Strolling through the parklike 2-acre grounds of the gorgeous Carmichael home, a visitor walked past rose gardens, magnolia trees, towering elms, tall wisteria, recently pruned hydrangeas, leafy vines climbing up trellises and covering a wrought-iron gate, a wood-burning fireplace, brick patio, gas-fired barbecue grill, gurgling fountain, swimming pool and a furnished gingerbread playhouse built for the owners’ grandchildren. That was before the home tour.
“This is the oldest house in Sacramento, built around 1865, but we didn’t know that when we moved in 15 years ago,” said Teri Niello, wife of exotic-car dealer Rick Niello. “It was a dream house find that I fell in love with as soon as I saw it. It’s really been speaking to us as we’ve lived here, and pretty much tells me what to do.”
The property has deep history. Briefly, the redwood house was part of the 44,000-acre Rancho del Paso, the last Mexican land grant in California. It was owned by Gold Rush multimillionaire James Ben Ali Haggin, a Kentucky horseman who turned it into the world’s largest thoroughbred-breeding farm. One of his horses, Salvator, was the Secretariat of his day. Another, Ben Ali, won the 1886 Kentucky Derby.
When Salvator died in 1909, he was buried on the property and an oak tree was planted on his grave as a headstone. “We think the exact spot is underneath one of those three big oaks at the bottom of the slope,” said Rick Niello, standing in the back yard and pointing to a grove.
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Before the couple met, Teri ran an interior-design business in San Francisco for 10 years while simultaneously working as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways. She now serves on the board of directors of the Crocker Art Museum. The Niellos have been married 26 years, have six adult children and nine grandchildren, “so our house is lived-in and very active,” said Teri.
Inside the comfortable, thoughtfully appointed home, it’s clear that Teri’s innate expertise as a design artist has been the force behind the 10-year remodel and cosmetic treatment. “My wife has a sense of style you can’t teach,” Rick said.
Rooms were expertly remodeled and the house grew with additions, including a multicar garage, an “attic apartment” over the garage, and bedrooms, baths and an upstairs entertainment room in a wing added in the 1960s by previous owners. The house went from about 4,500 square feet to about 7,000 square feet (“We haven’t measured it,” Rick said).
The garage is car-guy Rick’s domain, but Teri had carte blanche to decorate the house. “She knows what she’s doing, and I feel quite lucky,” Rick said.
“I was thrilled, but I’m not sure my family was,” Teri said. “We were constantly tearing things apart while we lived here. It was always in some state of renovation. But it was very important to us to maintain and protect the integrity of this old property. It had the feel of a Kentucky farmhouse when we moved in. Now it’s a little more formal, but still country.”
“I love what Teri’s done, and I love the history and the style of our home,” Rick said.
We stood in the living room under a massive arch made from a single piece of redwood. Opera music swelled over the built-in sound system. “I love opera, but I like country western big-time,” Teri said. “I grew up in Santa Cruz in the ’60s, and our kids say, ‘Mom, you don’t know who the Grateful Dead are?’ They were on one of my (Pan Am) flights in first class, and I didn’t know who they were. But I got to know Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir (during the flight). They were really nice.”
The Niellos began a tour in the entryway and living room, flooded with natural light from banks of windows looking out onto the expansive backyard. Among their early projects were painting the weathered hardwood floors black and painting over and/or replacing wallpaper. Wide crown molding was added to the high ceilings, along with an imposing chandelier from San Francisco (“I have a chandelier obsession,” Teri said). On display everywhere are family photos, intriguing collectibles, unique furniture and striking art.
“We love books, so this (floor-to-ceiling) bookcase and the one in my den were the first things we built,” Teri said. “Painting the living room walls a shade of brown was risky, but I think it feels like hot cocoa.”
One highlight in the living room is the gas-fueled Italian Carrara marble Rumford fireplace, named after its designer, Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford, and popular from 1796 to 1850. It’s designed to draft smoke quickly without losing radiant heat. Thomas Jefferson had them installed in Monticello, his Virginia plantation house. Two other similar-looking marble fireplaces are in the house, one in the master bedroom, but it’s uncertain if they’re Rumfords.
A framed Currier and Ives print in the living room depicts Salvator at his finest moment, beating rival racehorse Tenny in the 1890 Realization Stakes, famous in its day.
We passed through the dining room (“We took out the wet bar, stripped the wallpaper and added draperies and furniture,” Teri said) and into the kitchen, a home cook’s dream. The floor is black-and-white checkerboard Marmoleum, the table an antique from Atlanta. “We gutted the room and put in (ceiling-high) cabinets and a pantry,” Teri said.
Who’s the cook of the house?
“Me,” said Teri.
“I will occasionally do the dishes and make coffee,” said Rick. “Would you like some?”
We looked in other immaculate and vibrant rooms and ended up in the master bedroom, where the marble fireplace is flanked by two chandelier-looking wall sconces. In the master bath, gorgeous Del Oro marble lines the immense shower and the vanity.
A tall bookcase dominates Teri’s den, where one nice touch is the framed family photos and painted portraits of the couple’s two youngest children. One arresting photo portrait was taken of Teri at age 30 in San Francisco. “She’s a beauty queen,” Rick beamed.
On the way to the garage, we popped into Teri’s “garden room,” full of pots, gardener’s hand tools and a zinc-topped counter. “I really love flower-arranging,” she said. “I did the walls in redwood in reverse, so the (interior texture) is raw. The brick floor is made from bricks we dug up in the backyard. This is an original window we found; it was broken, so we had it repaired and installed.”
In the garage, a 560-horsepower Porsche 911 Turbo S convertible shared space with a black Bentley Mulsanne.
“I’m in the fancy-car business,” said Rick, by way of explanation. “This Porsche is the most fun car I’ve ever driven. It’s wicked fast.”
Rick has 13 car dealerships in the Sacramento area, selling 11 marques soon to be joined by Alfa Romeo and Volvo. His dealerships sponsor about 100 events a year, but the jewel is the Niello Concours at Serrano car show. “We had about $140 million worth of cars there this year,” he said.
Back in the living room, visitors said goodbye to their gracious hosts.
“I can’t imagine ever leaving this house,” Rick said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s finally done.”
“Really?” said Teri. “I think it’s like the Bay Bridge. It’s time to re-do it, starting at one end ...”
“I like it just the way it is,” Rick said with a chuckle.
“I’m always eyeballing things, thinking, ‘Oh, I need to change that,’” said Teri, ever the designer.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.