Take a whirl around the grounds of Villa Madera and you’ll almost swear you’re in Santa Barbara. A long staircase climbs an incline to reach the mansion with tan stucco walls and a tile roof.
But it’s the giant Douglas firs that bring you back to earth – Lakewood, specifically.
The house lords over its Gravelly Lake setting like a regal grande dame. Built by an early 20th century businessman and later owned by a TV star, the mansion will be opened to the public on Sunday during a fundraiser for the Lakewood Historical Society.
THE HOUSE THAT MATTRESSES BUILT
The home was originally known as Villa Carman when it was built in 1920-21 by Tacoma mattress entrepreneur Joseph Carman and his wife, Margaret. The Carmans hired prominent Northwest architect Kirkland Cutter to design the house. Cutter also designed nearby Thornewood Castle and Spokane’s Davenport Hotel.
Tacoma architectural historian Michael Sullivan calls Madera’s eclectic architectural style Paladian, after Italian architect Paladio. “I’m sure Cutter was going for Mediterranean style mixed with Southern California romance, but Italian is what I see,” Sullivan said.
Soon after Villa Madera’s creation, Cutter left the Northwest for Southern California, where he spent the rest of his life.
To accompany the villa, Margaret Carman created a Japanese and formal garden on the 32-acre estate.
Until the Depression, Villa Madera was the site of lavish social events. Home movies from the era show Duesenberg automobiles pulling up to the house and women in 1920s garb getting out.
The Carmans traveled to Europe and filled the house with their finds. In a 1980 history of the villa by Lee Eliot, Joseph Carman is quoted as saying, “Mrs. Carman spends money like water running downhill.”
After the deaths of the Carmans in the late 1930s, the villa was sold to timber entrepreneur L.T. Murray. He renamed it Madera, the Spanish word for wood. His wife, Helen, turned Margaret Carman’s formal garden into a rose garden.
The property was sold and subdivided into lots in 1978 and is now known as the gated community Madera.
In 1987, TV actress Linda Evans (“Dynasty,” “The Big Valley”) purchased Villa Madera and its reduced grounds of 5 acres. In 2002, Evans moved to the Yelm area and sold the home to current owners Kyle Smith and Gayle Hampton-Smith.
THE HOME TODAY
“I feel like I live in a museum. But it’s the most comfortable home,” said Gayle Hampton-Smith. She particularly enjoys noticing the details, large and small, contributed by Cutter. And she appreciates the history.
“There’s just so many amazing stories. This is definitely a place where the walls can talk.”
One gets a taste of the former glory of the estate even before you enter the grounds. The original massive gate on Gravelly Lake Drive still stands but is no longer used – a testament to the smaller cars of 1920.
On the right of the drive is Margaret Carman’s Japanese garden, built around a tranquil pond. On the left is Helen Murray’s rose garden. Today they are community property.
If there’s a theme to the villa, it’s symmetry. Every column, door and window has a counterbalanced twin. From the air, the home is a perfect T. Only the L-shaped service wing adds an unsymmetrical touch.
Cutter’s obsessive quest for symmetry has created some odd features in the house. More than one chimney is fake. The dining room, with its vintage ceiling mural, is perfectly balanced with four doors. But open the door in the southeast corner and all you’ll find is a bricked-up wall.
To the right of the foyer is the library, surrounded by dark wood book shelves. A bar is discreetly hidden behind a panel.
Many of the doors in the villa use a stylized Gothic arch that repeats through the house and even on the exterior loggia leading to the library.
Down past two panels that once brought up music from a now-missing pipe organ is the living room with an 18-foot ceiling. Beams run on both axes through the room, and each is intricately painted with designs by an Italian craftsman Carman hired, who is reported to have labored more than a year on the project.
The 44-by-32-foot living room features a large fireplace with the original dragon-festooned andirons. The mantel comes from a castle in England. Eight-foot-tall bronze candlesticks, also original to the house, flank the veranda doors. Several paintings that still hang in the house belonged to the Carmans.
Each room in the home has a hook that once held a strap to notify the staff when they were needed. Hampton-Smith said one of those servants might still inhabit the house.
“We think it’s Ethel, Mrs. Murray’s maid. Way too many people have seen her, but I’m not one to believe in it,” Hampton-Smith said.
A few years ago Hampton-Smith ran into a Murray descendant who told her, “We knew Ethel would never leave the house. She ran the house, and she loved the house.”
Another mystery in the house is that of a secret room. An electrician working on the home reported seeing the sealed up room, complete with table and chairs, but Hampton-Smith said it hasn’t been located.
Though the house has three bedroom suites, a servant’s quarters and 11 bathrooms, the only rooms open for the tour will be the living room, library, dining room and foyer. Outside, the guests will have free rein.
The theme of Sunday’s event will be the 1920s, and the society is encouraging guests to wear vintage clothing. A 1929 Chrysler Imperial roadster from the LeMay Family Collection will be parked in front of the villa. Wine and a strolling buffet with hors d’oeuvres will be served; live music will fill the grounds. Guided tours of the house will be given.
Proceeds from the event will go toward the operation of the Lakewood History Museum.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org