In his final speech, given at the Mason Temple in Memphis the day before he was murdered, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “we as a people will make it to The Promised Land.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “We’re all going to Oprah’s house.” But in honour of MLK’s memory The Promised Land is what Oprah (net worth about $2.9 billion) named the sprawling, 42-acre estate in Montecito, California that she calls home.
There was a time when Montecito, California was a dangerous place, with plenty of roadside bandits skulking in the surrounding oak trees and gullies. Travelers through the area didn’t stand a chance. But fast forward about a century and a half and that same area is now one of the wealthiest in America.
Montecito is a picturesque, but somewhat secluded region on the south coast of Santa Barbara County. This is wine country, with some of the highest-priced wines coming out of the vineyards that dot the Santa Barbara landscape. The climate, which has been described as Mediterranean, is one of the many things that draw people to the region. The ocean breezes mingling with the mountain air tend to moderate the temperature; on average, between January and July temperatures can range between 8 and 24 Celsius (although more extreme temperatures had been recorded on occasion).
Set between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Montecito is spotted with architectural gems representing several different design styles. Oprah’s house is in the Neo-Georgian style, which doesn’t refer to colonial homes from 19th century Atlanta, but to British architecture and design of the Hanoverian period, when four of the King Georges ruled England from 1714 to 1830. Oprah has houses in several different places, including Chicago, New Jersey, Hawaii, Antigua, Florida, and Colorado. But she calls The Promised Land home, probably for the same reason that most of her celebrity neighbours chose Montecito; the landscape doesn’t really allow for development or urban sprawl, so of course property values are high, but the landscape also affords those celebrities who feel they need it privacy, not to say seclusion. But that comes with a price. Oprah reportedly paid $52-million for her home, and then spent hundreds of thousands more on decorating, redecorating, and renovating. Her home seems to have gone through as many changes, at least on the inside, since Oprah bought it, as its exterior had since the original property owners started building on the land around 1912. The home, as it stands now, was built in 1959, with several additions along the way. It is now worth almost $88-million, with a 2012 tax bill of $904,239.00.
Most of the images we have of Oprah’s mansion are aerial views because photographers just can’t close enough, unless they’re invited. Despite its size, and its wide open areas, The Promised Land is embedded within the surrounding trees. The main gate that opens onto Oprah’s property seems more like a portal into an enchanted forest. That enchanted paradise turned into an inferno in 2008 when wildfires swept through the region. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then-governor of California, declared a state of emergency. Oprah’s house was spared, as was the home of her neighbour, actor Rob Lowe, while actor Christopher Lloyd’s home was lost, one of over a dozen Santa Barbara homes that were engulfed by the flames.
It almost seems as if Oprah is in constant redesign mode; there is always something small being altered or renovated at The Promised Land. Originally, Oprah had chosen just about every little tchotchke in the place, but soon started to feel as if the house just wasn’t her, like she didn’t quite fit, despite how much she loved the house. Enter Rose Tarlow, the Los Angeles-based interior designer to the stars (music legend David Geffen and The View’s Barbara Walters are among her clients). The two set to making changes to better suit Oprah. The changes resulted in a massive sale of what was called The Oprah Winfrey Collection, which included some things from some of her other homes, too. Stuff she felt she just didn’t want or need anymore. Oprah was shedding a skin not her own, revealing her true self. But this was no yard sale. It was a grand divestiture in which even Oprah herself was shocked at how much attendees were bidding for her junk ($4000.00 for a commemorative poster from The Color Purple). Nearly $600,000 was raised in the auction with the proceeds going to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation College Fund.
So, what does being Oprah Winfrey get you? Six bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, 10 fireplaces, a gourmet kitchen (because what would Oprah’s house be without a gourmet kitchen?), two theatres (one inside, one outside), a wine cellar, a barn (!), ponds and orchards, a tennis court, a manmade lake stocked with fish, an outdoor entertainment area, and a huge guesthouse with a pool. There is also a teahouse, where Oprah goes to get away from it all (although you would think that any one of her homes could be an escape from the other, or whatever she might call “it all”).
The property is also festooned with rosebushes. The climate is perfect for gardening, and indeed Oprah’s personal rosarian has cultivated 7 different strains of roses, including one developed specifically for her. Named “The Legends,” the rose honours the influential African-American women she’d previously honoured in a special event called Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball.
Some Montecito residents whom you might see at a block party, if ever you were invited to one: Ellen Degeneres and Portia De Rossi, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, novelist Sue Grafton, and tennis legend Jimmy Connors (who might enjoy playing at Oprah’s house). Drew Barrymore, who got married in her own Montecito backyard, has since sold her home and moved away.