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It was neither an impulse nor thoughtfully planned, but it came from a deep place. Cornelia Hill had just lost her husband and three of her six daughters to tuberculosis when she decided to move from New York’s Hudson Valley to Redlands, where it was — and still is, of course — significantly warmer. (Redlands, in fact, was a popular winter destination for wealthy Easterners to escape sub-zero snaps.) Money never being a concern, Mrs. Hill laid eyes on three-and-a-half acres on a hill and decided, then and there, to have a house built crowning the hill. Not just any house. She was very well-traveled, after all, and as many travelers often feel after traipsing around grand European castles, she was inspired — inspired enough to build her own.
I look up at the turreted, French-style building, often referred to as “le petit château” but more commonly as the Kimberly Crest House, narrowing my eyes against the sun. It does stop you in your tracks. Large, storybook-like, with steeply pitched hipped roof, ornamented balconies, spires and crosses. (Those who often drive by the Magic Castle in Hollywood will notice it’s an almost-exact replica of this estate even built by the same architects). Mrs. Hill had spent $13,000 having it built over the course of six months. So quick — quicker considering that the year was 1897. She wasn’t messing around.
“Mrs. Hill actually only lived in the house for about seven years. She just never really quite connected.” Pete Carey says, his silver hair shimmering. Pete, in his striped shirt and black trousers with matching shoes, has a quiet, soothing voice I can listen to for hours. He retired early, he tells me, and started volunteering at the property for a few years before becoming a full-time docent. It is easy to see Pete’s love for the place, and not just because he knows it like the back of his hand. (In fact, I typically don’t use prefixes, as per AP Style, in my stories, but hearing Pete so respectfully refer to the house’s former residents with their courtesy titles, I find myself bending the rules and following suit.) There’s a lot of affection in his voice, a lot of embroidery when he tells stories, and a smile that passes along his face when he remembers an anecdote he’s particularly interested in.
Like the story of how John Alfred and Helen Cheney Kimberly of the Kimberly Clark Foundation, also growing weary of cold Wisconsin winters, decided to scope out the house left empty by Mrs. Hill. “So, they came up one day, and he found an open window,” Pete says. “He climbed in, let her through the front door — such a gentleman. They went through the house, basement to attic, and when they were done, they came outside, and she goes like, ‘Well, I think I can make it work.’” They bought the house in 1905, which was surrounded by nothing but orange groves. They immediately set about to change that.
I pan across the grounds, the grassy slopes dotted with lush trees and the terraced gardens that the Kimberlys dreamed up, echoing the spirit of Italian Renaissance Gardens. The lower pond plays host to lily pads and fish, and on the grand terrace, the highest point where we’re standing, there’s an exedra, a semicircular bench with columns, which is Latin for a “place to reflect.” In the middle, right in front of the castle, there’s a statue of Venus rising from the sea.
Venus was loved by Mrs. Hill and disliked by Mrs. Kimberly, who put up with it but would have the nude sculpture covered up during family gatherings. However, when her daughter Mary Kimberly-Shirk gained hold of the property after the Kimberlys death, she put her foot down. The sculpture was offensive, she thought every time she peered down at it. It had to be moved somewhere else. (And it was — right behind the family’s carriage house, where it was crushed by a tree during a windstorm. Pst: The one standing right now is a replica.)
As the spindly, ornate hour hand of the imposing grandfather clock inches forward, a rich, gonglike tone reverberates through the main hall. Everything falls quiet. From its perch in the corner of the room, it has tolled countless hours of this house’s life, celebrating the good and the bad and the everyday. It has rung in jubilation through the years since 1905 — it was the only piece of furniture the Kimberlys brought with them when they moved — and now, 116 years later, in our presence.
After the last of the mellifluous sounds of chimes disappears into the air, Pete turns to me and says, “There’s three of us who are allowed to wind the clock — and that’s it. I’m one of them.” Once a week, the seven-day clock gets wound, and the old, tired clock continues ticking in this age of automatic watches and digital time.
We wander through the house, from the main hall to the dining room to the kitchen. I try to imagine the sound of voices and the clatter of saucepans coming from the kitchen during one of the many bridge parties and luncheons that were held in this house. The smell of hor d’oeuvres being passed from kitchen to dining room to perhaps the main hall, the grandfather clock keeping watch. When Mrs. Shirk was in charge, her guests would’ve been able to treat themselves to booze tucked away in an 1500-era hand carved chest that still sits in the main hall. “I mean, that was her prohibition closet,” Pete says. It’s interesting hearing Pete describe how Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Kimberly and Mrs. Shirk did things, how differently each one of them handled the house, what they liked and disliked — and what they hated (Thinking of you, nude Venus).
