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If These Walls (and Patios) Could Talk

Story and photography by Heidi Lancaster

The property features multi-level gardens, terraces, entrances — and a divine pool that anchors this storied estate in sunshine. (Heidi Lancaster)

A historic Hillsborough home has a Hollywood legacy that lives on with current updates and amenities by designer Simona Irwin.

Northern California’s bucolic hillside enclaves have long served as a magnetic — and secluded — hideaway for the mansions and pieds-a-terre of both Hollywood stars and San Francisco socialites. Baileyana Park is one of those storied places.

Named for grand gardens resembling a private park, the estate was originally built alongside a neighboring Mediterranean estate as the reported compound of the famous entertainer, director and producer Mack Sennett. Sennett was known as the “King of Comedy” and was a media mogul of his time. He was given an honorary Academy Award in 1938.

Interior designer Simona Irwin is framed by an iron balustrade by metal artist Jefferson Mack in her Hillsborough home. (Heidi Lancaster)

An extraordinary pool, built during an era when personal pools were rare, anchors the property. “The tiles were cut by hand in Italy and run from the surface to the bottom of the pool,” says designer Simona Irwin of her fabulous retreat. “The pool transports [one] to vacation mode as soon as one approaches it.” Due to its position on the property, receiving daylong sun, the pool also remains usable until sundown.

The home, which Irwin shares with husband Scott Irwin, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist, and their three daughters, looks and feels like a Hollywood Hills home from the 1940s. Because it was built by Sennett, it has a glamorous and cinematic feel and makes the most of natural light. Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields were Sennett’s friends and often graced the house, according to archival photographs and Sennett’s autobiography.

Simona Irwin with husband, Scott Irwin, and their three daughters. (Heidi Lancaster)

“This house is so special because Sennett produced numerous movies at our pool as part of his silent movie series called Bathing Beauties,” Irwin says. When she purchased the home 12 years ago, Irwin retrofitted the  pool but kept the handmade painted Italian tiles, so the pool looks very much as it did in Sennett’s movies. The estate also boasts many old redwoods, including two that flank one entrance to the property. “People who know the house come from all over the Peninsula to take photos with the gate and trees as a backdrop,” she notes.

This property is truly a live-in/live-out property. Big sliding glass doors in the living room open to the expansive terrace overlooking the pool. “To sit on the terrace with a cocktail never gets tiring,” says Irwin of the beautifully laid-out property that comes with a feeling of complete privacy. “Three entrances are uniquely positioned and have their respective charm,” she says. The main entrance is embraced by redwood trees, a stone path and stairs that lead to second-and third-level gardens with views across the Bay. Two side entrances offer mature trees and a classic French chateau-style gate. “The children have their own part of the house, including their own entrance and path to the pool house and swimming pool, which they love,” says Irwin. “We love entertaining, so we have a beautiful area of the house to congregate without keeping our children up.”

“The children have their own part of the house, including their own entrance and path to the pool house and swimming pool, which they love,” says Irwin. (Heidi Lancaster)

Irwin was raised by her mother and grandmother, both of whom adored beautiful things. “I have lived all over the world, so I draw inspiration from my Paris years in the 5th arrondissement. I approach design very much like I approach fashion: Color and texture need to blend together to create harmony,” Irwin admits, adding: “When I get home, I want to be greeted by a sense of beauty and natural light. I don’t like heavy things because it overpowers the senses.” She notes that she had substantial work done to the house and added a considerable amount of square footage, but strove to maintain the original look and feel. “It’s hard to tell where the additions took place because they match the rest of the house,” she says. “This house is part of old Hillsborough, and we kept so much of it while making it comfortable for today’s standards.”

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