By HANNAH BEAUSANG
BELVEDERE (Aug. 27, 2015) — The $47.5 million sale of Belvedere’s historic and expansive Locksley Hall has shattered the ceiling for home sales in Marin, nearly doubling the previous record set in Belvedere in just 2013.
Better known locally as the Blanding House, the three-story, 9,235-square-foot home sits atop the southern peak of Belvedere Island and features sweeping 270-degree views of the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate and Bay bridges. The buyer is reportedly Matt Cohler, a 38-year-old San Francisco-based venture capitalist and Forbes Midas-lister, according to a source with knowledge of the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential matter of the sale.
Cohler, who got engaged to his girlfriend in May, helped launch LinkedIn but left the company in 2005 to become one of Facebook’s five original employees as its vice president of product sales. He is now a general partner at the venture capital firm Benchmark, backing projects such as Dropbox and Instagram, and with other tech leaders is a co-founder of FWD.us, an immigration-reform lobbying group. He sits on the boards of Tinder and the San Francisco Symphony, among others.
Cohler could not be reached for comment at press time; county assessor’s records show the home was legally purchased by Golden Gate Holdings LLC of Palo Alto. The sale closed Aug. 26, according Bay Area Real Estate Information Services.
As Faithforth Enterprises Inc., Singapore-based copper- and gold-mining magnate and international financier Robert Friedland and his wife, Darlene, purchased the 120-year-old home for $5.5 million in 1995. Their team spent 10 years and more than $32 million to revamp the existing house while maintaining its original styling, and it still retains the local historic-home status granted by Belvedere in 1993; it has never been listed on the National Register of Historic places, despite media reports.
The home didn’t sell when it was on the market for $65 million in 2007, but it popped up last October with a $49 million price tag. Even at its slightly reduced selling price, it’s nearly twice as much as nearby Villa Belvedere, a 15,500-square-foot mansion that sold for $24.5 million in 2013 to superangel investor Ron Conway, setting Marin’s record at the time. That home’s developer had sunk about $34.5 million into the property and renovations — but it didn’t attract buyers at the original $45 million listing price or at a $35.88 million reduced price.
Marin County Assessor Rich Benson said he’s not aware of any higher-priced home sale in the county in the past three decades.
The other highest sales this year in Marin have also been in Belvedere, with a Belvedere Avenue home peaking at $13 million and two other local homes selling for $10.5 million, according to Strawberry-based Lydia Sarkissian of Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty.
Real estate agent Dave Gilbert, of Tiburon’s Decker Bullock Sotheby’s office, said the sale created a new range in the high-end market. He said many buyers are attracted specifically to Belvedere because of its location and other benefits.
“It’s the same thing that’s always attracted people,” he said. “It’s the location, the views, the climate, the lack of crime and the great neighbors.”
Sarkissian said the Marin market will likely continue to see the uptick in selling prices.
“It’s the fact that the inventory for high end homes in San Francisco is low right now,” she said. “We’re seeing San Francisco buyers come to Marin.”
Listing agent Neal Ward, who was reportedly out of the country and could not be reached by The Ark’s press deadline, previously said the property is unparalleled.
“There’s no other house that remotely compares in regards to quality, land, detail and historical aspects,” he said last October. “It’s the kind of property that attracts the rich and famous. It’s really unique and special, and that type of clientele likes what this property has to offer.”
The mansion was built in 1895 and is perched on 0.94 acres. It now features interior design by San Francisco-based Suzanne Tucker and landscaping by Stephen Suzman of San Francisco’s Suzman Design Associates.
The Classic Revival-style mansion boasts five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, three powder rooms, a hydraulic elevator, herringbone hardwood oak floors paired with wool carpeting, a grand spiral staircase, cabana and poolhouse among other intricacies, according to the listing.
Tax breaks unlikely
Among those other perks, the property was also advertised with coverage from the statewide Mills Act, a program administered by participating local governments that offers property tax breaks to homeowners for the continued upkeep of their historic properties.
But — contrary to widespread media reports and even the original listing — that tax perk expired in February. If the new owner wants the break, he would have to reapply with the city, but approval appears unlikely.
Cities that participate essentially agree to forfeit the collection of a portion of property taxes on qualifying homes, so they set a limit on how much money they’re willing to lose.
Belvedere’s current cap for its combined tax losses under the Mills Act is just over $45,000 annually, with seven homes in the program and about $20,000 left per year for other qualifying homeowners who may want to participate.
Locksley Hall was the first historic home to enter the city’s program, in 1994. But in February 2005, when the Belvedere’s tax-loss cap was only $25,000, officials took notice that the estate’s breaks were so large that other qualifying homes were being denied participation, Historic Preservation Committee Chair Roger Felton said. They issued a 10-year notice of nonrenewal, expiring earlier this year, which immediately triggered the gradual decrease of the tax break and increase in actual property taxes back to their normal levels.
At the time, the Mills Act roll value was just $2.59 million, and the market value was about $10 million.
Now the home is valued at more than four times that, with property taxes nearing $500,000 per year, according to Benson.
“It certainly qualifies (for the Mills Act), and that hasn’t changed,” Felton said. “It’s just a matter of if we have the budget. It’s all dollars and cents, and that doesn’t sound like anything we can afford.”
Ward could not be reached for comment about the vanishing tax break, but he previously said he didn’t think the property taxes would be a concern for a buyer willing to fork out the funds for the multimillion-dollar home.
Built for $20,000
The historic home also comes with a storied history.
San Francisco banker and Belvedere treasurer C.O. Perry originally built the home for $20,000 at a time when the average price tag for new construction was $5,500.
San Francisco lawyer Gordon Blanding purchased the sprawling home and the accompanying 30-acre plot in 1904, then moved in full time after the 1906 earthquake destroyed his family’s home in the city.
He commissioned John McLaren, the architect of Golden Gate Park, to design the gardens, and Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan to design the main home’s bronze gates — as well as some of the other homes on the property.
By 1914, the seven-structure Blanding estate included an Organ House next to the main house, which held a 3,000-pipe Aeolian organ, later donated to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Notably, the Morgan-designed Casino House received a $1.5 million remodel and historic restoration in 2010 and, in 2012, the $7 million, five-bedroom, 8,400-square-foot Carriage House at 333 Belvedere Ave. was repossessed and scooped up for $4.2 million by neighbors Clark and Sharon Winslow, who promptly tore the home down because it was partially blocking their $19 million view.
In 1940, Blanding sold the estate for $150,000. He’d offered the land to the state for a park, but was denied.
In 1991, Bernard Raouls Jr. bought the property for $3.3 million from the Blanding daughters. The home had been empty for three years and was partially uninhabitable. He’d run plans for a redesign past the Belvedere Planning Commission and city staff in June 1991, which had received positive feedback.
Working plans had just been drafted when Raouls was killed in an airplane accident in February 1992.
Reporter Hannah Beausang covers the city of Belvedere, as well as crime, courts and public safety issues on the Tiburon Peninsula. Reach her at 415–944–4627 and on Twitter at @hannahbeausang.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2015, edition of The Ark.