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Santa Barbara leaders clamor for Huguette Clark home to serve the arts

John L. Wiley, http://flickr.com/photos/jw4pix/

The mysterious oceanfront home of Huguette Clark in Santa Barbara, Calif., could become an arts institution open to the public. Community leaders are siding with her last will and testament, which has been disputed by Clark's relatives.

By Bill DedmanInvestigative Reporter, NBC News

Community leaders in Santa Barbara, Calif., have begun a public relations effort to encourage preservation of the oceanfront home of the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark as an arts institution, as provided in her last will and testament.

Clark's entire estate, which is being contested by her relatives in a New York court, is valued conservatively at $307 million. The case could go to trial in 2013, if it isn't settled first. Attorneys were meeting Friday for preliminary settlement discussions.

The estate's largest asset is Bellosguardo, her cliffside vacation home above Santa Barbara's East Beach. The property on 23 acres is valued by her executor for tax purposes at $85 million.

Her will called for creation of a Bellosguardo Foundation as an educational institution "for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the arts." She left to that foundation most of her works of art, as well as 15 percent of her estate after the payment of other bequests. Clark was a member of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from the 1940s until her death.

If the home goes to the foundation, it may someday be opened up for public viewings. Few people have been allowed inside the mysterious home, which has been carefully maintained even though Clark and her immediate family stopped visiting approximately 60 years ago. "It could be a house museum. I believe people would pay to go through it, to see it," said Sheila Lodge, a former Santa Barbara mayor who visited the house about 20 years ago.

If Clark's relatives are successful in their challenge to her will, the home presumably would be sold so the money could be divided among them.


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Community leaders speaking out in favor of the Bellosguardo Foundation include Lodge, Mayor Helene Schneider, and leaders of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Music Academy of the West and the Santa Barbara Foundation. The group held a news conference on Oct. 31, and has established a website, which declares, "The Last Will is still being contested by lawyers in New York courts. The participants do not care about Huguette Clark's wishes or about Santa Barbara."

Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark, born in Paris in 1906, inherited her fortune from William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), a U.S. senator from Montana who was among the richest men of the Gilded Age, a copper miner, banker, builder of railroads and founder of the city of Las Vegas.

His youngest daughter attracted the attention of NBC News in 2009 because of her vacant but well-manicured mansions and questions about the management of her money. She lived her last 20 years in spartan hospital rooms, dying in May 2011 just weeks before her 105th birthday. The archive of all Clark stories, photos and videos is at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.

To direct her fortune, at age 98, Huguette Clark signed two wills in 2005.

The first will left $5 million to her private-duty registered nurse, Hadassah Peri, and the bulk of her estate to her relatives from her father's first marriage. The family members were not named in that will, which left the estate to her "intestate distributees," legal language for the people who would inherit if she died without a will. Because Clark had been married only briefly, and had no children, her closest relatives were the descendants of her father from his first marriage. These were Huguette Clark's half great-nieces and half great-nephews, and their children. Huguette and her four half-siblings had each received one-fifth shares of W.A. Clark's empire in 1925. Huguette's mother, Anna, received Bellosguardo, which then passed down to Huguette when she died.

Just six weeks passed before Clark signed a new will. It specified that she intentionally left no money to family, with whom the will said she had little contact. The family is claiming that this will was the product of fraud and undue influence by Clark's nurse, attorney, accountant and others. The newer document makes specific bequests to her attorney, accountant, doctor, hospital and several employees, and the remainder is split among the nurse, a goddaughter and the Bellosguardo Foundation. (See the earlier story and read the two documents: A twist: Heiress Huguette Clark signed two wills.)

The Santa Barbara community leaders are not forming another legal entity or seeking to intervene in the legal case, but said they wanted to make known that the community encourages the prospect of this new cultural institution and wants to make sure that Huguette Clark's wishes are followed.

Besides the current and former mayors, members of the Santa Barbara committee include Edward Birch, chairman of the board emeritus, Santa Barbara Bank & Trust; Ginny Brush, executive director, Santa Barbara County Arts Commission; Sarah Chrisman, president, Granada Theater; Robert Emmons, former chair, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Lotusland Foundation; Larry Feinberg, director and CEO, Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Ron Gallo, president and CEO, Santa Barbara Foundation; Karl Hutterer, executive director, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; Palmer Jackson, philanthropist ; Robert Light, philanthropist; Peter MacDougall, president emeritus, Santa Barbara City College; Sara Miller McCune, publishing executive and philanthropist; Scott Reed, president and CEO, Music Academy of the West; Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, CEO and chairman of the boards of Pacific Air Industries and Air-Cert, philanthropist; Andre Saltoun, president, Community Arts Music Association; Michael Towbes, philanthropist; Anne Smith Towbes, former president, Lobero Theatre Foundation; and Sharon Westby, chair of the board, Music Academy of the West.

More informationThe Santa Barbara IndependentThe Los Angeles Times and KEYT TV have reported on the community effort.

Do you have information on the Clark family?Reporter Bill Dedman is co-authoring "Empty Mansions," a nonfiction book about Huguette Clark and her family. If you have documents or information, you can reach him at bill.dedman@msnbc.com.

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