Built in Pasadena in 1915, the stately Tudor mansion had been the setting for debutante teas, and even hosted a bridal garden party for Herbert Hoover's granddaughter. In its heyday, it was owned by newspaper scion (and staunch anti-Communist) Philip Chandler, who welcomed to his home the founder of the John Birch Society in the 1960s.
Chandler, surely, would have gagged at the property's December 2012 sale to a real estate tycoon in China. He went to his grave convinced the Communists were coming, and it would almost certainly gall him to see his own 3.5-acre estate as Exhibit A in the invasion.
Yet the Chinese have come not as the “Red Menace” he decried but as savvy entrepreneurs loaded with cash. Huang Kangjing, the son of a poor fisherman who rocketed into the ranks of China's wealthiest elite, bought the Chandler property sight unseen for his 23-year-old son, a USC student. He paid $5.8 million cash.
Last year, he bought another mansion nearby for $3.7 million cash – interim housing while the Chandler estate receives a multimillion-dollar makeover in preparation for the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts' annual fundraiser.
The two properties purchased by Huang are among scores of old mansions in the staid, well-pedigreed neighborhoods of Pasadena and San Marino, which have attracted buyers willing to pay top dollar for homes they view as bargains compared with China. Fanning their interest are Chinese websites such as Juwai.com, which advertise U.S. homes for sale.
“A high percentage of my listings last year sold to Asians,” with the majority coming from mainland China, says Linda Chang, a real estate agent for 35 years in San Marino and Pasadena.
Last May, the head of a global health conglomerate in Shanghai paid $20 million for a magnificent 1915 Palladian villa in Pasadena. On Hillcrest Avenue, a broad, serpentine swath of imposing mansions and generous setbacks, a buyer from China in December bought a 6,000-square-foot, newly rebuilt classic English manor for $4.6 million – sight unseen. A few doors away, a Chinese buyer paid $6.1 million, well over asking price, for a 1912 Craftsman; down the street, a three-bedroom brick mansion went for $4.3 million.
“They make offers that are very appealing,” Chang says. “They will put $300,000 down without clearing contingencies. They don't care if they pay $1 million over asking price. To them, it's still a bargain.”
Huang Kangjing's son, Ganyu, says he found the Chandler estate when trolling for property on the Internet. He and his girlfriend, along with his younger brother, a Pasadena City College student, moved into the seven-bedroom, 10-bathroom mansion. They promptly set up an enormous TV screen, covering the huge, baronial fireplace in the grand salon. The kitchen was stocked with cellophane-packaged Chinese moon cakes.
Initially, the sale alarmed neighbors. Then the Huangs' contractor began building a 700-foot-long wall around the property, without proper permits. Instead of finishing it in brick, like others nearby, they planned to veneer it with beige flagstone.
“In my country, this is very nice. It's very expensive,” Ganyu explained last spring to neighbors who stared in horror at the pallets of what appeared to be faux rock. “My father uses it in all his construction.”
Huang Kangjing owns one of the top real estate construction conglomerates in Shenzhen, making his fortune in the building boom that began about 25 years ago when Shenzhen was declared the country's first enterprise zone. Before that, he was just a poor day laborer working construction jobs and attending night school.
“My father got rich” in the mid-1990s, says Huang Kangjing's daughter, Jingshu Susan Huang, 26, who went to college in Great Britain and now works for her father's company in Shenzhen. “When I was young, I never imagined that I'd have a life like this.”
Until she was about 6, Susan says, her family lived in temporary barracks for day laborers. Then they rented a small apartment, but it wasn't until 1997 that they bought their own place. (She says they now have six in Asia – two in Hong Kong, one in Macau and three in mainland China.)
In Shenzhen, their home occupies three floors of a high-rise with a “very small garden,” she says. “It's not like here.”
Huang Kangjing's rags-to-riches tale echoes the early 1900s in America when Philip Chandler's father, Harry, rose from humble beginnings to build a vast real estate fortune. After arriving in California practically penniless in 1883, Harry Chandler was named “the richest man in Southern California” by 1915.
His children inherited his business empire as well as his newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Philip, the youngest son, served for many years as general manager and vice president of Times Mirror; he was outraged when his brother Norman's liberal son, Otis, was given the publisher's job upon Norman's retirement in 1960.
Appalled by the leftist drift of the paper – including an expose on the John Birch Society – Philip wrote to his brother, lecturing: “It can not be disputed that Communism is the No.1 danger to the free world.” The schism between Otis Chandler and the conservative majority of the family, led by Philip, only deepened with time.
Philip Chandler died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 61. The estate was sold to John Fulmer, a local clothing manufacturer. After Fulmer's death, his reclusive widow lived on for many years while the house slowly deteriorated. By the time their heirs put it on the market in 2011, it was a fixer-upper: The upstairs plumbing leaked, and the stove dated to the early 1900s. There was no air conditioning; the swimming pool and tennis court were a mess. Its last major overhaul had been in 1931.
Jingshu Susan Huang didn't care. She loved the trees, and the Tudor style reminded her of her college days in England. She pressed for her family to buy it.
But neighbors worried the Huangs intended to raze the house and put in a Shenzhen-style subdivision. As rumors flew, they raced to Pasadena City Hall to designate the area a historic landmark district and freeze development.
After a rancorous public hearing last summer, Jingshu Susan Huang wondered if the purchase was a mistake. “It made me think, 'Do we really want to be here?'?” she recalls. Instead of leaving, though, she set out with her brother to ring doorbells. She told neighbors that her family had no intention of tearing down the house. Her father, she said, would not want to build anything in the United States. “In China he can build the tallest building in two years,” she points out. “Here, it takes a year to build a fence.”
Eventually, the Huangs agreed to use brick veneer instead of beige flagstone on the wall around their property. They also supported the neighborhood's landmark designation once they were convinced it would not prevent them from upgrading the interior.
“I think all this was understandably very confusing to them,” says Robert Bonner, a neighbor and former district court judge who helped mediate informally. “Once they understood, they came on board.”
But even with approvals, renovating the mansion proved a massive undertaking. “I don't think they had any idea how big a job they were getting into when they bought the house,” neighbor Judy McDonald says.
Enter the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts. Each year, the nonprofit organization raises money for educational charities by asking a homeowner to open his estate for a monthlong tour in exchange for a free makeover. Ganyu Huang happily agreed to move out his few things so work could begin in January.
By now, contractors and designers donating their services to the Showcase have redone everything, including the gardens and pool, garage and greenhouses. Every room has undergone dazzling updates by decorators trying to attract business from the 30,000 people who pay $40 for a tour. The makeover will nearly double the value of the property, real estate agents say.
The catch for neighbors is the 1,000 visitors traipsing through the property daily from April 13 to May 11. A full-service restaurant will be set up on the tennis court, and two dozen vendors will set up booths on the back lawn, donating a portion of sales to Showcase. “It's like the circus is coming,” one neighbor complains.
But Susan is happy with the resolution. As she prepared to return to China a few months ago, she announced she'd had an idea. “I think Showcase is very good,” she said. “I want to try to do Showcase in China. What do you think?”
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