Occupying perhaps the most privileged site on the Cap d’Antibes, the columned portico and gardens of Villa Eilen-roc face a near flawless view of the azure Mediterranean Sea and Lérins islands. It has been largely uninhabited since the end of WWII, but its presence is so strong that you can almost hear the sounds of jazz records, the tinkle of chandeliers in the breeze, the clinking of champagne flutes on the terrace, and the shrieks of laughter of bobbed and beautiful women.
Before the eruption of the war in 1939, Villa Eilenroc was one of the grandest homes in the French Riviera. Guests included the Valentinos, Greta Garbo, European royalty and kings of industry. Should you receive an invitation to a dinner party, you might have found yourself taking a seat between Begum Aga Khan and Florence Gould, and facing the Fitzgeralds and Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who often stayed in the neighbouring property that now belongs to Roman Abramovich. If the jewellery collection of pre-WWII era owner Helene Beaumont (which was sold as a single owner collection in Geneva in 1994) is anything to go buy, the parties held here must have glittered in glamour.
The property began its days in the 1860s when the land was purchased by Hugh-Hope Loudon. At the time, the Cap d’Antibes was little more than a rocky outcrop dotted with small farms and stone houses. Considerable work and the transportation of massive amounts of soil would have been needed to develop the gardens in line with his vision.
It is interesting to speculate whether Loudon had a sense that there was something very special about this headland. Was it ‘what dreams are made of’ for the rich Dutchman as it is today for many?
The house was completed in 1867. Whether it was designed by the famous architect behind the opera houses of Paris and Monte-Carlo, Charles Garnier, is an urban myth. Despite it being touted as a fact, the local archivist for the Ville d’Antibes’ archives admits that there are no physical documents to support this generally believed attribution.
At the time, the Cap d’Antibes was beginning to establish itself as a winter destination for Europe’s aristocrats and perhaps Loudon wanted to create a place for a happy retirement at the end of a highly lucrative career.
The long and gentle gradual incline of the driveway was built for horse-drawn transport rather than cars. Lit up at night by gas lamps, the house would have looked spectacular in their warm, illuminated glow as the carriages arrived on the final sweep. When the property was built, the Cap would have been much more remote than today, only adding to the romance of the experience. It surely was a peaceful place.
Given the splendour and comfort, it is hard to imagine what went wrong for Loudon and his wife, Cornélie, for whom the house is named in anagram form. Despite the sumptuous of their long-lasting surroundings, their marriage did not survive and the couple quickly divorced after it was completed. Eilenroc was sold at a fraction of the cost.
Subsequent owners included Scotsman James Wyllie and Coleridge Kennard. The villa eventually came into the hands of Louis Dudley Beaumont in 1927. An American of considerable fortune, who was a major shareholder in the May Department Stores Company, he moved into the house with his stunning second wife, Helene, an opera singer from London. Fortunately, the Beaumont wealth was substantial enough to last the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and, around this time, Villa Eilenroc entered its heyday.
Villa Eilenroc appears like an apparition straight from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as you take the Sentier Littoral from Plage de la Garoupe to the Baie des Milliardaires. Built over 150 years ago as a luxurious winter retreat, the property is now owned and protected by the Ville d’Antibes.
The couple employed the very finest American interior designers, such as Welles Bosworth, who was involved in the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. He integrated many elements of the famous estate into the new design of Eilenroc, particularly in its entrance hall. Willy Baumgarten, a wizard of pastel-coloured Aubusson carpets who had previously decorated rooms at the Plaza Hotel in New York as well as the Vanderbilt home, was also called in.
The furniture was mostly French and 18th century. The contents of the house were so numerous that their highly-anticipated sale in Monaco in December 1992 lasted three days. The remaining fixed pieces, like the magnificent marble staircase, elegant bathrooms and – a true prize to see if you are lucky enough – Madame Beaumont’s incredible marble bathtub, make it clear that no expense was spared on the part of the designers and owners.
The conservatory is conspicuously different from the historic style of the rest of the house; modern by comparison. Its fragile, silvered walls were created to reflect the winter sunshine and the wonderful portico visible from the coastal footpath shades a terrace were visitors can now sit and take in the incredible view. Louis died in America in 1942. Helene, who was considerably younger, chose to forgo Eilenroc and instead resided in Monte-Carlo until her death in 1988. This tangible sense of abandonment enhances the property’s mystique and poignancy. She rarely visited after WWII, which begs the question: Why?
Still, she made a considerable philanthropic contribution to the area and left Villa Eilenroc to the municipality of Antibes. The estate has been preserved in its state by the Ville, which is no doubt aware of its immense value if it were ever to have been sold. What would this slice of paradise and prime real estate look like if that would have happened? Today it has been opened to the public and what makes a visit to Eilenroc so remarkable is how low-key it is, despite the obvious elegance of the place. For an idea of how the house and grounds would have looked – or could – in private hands, a trip to the nearby Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc gives a fair estimation of how luxurious and sophisticated they might have been.
Every Wednesday from 2pm to 5pm
First and third Saturday of the month from 2pm to 5pm
Entrance is €2 (free between 1st October and 31st March)