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Properties—Villa Lauriston - 5050 Alpine Rd., Portola Valley, CA - Estate History

Villa Lauriston - 5050 Alpine Road, Portola Valley, CA


Estate History

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The land for Lauriston was acquired in 1911 by San Francisco capitalist Herbert Edward Law. Law, a British immigrant, borrowed the name Lauriston from an ancient Scottish manor. Construction of the Villa commenced in 1922, and took approximately four years. At its completion, Villa Lauriston boasted 30 rooms, not including 10 bathrooms, and encompassed some 13,000 square feet.

Since Florence, Italy, was one of Herbert Law’s favorite cities, the Villa was designed to emulate the essence and feel of a Florentine villa, without copying any specific structure. Over the years, Law made frequent trips to Italy and purchased artwork as well as many fine Italian architectural artifacts. In Florence, he acquired the marble floor and staircase, as well as the onyx and breccia marble columns from an prestigious villa. He also collected wrought iron gates and grille work, together with marble fountains and statuary. Leaded and stained glass windows were purchased in England, France and Italy. Brass hardware, as well as bronze and crystal light fixtures, were purchased in France.

Closer to home, in 1922, Law purchased the Antoine Borel residence in San Francisco, which was about to be razed. From it he obtained the Villa’s granite steps and a checkerboard-patterned floor of white Carrara and black Belgian marble, an entire room of cherry paneling, and a magnificent glass conservatory.

The construction of Villa Lauriston was a magnificent achievement. Once the site had been selected by Law and architect George Schastey, a double track narrow-gauge railroad was built to transport the raw native sandstone from a nearby quarry to the building site where it was cut. A labyrinth of tunnels was hand cut and blasted in order to facilitate building of the huge foundation and the Villa itself. The interior structural walls were of brick and the partition walls were of terra cotta hollow cell tiles. Very little wood was used in the construction other than interior wall and the floor and ceiling joists.

Carved stone columns, corbels and other ornaments, cut and fashioned by Italian stone-cutters and masons brought in specially for this task, adorned the Villa. The original hardware for the doors and windows was done in case brass by Fontaine in Paris. The molds came form the hardware in the Elysee Palace.

Villa Lauriston is both a grand estate and an expression of one man’s personal vision. The 13,000-square-foot, 20-room Villa and the surrounding acres of formal gardens, ponds and pools was the creation of the English-born entrepreneur Herbert Edward Law. Law was a businessman, a real estate magnate, a connoisseur and a man of the arts. Law is perhaps best known for having purchased, with his brother, San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel just days before the great earthquake of 1906. He was also recognized in his day for his early support of a San Francisco Symphony, and for his leadership in directing the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition. A great admirer of the villas of Italy, Law sought to imbue the impressive California landscape that was his adopted home with the spirit of Florence and a dose of British practicality. This would be done by building a villa. He was not alone in his desire to create a great house in the European style. San Francisco and the surrounding area boasted a number of important private houses and mansions when Law and his architect, George A. Schastey, set to work in the 1920s (among them, the Borel mansion, in San Francisco, a magnificent residence from which Law would purchase important pieces, such as the stunning black and white tessellated floor of Belgian and Carrara marble that now graces the Villa’s principal vestibule). But Law chose to make his imprint in the rolling hills to the south. He was familiar with the area that is now called Portola Valley because he owned an extensive parcel just below the Lauriston site, and used it to farm the medicinal herbs used in a special “female remedy” prepared and sold by one of his companies. In 1921, Schastey, who had also worked with Law rebuilding the Fairmont after the earthquake, designed the first plans for Villa Lauriston. Law chose to name the Villa after Scottish manor. And construction began in 1922.

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Law and Schastey were visionaries with a strong practical bent. The buildings and the walls of the Lauriston estate were built using native sandstone dug from a quarry located on the property itself. To this day, the current owner uses native sandstone for repairs and subtle additions that enhance the Villa and outbuildings. To facilitate the building process, Schastey had a narrow gauge railroad laid from the quarry to the site. Craftsmen were brought over from Italy to work on the project. Numbering just over 100 at any given time, they were housed in a tent city on the property as they worked. Law and his wife frequently observed and intervened in the project, camping out in another tented compound with their servants and, occasionally, guests. Sewall Bogart, who wrote an architectural biography of Law and the Lauriston project, describes yet another set of tents used for lavish entertaining in a manner suited to the California lifestyle of the Roaring '20s.

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The principal focus, however, was the construction of the Villa. Law and Schastey searched out the finest building and decorating materials, architectural elements and sculpture that could be found in Europe and in the United States. In addition to the marble floors of the Borel mansion, they purchased the cherry paneling that is now found in the Villa’s jewel-like music room from the Swiss banker’s widow. Columns of rare Breccia marble, brass fixtures and elaborate wooden carvings --some dating from the Renaissance-- rare crystal and whole fountains were imported to the Villa from Italy, France and England. As some who have commented on the Villa note, however, the work of generations of European artisans and craftsmen was rivaled by some of the beautiful details designed by Schastey, who had trained at the École des Beaux Arts. These windows link the Villa to acres of terraced lawns, gardens, fountains, pools and statues, all surrounded and protected by trees that were selected and planted by Schastey and Law, among them, fine specimens of spruce, cedar and, of course, the redwoods for which Northern California is famous.


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The current owner has restored all of these features with care, adding some new touches that blend seamlessly with the old. The kitchen and cutting garden was completed in 2003, using native stone.


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Law moved into the Villa in 1926 and resided there until 1937, when he sold the Lauriston Estate to John Francis Neylan, an attorney for William Randolph Hearst. It was Neylan who commissioned the delightful frescoes in the breakfast room. They are reminiscent of those found in the Hearst Castle, in San Simeon. To read more about the man, Herbert Edward Law, click here

While the interiors have been changed and updated over the years, the main house remains faithful to the early visions of Schastey and Law, and many elements, from the Borel floor to the massive, ivory-inlaid console and the painted beams in the ceiling of the great hall, draw a direct connection between the Villa today and its origins in the gilded age.

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