Long known as a summer retreat, the South of France has
provided an ideal setting for some of Europe’s most prominent individuals
to indulge their wildest fantasies. Ernesta Stern, for example, was a rather
unusual member of an influential European banking family. In the late 19th century she built this home—with Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine influences—as a haven where she could host séances, during which she would channel Moses and Napoléon. Stern also regularly entertained her Cap-Martin neighbors here, including, among others, Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoléon III.
When the home’s current owner, a New York–based philanthropist and collector, purchased the estate in the 1980s, the entire property of about 3 acres was in ruins, having been almost completely ignored since World War II. "The land was so overgrown that you couldn’t see the Mediterranean from anywhere on the property," says Robert Truskowski, a landscape architect based in Laguna Beach, Calif., who was commissioned to revive the estate’s grounds.
Following a nearly seven-year renovation, the 18,000-square-foot home once again reflects the grandeur of Stern’s vision. Appropriately, it also houses the current owner’s growing collection of 18th- and 19th-century art and antiques. "Ernesta’s tenuous grasp of reality made her very amusing during the Third Republic," says architect Charles Young, who worked with the current owner to restore the villa. "You’d have to be a little bit crazy to build a home in order to converse with spirits. We’re so glad she was."
Members of the design team wanted to make the home impose on the land as little as possible. On the zigzag garden paths that lead from the water to the villa (preceding pages), for instance, they built an arched gate with a hole in it to accommodate one of the property’s original trees.
The challenge in re-creating the home’s rustic rubble-and-stone facade (above), much of which had disintegrated over time, was duplicating the spontaneity of the original work. "Modern masons are used to more geometric and perfect patterning," Young explains. "They kept saying that what we wanted would look sloppy. However, a few glasses of red wine at lunch got them right in the swing of things."
The reception hall features a single-story ambulatory surrounding a 30-foot-high dome based on Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence. Everything in the room was restored and rebuilt, with the exception of the existing carved-stone capitals and bases of the columns. At the center of the marble-and-limestone floor sits an 18th-century copy of the Renaissance sculpture of Mercury by Giambologna. A late-17th-century, south German chandelier and late-18th-century gilded armchairs with a seahorse motif also occupy the space.
During the 1980s, the homeowner amassed a collection of 18th- and 19th-century European furnishings. "Some people might look at these pieces and say they’re pretty, but the homeowner knows the background of every one," Young says. "He didn’t buy anything without thoroughly researching the provenance." Purchased at auctions and through antiques dealers, mostly in France and the U.K., the items include a 19th-century Gothic Revival bedroom set once used by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld at his Monaco home.
In the dining room, walls of Norwegian pink marble framed by pale green Swedish marble provide a backdrop for the French dining table and chairs, which are late-19th-century reproductions. Young framed the owner’s collection of small, square-shaped, stained-glass Tiffany windows within new, larger windows of circular leaded glass. The room’s most striking element, the coffered ceiling, took nearly a year to produce and is modeled after the ceiling in the papal apartment at the Vatican.
Truskowski visualized the property’s landscaping as a series of 12 individual but interconnected gardens. He hand-selected between 300 and 400 plant varieties for the project, purchasing the bulk of them from nurseries throughout Italy.
Among the most prominent outdoor spaces are the hillside garden and grottoes that lie just below the main house and the rill garden (right) that runs parallel to the home. At the end of the rill garden, fragrant plantings of rhododendrons, fuchsias, and gardenias surround a newly built colonnade terrace (above), which provides shade.
The garden and grottoes (page 98) were the biggest landscaping challenges. "We had to reinforce a series of zigzagging paths up a hill made of rock," Truskowski says. "Several of the trees and larger plants on the cliffside had to be helicoptered in to be planted." This would not have been possible, Truskowski says, without the homeowner’s commitment to creating a garden designed for longevity. Among the items uncovered during demolition were a column and a fountain (left, top and bottom) that now are decorative accents on the path from the home to the sea.
"The property has been recorded in various books, and the original garden had been noted as not being at all good," Truskowski says. "The biggest compliment after the completion of this project came from the French government, which, apparently not realizing that the garden was new, granted it landmark status."
The property’s original landscape design featured a sloping lawn that ended at a cliff. Young replaced the lawn with a swimming pool and terrace that overlook the Mediterranean. The pool features white, black, gray, and Alicante marble; a series of fountainlike water sprays along the sides; and three underwater windows that look out on an outdoor seating area and the sea beyond. "A lot of people wouldn’t think about the pattern at the bottom of the pool, but it’s visible from many of the rooms above, so we made an effort to give it extra details," says Young. He also notes that fountains, not swimming pools, were common in the 19th century, hence the sprays and the outdoor spa at the end of the pool, which also has a water feature.
To accommodate the owner’s request for a library, media room, and indoor spa, Young designed a fourth story, located below the main level of the home. Careful excavation allowed the architect to create an additional 6,000 square feet of entertaining space and a covered spa (left) that is visually connected to the pool by a series of framed arches. "A great house should be a piece of theater," Young says. "This home is all 19th-century architectural fantasy and theatrics. It’s like stepping back into the past—but with air-conditioning."
Robert Truskowski, 949.494.6650, www.truskowski.com;
Charles Young, 646.336.0336