Bad things can happen anywhere. It’s a harrowing sentiment, to be sure, but true nonetheless. Case in point – a stunning and historic 1916 Beaux-Arts estate in Northern California known as Carolands. Boasting a gloriously haunting façade that towers four and a half stories above the vast acreage below, the dwelling can be found tucked on a curving leafy street at 565 Remillard Dr. in Hillsborough, an ultra-exclusive San Francisco suburb teeming with grand mansions where the average yearly household income is well over $400,000. Once the largest residence west of the Mississippi and the second largest in the entire United States, Carolands also has the distinction of being the site of one of the Bay Area’s most notorious crimes.
The opulent pad was originally commissioned by Harriett Pullman, the Chicago-born daughter of railroad titan George Pullman, and her first husband, polo player and frequently described “clubman” Francis Carolan, whom she married in 1892. Following the nuptials, Harriett relocated from the Windy City to Francis’ native California, initially building an estate in Burlingame she dubbed “Crossways.” Following her father’s death five years later, Pullman inherited a vast fortune and subsequently purchased 554 acres in nearby Hillsborough with the intention of building her dream house. At the time, according to the PBS documentary “The Heiress and Her Chateau,” the burg was “richer per capita than any other city in the world,” well-known for being a “municipality of millionaires.”
Obsessed with all things Parisian, Harriett hired French architect Ernest-Paul Sanson to design a magnificent chateau on the parcel. Ground was broken on June 1, 1914, with prominent San Francisco architect Willis Polk overseeing the construction.
Unfortunately, delays and budget concerns plagued the project from the start, weighing heavily on the couple and straining their relationship. Though not entirely finished (the ballroom and landscaping were left bare), by 1916, the residence was finally deemed liveable, and the Carolans promptly moved in. With an impressive 18 bedrooms and 18 baths in 65,000 square feet, their new home was bigger than the White House!
A view of the foyer looking down from the third floor of Carolands estate in Hillsborough, Calif., on Thursday, January 9, 2014. ‘The Heiress and her Chateau: Carolands of California’ is airing on PBS on January 19.
Luxurious amenities awaiting Harriett and Francis on move-in day included two elevators (a service elevator as well as one for guests), four separate kitchens, a whopping 17 fireplaces, a two-story library, a formal mirrored dining room complete with built-in champagne fountains, a solarium and a four-story central court featuring a dramatic Imperial staircase capped by a skylight situated 103 feet above the marble tiling below.
To outfit the colossal spaces, Harriett scoured boutiques and estate sales in France, buying the finest furnishings available, including three entire salons (“Floor, wall panels and ceiling,” per “The Heiress and Her Chateau”), two of which she acquired from a residence in Bordeaux. Said to have been completed at a cost of $3 million (about $81 million today), the Carolans spared no expense in the home’s construction, with no detail seemingly overlooked. Even the doorknobs and window hardware were first-class, all fashioned out of 18-karat gold! Thoroughly modern for its day, the property also featured an elaborate call bell system for the two to summon their many live-in servants to any room with the simple push of a button.
The house ultimately proved anything but a dream for the couple, though, and a scant two years after moving in, Francis and Harriett separated. The heiress subsequently closed the decadent estate and relocated to New York, where she remarried.
For the next three decades, Carolands sat empty and boarded up, its vast acreage eventually subdivided down to the 5.23 that surround it today. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered utilizing the manse as a “Western White House” in the late ‘30s, that plan never came to fruition and the structure was left to deteriorate. As such, it became a popular spot for local kids to trespass. In 1949, a group of 20 teens was arrested on the premises, with a newspaper report detailing, “Police said they discovered the youths had been swinging from a three-story high center court from fire hoses strung over balconies. Other youths had sailed several dozen paper plates from the third-story balcony to the ground floor below and hurled old bottles down marble stairways. The gang had also been using the elevators in the four-story-high home, although they have been declared unsafe.” The blurb further reported, “The mansion has long been a source of complaints caused by juveniles entering it.” That would prove to be the case for decades to come, save for a 23-year reprieve beginning in 1950 when Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini, heir to the Remillard Brick Company fortune, purchased the pad.
The Dandini years started as lively ones, with the mansion’s sprawling halls filled with laughter and light as Lillian hosted countless soirees, charity events and gatherings on the premises. But sadly, towards the end of her life, Carolands proved too costly to maintain, and she wound up living out her final years in just a small portion of the residence while the rest of the vast property began to decay yet again. Upon passing away in 1973 at the age of 93, the Countess willed the largely dilapidated structure to Hillsborough to be used as an art library. Deeming the prospect far too costly, city officials declined the generous offer and sold Carolands. It subsequently went through a succession of different owners, mainly developers, who left the place abandoned, surrounded by chain link fencing and “No Trespassing” signs, only to degenerate further.
A view of the Carolands estate in Hillsborough, Calif., on Thursday, January 9, 2014. ‘The Heiress and her Chateau: Carolands of California’ is airing on PBS on January 19.
