The Rispin Mansion Renovation
Haunted by Beauty
A mansion that inspires creepy tales will get a new life in Capitola as a bed-and-breakfast spot
Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, May 17, 1999
Ron Beardslee has a dream: He wants to convert an abandoned eyesore into a bed-and-breakfast inn so exclusive that visitors will clamor to spend $200 to $300 per night to sleep there.
But before one shovelful of rubble can be cleared from the crumbling Rispin Mansion in Capitola, certain conditions must be met. The monarch butterflies that visit the site must be propitiated, as well as curious strollers, historians and the throng of uneasy spirits now drifting through the building's ruined rooms.
``Developers have to satisfy a lot more interests these days,'' said Beardslee, with a good-natured shrug. ``The environment, public access, all those '90s things.''
And although he is not a believer in the supernatural, Beardslee is willing to placate even the ghosts who are said to haunt the building. Spiritualist Sara Harvey said she called the developers as soon as she heard of their plans, and offered to negotiate with the spirits on their behalf.
``I totally expected them to say, `No, what have you been smoking?' '' Harvey said. ``But they've been really open. I think it would be a mistake to go in there and start tearing out walls without doing a cleansing ritual first. There's some bad juju in there -- especially in the basement.''
Abandoned for more than 40 years, the creekside home of the man who once owned all of Capitola exudes an ominous attraction. With four stories and 22 rooms, the mansion's twisting hallways and vaulted ceilings have spawned campfire tales and hosted kegger parties for generations of local teens. A secret room has been found behind one of the library shelves, as well as a basement vault, concealed by a hinged concrete door.
No one is sure what the rooms were used for, but everyone is willing to speculate. Stories about dark deeds at the mansion began in the 1920s with rumors of rum running, and continue today with tales of murders in the basement and satanic rituals in the former chapel.
``That stuff just drives me crazy,'' said Carolyn Swift, director of the Capitola Museum. ``There's no truth behind any of it, except maybe the rum running. But you can't deny that there's an aura about the place. You can't walk past without saying `Oh, this is creepy.' ''
Every longtime Capitola resident has a story about the Rispin Mansion. It was community outrage over plans to raze the old house that prompted the city to buy it in 1986. City officials hoped to transform the building into a library or community center, but the multimillion-dollar price tag proved too steep.
So after years of meetings, studies and public opinion polls, Capitola began seeking a developer who would renovate the Rispin -- but do it just right. The butterflies cannot be dislodged, nor the neighbors inconvenienced, and the gardens have to be restored to their historic lushness and made available to the public. The scale of development must be small, and the mansion itself brought as close to its former grandeur as possible.
Not surprisingly, only Beardslee and his partner, hotelier Dan Floyd -- both area residents -- felt they knew the community well enough to survive the planning process. After years of design and redesign, their plan won the endorsement of the Capitola Planning Commission in April, and could be approved by the City Council next month.
``They tortured us pretty good for 2 1/2 years,'' Beardslee said. ``But I'm a local here, and I don't want to hurt the environment, or make my neighbors mad at me. I think we've come up with a great way to save an old place.''
Built in 1921 by Henry Allen Rispin, a San Francisco oil executive who had purchased the town of Capitola two years before, the mansion was intended to be a model of gracious country living. With the enthusiasm of the Gatsby era, Rispin hoped to persuade San Francisco's high society to build summer homes in what was then called Capitola-by-the-Sea. But by 1929, Rispin was broke, and a Burlingame millionaire who later bought the mansion at auction never lived there. In 1940, the home was sold to the Oblates of St. Joseph, a religious order, who converted it into a convent.
The nuns moved out in 1956, citing the chill and the unwanted attention from curiosity seekers who would traipse through the garden to peer in their windows. The house has been mostly abandoned since their departure, although a group of hippies squatted there for several years in the 1960s.
``So many people have a history at the Rispin,'' said Marybeth Varcados, a Capitola planning commissioner. ``My sister lived there (with the hippies) -- they had a little vegetable garden and goats.''
Years later, Varcados said, ``I was touring the place with a city group, and I saw my daughter's name written on the wall.''
Fellow Planning Commissioner Gayle Ortiz recalled a character named Goat Man who lived with his flock in the mansion's second story, and noted that city police used to conduct police-dog training in the basement.
``It's so much a part of Capitola,'' Ortiz said. ``I'm probably the only person I know who never partied out there.''
Saving the Rispin will be a daunting task. Fires have been built on the mansion's parquet floors, the fixtures have been stripped away and the battered walls are layered with graffiti. The only reason the home's Italian-style archways and romantic balconies stand intact is because they were built of concrete. Beardslee and Floyd hope to create a nine-suite inn in the mansion itself, and build 17 guest cottages elsewhere on the six-acre grounds. Because the density of the project is low, the prices will be correspondingly high, but Beardslee is confident that rooms will be filled nonetheless. Floyd also owns the lavish Inn at Depot Hill near Capitola Beach, where rooms start at just under $200 and Martha Stewart herself stayed during a recent visit.
``I think it's time to do something with this property,'' said Ortiz, who also owns a popular local bakery. ``I was wary of the development, but these guys have convinced me. It's going to be a gorgeous development.''
``I hope the plan goes through,'' said Varcados. ``I've always thought that Monterey and Carmel attracted the white wine and brie crowd, while Capitola and Santa Cruz got the six-pack-for-the-day visitors.''
The renovation is an attempt to change that, she said, in keeping with the mansion's history.
``Rispin built the place to attract visitors to Capitola. Now it might do that,'' Varcados said.
For her part, spiritualist Harvey is planning to scatter salt and water, ring bells, banish the bad energy and chat it up with any friendly ghosts living in the mansion. Some of them may well refuse to leave, she said. ``If the spirits don't want to leave, I won't make them,'' Harvey said. ``But hopefully we can make this place interesting, instead of scary. This house remembers being beautiful, and full of happy people, and it wants to be so again.''
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San Francisco Chronicle
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