The Palos Verdes Peninsula was virtually a blank canvas when the Illinois farmhand-turned-banker Frank Vanderlip bought 16,000 acres in 1913, covering an area from San Pedro to Palos Verdes Estates.
More than 100 years later and so much has changed. But step foot on what remains of the Vanderlip estate, an 11.5-acre swath of property known as Villa Narcissa — atop the Portuguese Bend community and with picture-perfect views of Catalina Island — and you can’t help but feel transported to another era.
You’d be hard pressed to find another estate with as much history and old-world charm in the South Bay.
But now, the heirs to the estate — which passed down through Vanderlip’s son, Kelvin Vanderlip, Sr. — have decided that now is the time to say goodbye. The property, with its 7,700 square-foot main home, built in 1926, and surrounding gardens, swimming pool, tennis court and 10 guest houses, went on the market this month for $12.995 million.
Frank Vanderlip was the president of the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and former assistant secretary of the treasury under President William McKinley. He purchased the peninsula with a consortium of investors and later created a master plan to develop the entire area, including many of its most well-known landmarks. He is also credited, among other things, with introducing peacocks to the peninsula, which still roam the streets today.
For the patriarch’s grandchildren, Kelvin Vanderlip Jr. and Narcissa Vanderlip (named after her grandmother), the choice to sell the home was not an easy one, as the property was the setting for many personal memories, not to mention history.
But the work required to maintain the home has just become too great, they said during a recent visit.
“You’re always in production,” said Vanderlip Jr. said, referring to the upkeep. “It’s like a huge theater. People want to see the grounds and the views. They want to sit at a formal table and eat a great meal. They just expect a lot and so you rise to the occasion.”
In recent years, the siblings have undergone the arduous task of cleaning out the house, which represents more than 100 years of family heirlooms: artwork and artifacts from Europe; antique furniture; enough plates, dishes and glasses for 200 people; and a collection of books, including a weather study commissioned by the estate’s founder when he was choosing where to site his home on the peninsula.
Frank Vanderlip reportedly determined the peninsula had among the most consistent weather on the West Coast, so he chose to summer here, especially when he was recuperating from typhoid fever. The Tuscan-style architecture and furnishings were inspired by his several trips to Europe, including a cruise through the Mediterranean with his wife.
The family is now looking for a buyer who wants to take on the challenge of maintaining the historic property. But just how much the potential buyer retains of the original house and its collections has yet to be determined. The house is under no official preservation requirements, and the siblings have placed no preconditions on the sale, they said. Discussions are now percolating about finding a home on the peninsula to house a museum to preserve the Vanderlip legacy and artifacts, but nothing has been decided.
“There are different visions of how to use the property,” Narcissa Vanderlip said. “You can wish for the perfect buyer but you have no control over that. You have to let go.”
Elin Vanderlip, the wife of Kelvin Vanderlip, Sr., is the one who, after her husband died in 1956, transformed the estate into what today resembles a Tuscan hillside village. Thanks to some additions, the home now has seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms, 10 rental cottages and two guest cottages.
After Kelvin Vanderlip, Sr., died, the family moved to Switzerland for eight years. They returned to Palos Verdes in 1966. Elin Vanderlip and her later companion traveled frequently to Europe, picking up ideas to design the garden. They also bought antique furnishings there — including many of the garden’s sculptures. The 1970s saw the first of 10 guest houses constructed.
The main house was quite neglected in 2009 when Elin Vanderlip died. Since then, the siblings have taken turns living on the property and helping restore it. They’ve hosted weddings, plays and parties, and even shot a feature film called “Complete Works,” which became a web series carried on Hulu and Amazon.
“She had enormous energy and a very positive outlook,” Kelvin Vanderlip, Jr. said. “It’s a lot to take care of. Elin really didn’t like asking for help. She was very private about everything. After she passed away, that’s when we really began learning how to operate this place This is an operation when you think about it.”