Restored to its 1920s majesty, the enchanting Crocker-Fagan mansion stands its ground amid Monterey’s windswept cypresses.
One of architect George Washington Smith’s most unusual designs and extravagant commissions was the Pebble Beach retreat for irrepressible bon vivant Charles Templeton Crocker, heir to the Crocker railroad fortune, and his wife, Helene Irvin, an heiress whose millions came from her father’s Hawaiian sugar plantations. The couple’s main residence, Uplands, was a 35,000-square-foot mansion designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk, situated on 500 acres in the exclusive enclave of Hillsborough.
Pebble Beach—the beautiful, forested and seaside area comprising the western half of the Monterey Peninsula, known today for its luxurious spas and internationally renowned golf courses—first became a resort site in 1880 with the opening of the elegant Hotel Del Monte and a connecting express railroad from the Pacific Improvement Company owned by California’s Big Four. The company created the scenic “17 Mile Drive” a year later and in 1907 offered coastal building lots. The Templeton Crocker house was built on a rocky promontory along this windswept part of the Pacific Coast, the site dense with spectacular aged Monterey Cypress trees.
Smith attended to every detail during the lengthy design process and oversaw construction of the house from his Santa Barbara office 250 miles south. Beginning in 1923, the conceptual drawings reveal two other major designs: a Moorish-Spanish Revival-style house massed with flat-roofed cubes, and a half-timbered Tudor Revival-style house that contained a corner tower and turrets. But the final design choice, made in May, 1926, was that of a Byzantine-style mansion resembling a stone monastery.
Enriching the design was an abundance of exterior and interior details, many drawn to full scale. Each element of the house would be new. No antique fragments were to be used. Plans also revealed interiors filled with specialized decorations. Most spectacular are the use of exotic Italian marbles, the gold Venetian glass tile mosaics, and a wall treatment for the dining room that featured a Byzantine-style mural with inlaid semi-precious stones.
The Crockers, who had married in 1911, were divorced in 1928. Thereafter, Templeton Crocker was not a part of the Pebble Beach project, but Helene continued its construction. In 1929, she married a Hillsborough neighbor, successful businessman Paul Fagan. In the mid-1940s, they retired to Hawaii, where Paul started Hana Ranch and what later became the Hotel Hana-Maui, both on Maui. Fagan died in 1960.
Templeton Crocker kept Uplands but visited only intermittently. He pursued a variety of interests and became a noted contributor to the arts and sciences. He produced an opera he had written in 1917 to great acclaim in Europe and several San Francisco venues. He traveled the globe during the 1930s on his 118-foot yacht, Zaca, amassing data for such institutions as the California Academy of Sciences and the American Museum of Natural History. His unprecedented collection of invaluable data included thousands of photographs and many reels of 16mm film. And in 1940, he donated his impressive book collection to the California Historical Society, which he had helped to found. These cultural contributions as a result of Crocker’s innately adventurous spirit and curious mind are a worthy legacy.
After purchase in dilapidated condition, the current owner’s careful restoration, undertaken from 1999–2005, returned the mansion to Smith’s original standards.
Images and text excerpted from © California Splendor by Kathryn Masson and photographed by David Glomb, published by Rizzoli, New York, September, 2013.