I Want to Go to There: Carolands

A Beaux-Arts chateau, exactly where you wouldn't expect it: south of San Francisco


carolands gardens

bordeaux salons - carolands

The other night I had the TV all to myself for once, and was scrolling through the guide when I happened to see this title on PBS: The Heiress and Her Chateau. How could I not be intrigued? I clicked over to the program and was treated to a fantastic documentary about Carolands, this huge, 98-room Beaux-Arts style chateau built in — wait for it — Hillsborough. Hillsborough is a tiny little town just south of San Francisco. In 7 years of living in SF, I had never even heard of Carolands, let alone the stories behind it! 

call board - carolands

early 20th century ice box - carolands

The mansion was built by Harriett Pullman Carolan and her husband, Francis. Harriett was the daughter of George Pullman, the American engineer who designed the Pullman sleeping car, a luxury train car. The Pullman “palace car” gained notoriety after one was used to transport President Lincoln’s body following his assassination; as crowds gathered along the train’s route, everyone took notice of the car and orders increased. The Pullmans became incredibly wealthy.

staircase detail - carolands

mrs carolan's bathtub - carolands

mrs carolan's bedroom

Harriett and Francis purchased the 500 acres of land Carolands would eventually sit on in 1912. It took another four years for the house to be completed, following the drawing of plans for the home, gardens, and the actual build. Harriett and Frank moved in during the fall of 1916, but amazingly enough, only lived in the house for two years! What happened to it after is a roller coaster: periods of disrepair, ownership by a Countess, a bizarre and tragic murder on the grounds. In 1998, Charles and Ann Johnson purchased the home and began an extensive restoration and renovation. They brought in famed interior decorator Mario Buatta to give many of the rooms a fresh face lift (the result, of course, was traditional yet stunning). In 2012, the Johnsons donated the home, and today, Carolands lives on as a foundation.

grand staircase - carolands


Some of my favorite details about the home: the bathtub in Mrs. Carolan’s bathroom carved from a single piece of marble (you can see it above — can you even imagine?), and how Mrs. Carolan purchased multiple salons from a home in Bordeaux and had them re-installed in the home (I love when history is preserved like this). I also think it’s kind of interesting how the 500+ acres that used to comprise the entire estate were sold off, so you have regular homes right outside the gates of this massive, historic one. Kind of funny.

It’s hard to believe a house with this much history was sitting just a few miles from me! I really wish I had visited when I lived back west; the foundation actually offers tours every Wednesday afternoon (though they must be popular — the site says right now they’re booked through March!). If you like learning about gorgeous, old, historical homes like this, I also recommend that you check out The Heiress and Her Chateau: Carolands of California. It was a fun and interesting watch, and you were really able to see the scale, details, and grandeur of the home! The Carolands Foundation also has a film and book you can check out about the property. Here are some links where you can learn more about Carolands, if you’re interested:

“Romancing History,” Architectural Digest

“Hillsborough’s Downton Abbey,” San Francisco Chronicle

“Carolands,” Wikipedia

Carolands history, Carolands Foundation

Also, the Carolands Foundation has amazing photo galleries of the property!



Images all via the Carolands Foundation


  1. 1.14.15
    jillian said:

    whoaaa so beautiful! there are so many places in the US that i want to visit — this one makes the list! xo jillian – cornflake dreams

  2. 1.14.15

    How beautiful, and so tastefully decorated (so many of those mansions are way gilded and over the top). If you’re looking for something closeby here, you should take the train to see The Rockefeller Estate in Tarrytown. We went there in September, and felt like we were in Europe! http://www.hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/kykuit

  3. 1.14.15

    Woah, such beautiful photos! I want to visit there too!! Even though I’m usually more minimalist in my design/decor style, I can’t help but LOVE/ADMIRE the details of a home like this. Gorgeous!

  4. 1.14.15
    Kristina said:

    Oh my gosh that bathroom with the giant chaise!! I don’t think I would ever leave.

    Kristina does the Internets

  5. 1.14.15

    I’m trying to imagine that block of marble that the tub would have been, but actually can’t! That’s beautiful – so nice to see history like this in North America!

  6. 1.14.15
    Natalie said:

    Every picture is more stunning than the last! Although the chateau is breathtaking, I think the gardens are my favorite. I might have to take a trip out there just to take a closer look.

  7. 1.14.15

    That is so interesting! I LOVE reading about/seeing the giant, opulent mansions from this time period, like The Frick here in NYC, and Westbury Gardens on Long Island. I grew up going to Westbury with my parents and as I’ve gotten older I have a much bigger appreciation for it. Whereas with Westbury the house is relatively modest compared to this one, it’s the gardens and grounds that really make it stunning and transport you to a different time. The Carolands looks absolutely amazing, I would love to take a tour. Definitely going to watch the documentary.

  8. 1.14.15
    Dana said:

    Umm.. I want to go there too please. Gorgeous place!!


  9. 1.14.15

    This is gorgeous! The grounds, the atrium space/stair hall, even the kitchen and it’s call box is just lovely. Thank you so much for sharing this historic house. I am going to put this documentary on my list of shows to watch.

  10. 1.14.15

    This place is gorgeous … and now I definitely want to go there! Documentary added to the list.

  11. 1.14.15
    Ginet said:

    My husband’s parents live 15 minutes away, give or take, and I’ve never hard of Carolands! I’m pretty sure my husband never knew about it either! It looks so beautiful!

  12. 1.14.15
    Naomi said:

    I live on the Peninsula, just a few minutes away and had never heard of this! I definitely plan on making a visit! Thanks for the find!

  13. 1.14.15
    Meg Starr said:

    It’s heartwarming to hear your enthusiasm about the Chateau.
    It is, indeed, a special and a unique place. We are beginning small docent tours on Wednesday afternoons, and we invite you to check our website for available reservations.
    April dates will be posted the last weekday in January, May dates on the last weekday of February, etc. Please be patient as it will be very busy in the coming months. It is well worth the wait…your patience will be rewarded. We look forward to welcoming such enthusiastic guests. Please join our mailing list by clicking contact at the bottom of Carolands.org home page. Meg Starr, Executive Director, Carolands Foundation.

    • 1.14.15

      Meg, thank you so much for your comment and the extra info! I hope all my Bay Area readers will make their way to the property to check it out…and when I’m in town next for a long haul, you can bet I’ll be there too!

  14. 1.14.15

    UGH. I cannot believe I lived in SF/Palo Alto for eight years and never visited (nor do I think I really have heard of it!). Wonderful to know when I make my next visit. Great find!

  15. 9.9.16
    Norman & Dorothy Cheu said:

    Just finished watching KQED show on Chateau Carolands. Wonderful
    program. I really like to visit & take a tour. Noticed tour reservation are
    void after Sept 2. When will there be future tours?
    Thank you
    Norman Cheu

    • 9.9.16

      Hi Norman — You’re best bet is to contact the Carolands foundation directly. http://carolands.org/ I just happened to write about the property, but am not affiliate with them in any way and can’t speak to their future tour schedule.

  16. 4.24.17
    Ingrid said:

    I watched the documentary on PBS tonight 4/23/17 and I really enjoyed hearing about the history of this Chateau. I like decorating and seeing beautiful homes. I also have never heard of this Chateau before and I think that the restoration is absolutely gorgeous. I would like to go on a tour one day! Very inspiring story!

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