The castle was often called the house of three women, mainly because no man had ever been entitled to the property — which was unusual, if not rare, at the time. As is fitting for a house inhabited by one woman after the other, the design of each room evolved gradually, the result of a totally unplanned but very welcome collaboration. On the first floor, in what’s now called the “pink room,” Mrs. Kimberly transformed Mrs. Hill’s plain white walls, adding plaster moldings with a silk inset into them. She was so infatuated by Louis XVI style that she designed this room to mimic its characteristics — lavish bubblegum pink curtains, gold touches here and there, and a grand, heroic Blüthner piano. When Mrs. Shirk took over, Mrs. Kimberly’s library became Mrs. Shirk’s bridge room, and she brought in her own personal touch, a Tiffany lamp.
On the second level, everything feels, well, a little less showy, a little more functional. Even the floors look weathered and, compared to the extravagant flooring downstairs (with motifs that vary room to room), a bit ho-hum. “This was private space,” Pete says. “The first floor was all public. That’s where you spend the money. No need here, because the only people that would be up here would be family. Maybe servants and a few close friends. And that’s it.”
We weave through bedrooms. Mrs. Shirk’s, oddly enough, is the smallest. But she loved that room. Back then, the house was covered in wisteria, roses and ivy, which helped deflect the heat in the summer. They climbed up to the balcony of this room; she called it her little bit of heaven. I peek into the closets (because of course I have to) of every bedroom, examining the frilly white frocks and robes left behind. The closets are tiny because, as I learn from Pete, homeowners would get taxed on every square foot. It made sense then to build small closets and bring in armoires for more storage.
Between the first and second floors, there’s a recessed deck that was once used as a sleeping porch. (Back in the pre-air-conditioning days, these alcoves provided a comfortable place to sleep on hot summer nights.) “Mrs. Kimberly didn’t like that,” Pete says, his voice dropping as though she were around to hear us gossip. So, she pushed the windows back, put flooring in and converted it into a performance space which would house an orchestra during one of her parties. “Smart,” I think, picturing once again what a party here would’ve looked like. Now, there’s music to my visual.
This is what I love most about touring historic properties — learning about the way things were. Like how there were never any restrooms on the first floor for guests. (Though Mrs. Shirk sought to change that. Ladies needed a place to get ready after all, she said). Or the little nifty inventions well-to-do families used for convenience. Buttons in bedrooms that called for the chauffeur. Special entryways designed for maids to pass through unnoticed. Some features with no reasonable explanations and other contraptions that make you go “aha!” And at the Kimberly Crest house, I have more of those “aha” moments than I can count.
“I just, I just love this house,” Pete says. “The people that lived in the house.” Near a fountain on the other side of the house, against the backdrop of gurgling water, he waxes poetic about the women’s philanthropic efforts and their generous spirits. He tells me how, in 1916, Mrs. Kimberly started a group at the residence called the Kimberly Juniors. High school girls would meet up here every Saturday during the school year. They would discuss world events and current affairs. They would talk about parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order. They would take speech classes. Mrs. Kimberly would even bring in experts from Los Angeles to talk about hair, makeup and clothes.
“And her whole reason for doing that was that at one point, these girls will get married,” Pete says. “Their husband may become an executive. They will be asked to be part of women’s groups. They may even be asked to be a president. They need to know how to run a meeting. They need to know how to talk to people.” After Mrs. Kimberly’s death, Mrs. Shirk took over. She was at every meeting and knew every girl by name. At cotillions, she required them to introduce her to their dates. She’d vet for good manners and common courtesy, but would never say a word to embarrass them in public. Later, of course, at a meeting, she’d pull them aside for a private, gentle lesson on social graces.
But it was more than just social education. If a local organization needed money, she would lend a hand. If one of the Kimberly Juniors’ family couldn’t pay the sticker price for college, Mrs. Shirk would whip out her checkbook and spring for the whole tuition. “And over the years, we’ve had women come up and say, ‘She paid for my four years,’” Pete says. “I don’t know how many we’re up to — but there were a lot.” Pete and I both agree: So many people have wealth but aren’t necessarily stewards of those dollars. Mrs. Shirk was different.
When thinking about the future of the house, Mrs. Shirk founded the Kimberly-Shirk Association, a 501-C3 nonprofit organization. After her passing in 1979, the association took over, kick-started a major capital fundraising campaign and transformed the interior of the house into a museum, offering public and private tours. The property now plays host to weddings (and wedding shoots), quinceanera shoots and people like me — history enthusiasts looking to escape and learn the way things once were. What would Mrs. Shirk think about the place now? I ask Pete.
“She would be ecstatic,” Pete says. “This is what she wanted.” I think about this as we leave Pete and roam the grounds, left to our own devices. A bride in a poofy white dress walks across the grass so very lightly and carefully, almost as though she’s floating. She’s followed closely by the groom, all decked out in a well-tailored black suit, and a small team of professionals hauling camera equipment and scrims. They pose right behind the nude bronze casting of the Roman goddess of love and beauty. I watch as they smile for their big occasion, a cornerstone of adult life, and I can’t help but agree with Pete. Yes, Mrs. Shirk would’ve been over the moon about everything — minus Venus.
Check kimberlycrest.org for updates on tours.