Once again, curious teenagers, swayed by tales of ghosts, hauntings and curses, found their way to Carolands, paying off bored security guards for spooky late-night tours, where they reveled in the quiet vacancy, peeling paint and sagging walls.
And then, on February 2, 1985, the residence became the site of a real-life nightmare. That morning, two young girls, 16-year-old Jeanine Grinsell and 17-year-old Laurie McKenna, ventured to the deserted property and fatefully asked the 23-year-old security guard on duty, David Allen Raley, for a private tour. After walking them around the estate briefly, he forced the women into a basement vault, where he proceeded to torture, assault, beat and stab them for hours.
When Raley’s shift ended at 5 p.m., he bound Jeanine’s hands and wrapped Laurie in a carpet, put them in the trunk of his car and headed home, where he, unbelievably, played a two-hour game of Monopoly with his sister. At around midnight, he drove to a remote location south of San Jose, beat the women once again and rolled them to the bottom of a ravine. Incredibly, both were still alive and somehow survived the night. The following morning, Laurie, who had suffered more than 35 stab wounds and a severe blow to the head, managed to crawl to the top of the chasm and flag down a passerby who called the police. McKenna and Grinsell were taken to the hospital, where they told detectives precisely what had happened to them and who was to blame. Tragically, Grinsell passed away while in surgery in the ensuing hours. But Laurie survived the gruesome attack and testified at Raley’s trial two years later. He was ultimately found guilty of murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to death in 1988. He remains on death row today.
The crime rocked typically idyllic Hillsborough, promptly becoming the stuff of local lore and drawing even more macabre-obsessed souls to the chateau, including this writer, who grew up in the Bay Area and ventured by Carolands regularly to catch glimpses of the still abandoned site with my high school friends. Thoroughly cognizant of the horrors that took place there, we never left our cars or attempted to gain access to the property, instead content to simply pass by and stare in wonderment at the once-grand site that seemed forever stained by the tragic events of that February day in 1985. As historian Gray Brechin stated in “The Heiress and Her Chateau,” “I think anytime there is an incident like this, there is a community reaction against the place where it happened. It’s almost as if the place becomes cursed itself. It becomes a place of darkness. You know, you couldn’t look at it without realizing a tragedy had happened here.”
The dwelling then became even more of a lurid attraction thanks to the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck San Francisco the year following Raley’s sentencing, destroying countless homes and buildings and leaving Carolands even more hauntingly decayed with massive cracks, crumbling plaster and toppled walls.
The estate finally caught a break in 1991, when it was chosen as the annual Decorators’ Show House, a charity event benefiting a local museum during which a select group of interior designers is called upon to each revamp a single room of a historic property. Carolands proved the event’s most ambitious undertaking yet! Following its reimagining, the pad was opened to the public for tours at $20 a head. And people came in droves, the mansion’s storied history drumming up scads of interest and ticket sales. In all, nearly 70,000 revelers toured the estate (some traveling from as far as the East Coast to catch a glimpse!), bringing in just over $1 million – “about four times the usual for a Show House,” according to a newspaper of the day.
One of the visitors was Dr. Ann Johnson, a local psychiatrist who became especially taken with the residence. Seven years later, she and her husband, billionaire investment banker/San Francisco Giants owner Charles B. Johnson, took a huge plunge, purchasing the dilapidated site for $5.95 million and embarking upon a major restoration, a painstaking process that took four years and $20 million to complete. It was a true labor of love. As Doug Wilson, the general contractor who oversaw the renovation, recounted in “The Heiress and Her Chateau,” “When I walked into the house, my first feeling was the house was absolutely dead. A lot of people thought the house was haunted. I had just the opposite feeling. It was devoid of anything. There was nothing alive in this house – completely cold, destroyed from water and air infiltration, mold. It was just bad. Initially, it was overwhelming.” Wilson and his team certainly breathed new life into it, transforming the structure from a spooky local landmark to a warm family home for the Johnsons.
A view of the Bordeaux salon at Carolands estate in Hillsborough, Calif., on Thursday, January 9, 2014. ‘The Heiress and her Chateau: Carolands of California’ is airing on PBS on January 19.
Under their tutelage, the mansion once again became the site of charity events, social gatherings and family affairs. And, as the Hillsborough newsletter noted in 2006, “Other than the Halloween parties that Ann hosts, she laughingly reports not seeing nor hearing any ghosts.” Of the historic estate, Ann furthered, “I’m working on a way to keep it going when I’m gone. It evokes another era; people don’t live that way anymore. It needs to live as a part of our history.”
As such, after more than a decade of inhabiting the residence, the Johnsons decided to turn Carolands into a foundation endowed by a private trust “with a mission to preserve, protect and put to good use the chateau . . . for the arts, for culture and for historic study,” according to “The Heiress and Her Chateau.” Currently, the property is used for charitable events and is open to the public each Wednesday for tours, though due to immense interest, tickets are only available via lottery.
While no longer the haunted house of my high school memories, I still feel an eerie pull to drive by the estate whenever I find myself in the Bay Area, lured there by its tragic history, haunting architecture and nostalgia for my youth.