1991, when the current owner of the Carolands, Golden Grain Macaroni Company businessman Michael DeDomenico (1915-2007), offered the property for use as a decorator show house, a charitable event that selected local interior designers to redesign separate rooms of the mansion and charge the public to tour the renovated dwelling. In all, sixty-one California interior designers and six landscaping companies spent about $50,000 to renovate the house for the show. The Carolands show house was a huge success, attracting 68,000 visitors each paying a $20 admission fee, generating wide newspaper coverage and raising more than $1 million that benefited the Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo, CA. (See "A Mansion Is Restored And Opens As Exhibit," New York Times, September 19, 1991, section C, p. 10.)

Charles Bartlett Johnson and and his wife, Dr. Ann Johnson, heirs to the Franklin Templeton mutual fund fortune, bought the property for the bargain price of $6 million in 1998, and set about its restoration. Doug Wilson, proprietor of Doug Wilson Construction, headquartered in Gardnerville, NV, supervised this careful restoration.

Building Notes

The scale of the house was vast. Sources vary dramatically about the number of rooms existing in the Carolands, between 92 and 110. The kitchen alone took up 600 square feet and featured 12-foot-high ceiling. The Carolands's library measured 240 square feet, had 25-foot-high ceilings and possessed a balcony and a spiral staircase leading up to a mezzanine level. The top floor could house up to 40 servants. The San Mateo Times described its lavish finishings and appointments: "The house was ranked as one of the biggest and most lavish in the United States and still retains golden bathroom fixtures, Carrara marble tubs, silver doorhandles and sinks, and 17 steel safes built into the walls." (See "Carolands to Be Subdivided," San Mateo Times, 01/24/1950, p. 2.)

A 1991 New York Times article also described some of its most lavish details: "Most of the house is a testament to the lavish entertainment the Carolans offered their guests. The basement includes several rooms for the preparation of each course of a banquet, from a room to prepare salads to a baker's room. The wine cellar, furnished with parquet floors and enough racks to hold 2,000 bottles, is larger than some big-city apartments. There are also a silver-polishing room, secret butler's doors, a service elevator and warming ovens and coolers at each level. The state dining room, which features marbleized plasterwork and gilt-trimmed wood paneling, includes two fountains that once were filled with champagne. (See "A Mansion Is Restored And Opens As Exhibit," New York Times, September 19, 1991, section C, p. 10.)

Since about 1950, the house has occupied a 5.831-acre property.

Various real estate sites have different numbers for its square footage, including 43,010 (Trulia.com), 46,050 (Realtor.com) and 64,000 (Redfin.com).

The French architect Sanson utilized reinforced concrete for the supports of the Carolands. Brick walls were used on the interior for room demarcation. This use of reinforced concrete was popular in the Bay Area after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and in France among architects. This was one of the earliest and most extensive uses of the material in an American residential setting.


Between 1998 and 2002, Charles Bartlett Johnson and and his wife, Dr. Ann Johnson hired a team of specialists, including the renowned interior designer, Mario Buatta (1935-2018), to renovate the Carolands.

National Register of Historic Places (Listed 1975-10-21): 75000478 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

California Historical Landmark: 886

San Mateo County Assessor Number: 030051010565

PCAD id: 9688