Casa Del Rio - A Hollywood Hideaway on the River Yealm in Devon
17:04 20 August 2010
Casa del Rio's glamorous film-star looks cause many a double-take from passing boats on the Yealm. With its smart, white-stucco frontage, stylish curves and paprika-red shutters, this is Art Deco done hacienda style. It certainly seduced its current owner, Dr Andrew Pearson, who bought the property four years ago.
"The first time I came to this house was in the 1950s, as a Devonport High schoolboy, when we took part in the Yealm Passage Race. We had tea on the lawn. That was 60 years ago; the house was owned by the Berkertex family then. I never dreamt I'd come here again, let alone own it."
Casa del Rio is Devon's very own piece of Hollywood history. In the 1920s, British businessman Walter Price had gone to California to buy a commercial bread-slicing machine. Whilst there he was invited to dinner at Pickfair, the fabulous Beverly Hills mansion owned by Hollywood's golden couple of the silver screen, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Walter was so inspired by his visit that he decided to build his own Pickfair back in Blighty. A suitably remote site was found on the banks of the Yealm, and in 1936 an extraordinarily exotic house was erected. It must have been quite something for locals in Newton Ferrers to have a Hollywood-style mansion on their doorstep.
Today its stylish facade still draws gasps of admiration, including mine as I walk through the glass entrance hall with its classic Deco chequerboard marble floor and elegant parlour palms. A huge black china panther prowls across a glass table; studio portraits of Mary Pickford and her dashing Douglas look on. The house's cinematic pedigree is on show from the very first scene.
In the dining room, the Art Deco styling subtly emerges through decorative, raised zig-zags on the plaster work and original Bakelite light switches (though they contain modern inner workings). Plans are afoot to bring in a sensor energy-saving switching system.
"I had eight weeks to furnish this place. That's a lot of furniture to find in a short time," says Andrew. "I rang seven or eight national companies and asked them to open up their facilities to us after hours. I also had a couple of contacts in France and Spain, one of which supplied me with this lovely Cuban mahogany dining table."
Gil, his wife, has created a lovely, warm, homely ambience in the house, cleverly mixing and matching styles with Art Deco touches here and there. The house is booked out for 48 weeks of the year, including several weeks when Andrew and his family take it over, but it's most often used as a birthday party house.
"Every weekend there are parties here. We can put them in touch with local chefs or caterers, and a supermarket lorry comes here most weeks. The largest delivery was for a Christmas order for 4,200! It wouldn't go in one of their little vans so one of my boatmen borrowed an old school bus to pick up the order."
Outside the dining room, the domed hallway is the epitome of Jazz Age style. A curved staircase of black and white Italian marble steps, like a piano keyboard, sweeps downwards from the first floor, its breathtaking monochrome elegance straight from the set of a Busby Barclay musical. This was the original entrance and twice a year Andrew holds a family dinner where everyone gets dressed up and walks up through the rose garden from the old coach house, entering the house through this show-stopping hallway.
Andrew has transformed the four bedrooms and servant quarters of the original house into a much more practical ten-bedroom luxury family home. The servant quarters are now a self-contained annexe, and additional en-suite bedrooms have been created out of a garage and a former coalhole, and all enjoy beautiful views of the Yealm.
The original bedrooms retain many contemporary features such as the beautifully designed built-in wardrobes with Perspex-fronted shirt drawers that would have received Jeeves's nod of approval. The Nautical Bedroom, a huge hit with younger guests, has built-in bunks with interconnecting Bakelite phones, portholes and copper piping turned by a local plumber into railings.
The Master Bedroom contains another Art Deco gem, a stunning mint-green and black bathroom, which is Andrew's favourite room. "The challenge for Gil was to find someone to re-enamel the bath in black." The bath even boasts its own call button just above the soap dish. "In the first three months I had a couple of calls from people who had got little shocks from pressing the button to call for their gin and tonic, so I have disconnected it," he laughs.
Each year Andrew takes on a major project within the house, slotting it into a three- or four-week window in January, with the help of local builder Mark Wilson, who has already worked on a number of projects at Casa del Rio.
"When Mark first knocked on the door he said, 'I have worked for several previous owners of this special house, no challenge will be too great for me.' His biggest challenge was connecting the house to the basement." Returning to the stunning hallway we go through a door under the stairs. "Mark cut a hole through the concrete floor around the ring beam that the tower is built on and tunnelled along the rock, then slotted in a CAD-designed spiral staircase to the basement." This leads down to what was once a lock-up garage and workshop for the previous owner's classic Le Mans racing cars. Now it's a house of fun with cocktail bar, pool room, skittle alley and, the pice de resistance, the Casa del Rio cinema.
"I went on eBay and found a Masonic chapel in North Wales selling 60 gorgeous, 1930s scalloped-back chairs from their meeting hall."
Alongside authentic period seating is a sophisticated surround-sound cinema system.
"Casablanca is our house film, with Top Gun a close second!" laughs Andrew. "The cinema is heavily used. Since we put it in two years ago there's been more than 3,680 hours of viewing, so there must be someone watching films nearly all the time."
Like any Hollywood film star, Casa del Rio has a raft of technicians to keep her looking good on set. Andrew has built up a valuable network of some 70 or 80 local tradespeople who help keep the house ticking over 24/7. "We got to know the craftsmen by going to pubs, bars and via other contacts through Mark, who had worked at the house in the past."
When Andrew took over Casa, the heating barely worked. Mark introduced him to local plumber Neil Robins. "His great-grandfather had put in the original heating system back in the '30s. Neil gently de-scaled the system over six months and it worked like a dream, which was a huge relief."
Behind the scenes, Andrew and Gil have set up a team operations base in the garage. "Here we keep spare appliances, beds, crockery, glasses, corkscrews, cafetires, lightbulbs... You name it, we have a spare here. Gilly has set up an SOP (Special Operating Procedure) for every room for the housekeepers, and each drawer," he says indicating to a rack of them, "is laid out with spares."
Outside on the veranda that wraps around Casa's curves, Andrew shows me the sub-tropical gardens. "It's at least 3-5 degrees warmer here than Salcombe. The gardens have been looked after by the same local gardener, Ken Dingle, for over 26 years. It's beautiful in late spring when it's a mass of pink azaleas."
To one side of the garden is an indoor, heated, salt-water pool, housed in what used to be a studio, with views over the Yealm's oyster beds. Living up to its name, Casa del Rio has a double quay with a couple of rowing dinghies and a motorboat for house guests to use. "We also have a charter arrangement with a 40ft 1950s-style Hagg picnic boat, Belle Amie, and a French 7m Tofinou half-decker sailing boat, a type of 21st-century Salcombe yawl," adds Andrew who is a very keen sailor.
This extraordinary relic of Hollywood's past - the original Pickfair has long since been demolished - has been saved from certain extinction by Andrew's passion and vision, which has turned this forgotten star, exiled in Devon, into a family-friendly house that echoes with fun and laughter.
For further details on renting Casa del Rio, contact Helpful Holidays