A tangled estate of affairs for Santa Barbara's majestic Bellosguardo

SANTA BARBARA--Perched on a rock, steps away from the gentle waves licking at the shore, 20-year-old Michael Jimenez allowed his eyes to wander up an oceanfront cliff, to a majestic estate nestled in a grove of cypress and eucalyptus trees. He shuddered.

For decades, mystery has shrouded the manor known as Bellosguardo, where every blade of grass seemed to be in place, but no one ever seemed to be home. Among young people like Jimenez, who grew up here, there were whispers about an abandoned orphan, about spirits from the nearby cemetery. You've heard the ancient legend of the girl who was born with every privilege, but cursed with the face of a pig?

"It's got to be something like that," Jimenez said. "Nobody's going up there."

The truth, as is sometimes the case, might have been better than the myth.

It was owned by a copper heiress — a shy woman who hadn't been photographed for 80 years, who lived an almost monastic life, cloistered away from a curious public, residing in a New York hospital room for her last 22 years despite being in sturdy health for most of that time. She had not set foot in Bellosguardo since the 1950s, but financed a full staff to maintain it, to the tune of $40,000 a month.

Now, two years after Huguette Clark's death, Santa Barbara is poised to open the doors of Bellosguardo for the first time in decades. If it happens, an enchanted public will discover a still life of old California — with a 1933 Cadillac limousine parked in the garage — and a snapshot of a bygone era when the wealthy could effectively purchase a piece of the sea.

"It's like a time capsule — a bluff-top estate that amazes, a house that is a page out of the Gilded Age," said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider. "Where else in California do you have this? You don't."

A public Bellosguardo, dedicated to the arts according to the wishes of its late owner, could be transformational to Santa Barbara's already lively cultural community, and regionally significant.

One hurdle remains: The IRS.

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It's hard to envision, but Bellosguardo — where the "garage" was large enough to accommodate a ballroom — was a modest little place by the standards of the Clark family.

The daughter of a mining mogul, Huguette Clark was born in the summer of 1906 in Paris and raised in a 121-room mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Her father, William Andrews Clark, had been determined to build the most expensive home in America. The result was widely derided as tacky and unwieldy. It had 31 bathrooms, a life-size depiction of Neptune carved into a fireplace, and wood panels purportedly stripped from Sherwood Forest itself.

When the mansion was torn down to make way for an apartment house, the New Republic sniffed: "Time has consecrated its ugliness."

Bellosguardo, by contrast, was an undertaking of Huguette Clark's mother, Anna.

Huguette and her mother had been captivated by the property after the family rented a home there one summer in the 1920s. The Clarks bought the estate, tore down the existing house and built their own — 23 rooms of French-infused elegance on an immaculate 23 acres, perched on a bluff on the eastern tip of Santa Barbara.

Huguette Clark kept her primary residence in New York but visited Bellosguardo regularly until the 1950s. She was bright and gifted, and excelled at writing, art and photography. The house was alive with music. According to "Empty Mansions," a new book about Huguette Clark, her homes and her fortune, a 1,000-square-foot space was dedicated to music: Anna played a pedal harp, Huguette played a Stradivarius violin, and two Steinway pianos were positioned back-to-back.

But Huguette Clark was also painfully shy from an early age — "lively in private but clearly uncomfortable in public," said Bill Dedman, an author of the book.

At some point in the 1960s, she became a recluse in New York, retreating altogether from public view. She continued to collect art and valuable dolls, sometimes negotiating her purchases by speaking to people through closed doors. In the spring of 1991, she underwent a minor procedure at a Manhattan hospital — and though she was otherwise in good health, she elected to stay, for good.

She spent 7,364 nights in the hospital, until her death at 104.