Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Andree Clark Bird Refuge

I am walking the path along a small freshwater pond in Santa Barbara.  In the brackish water I can see the reflections of the trees, the mountains and the ghosts of two little rich girls.  As beautiful as this green and blue world is, my eyes keep leaving it.  I look across the street at a service road leading to an empty mansion hidden away and vacant for sixty years
These trees hide a magnificent 20,000 square foot French villa, the summer home of Huguette Clark, a copper heiress, who decided to abandon it for a reclusive life in a New York hospital.  Her life story is the subject of the book, Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.  It reads more like a novel than a biography.  Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.

Hugeutte died in 2011 and although there was a legal battle over her will, the city of Santa Barbara was finally given ownership of Bellosguardo, the neglected mansion that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and East Beach.  A foundation has been set up to maintain this mysterious property and to eventually open its doors to the public.  I will be the first in line.

However, I digress a bit.  For now, it is the bird refuge across the street that I have come to see.  Back in 1928,  Huguette gave $50,000 to the city to drain a salt pond and to create a freshwater haven for wild birds.  Her only stipulation was that it be named for Andree, her older sister, who died at the age of sixteen from meningitis.

Because of the drought, the pond has shrunk and is more of a freshwater marsh than a lake.  Even so, it is oddly surreal.  Algae swirls at the water's edge to form a glassy mosaic of greens.  American coots are in abundance and even their reflections are bright green.  There are three platforms for bird viewing.  I stop at each one, hoping to see my beloved Great Blue Heron, but he is nowhere to be found--perhaps he, too, is hiding in the trees on one of the three islands in the middle of the lake.

The two Clark sisters continue to haunt me.  One so young and one so old.  We will never know for sure why Huguette chose the life she did.  There is a poem at the end of the book that is very telling. It was one of Huguette's favorites, about a cricket and a butterfly.

. . . Oh! Oh! says the cricket, I am no more sorry.
It costs too dear to shine in this world.
How much I am going to love my deep retreat!
To live happily, live hidden.


  1. What a beautiful place, and I'll be right behind you to see that mansion when it's open. I just read about Huguette and that book the other day - must put it on my reading list.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Val. I'll let everyone know when it opens!