Castles of America: tours of opulent mansions reveal how the upper crust turned fantasies into reality

Castles of America: tours of opulent mansions reveal how the upper crust turned fantasies into reality

Randy Mink

From the auto baron estates of Detroit to the high-society mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, visits to the most sumptuous houses in America provide a window on how the rich and famous lived out their wildest dreams.

Everyone is curious about the lifestyles of people blessed with unlimited cash. And we’ve all envisioned our own ideal home, fantasizing how we would relax and entertain in a showplace castle designed to satisfy our every whim.

Touring historic mansions once inhabited by the likes of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers not only reveals intimate glimpses of how the upper crust lived, but spotlights America’s rich cultural and artistic heritage as well.

Many of these architectural masterpieces were built between the 1880s and 1920s, when the United States was emerging as an economic powerhouse. Captains of industry amassed great fortunes faster than they could spend them.

Members of this new aristocracy used their millions to build royal estates, commissioning lavish homes fashioned after European castles and palaces, and furnishing them with art treasures from abroad. Taxes were low or nonexistent, servants plentiful and cheap.

Hearst Castle, perhaps the best known of America’s great manors, was the 127-acre California estate of bombastic publisher and movie mogul William Randolph Hearst. Now a state historic monument, it overlooks San Simeon Bay, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In 1919 Hearst began constructing his personal Xanadu, naming the mountain-top hideaway La Cuesta Encantada, or “The Enchanted Hill.” Created to give the illusion of a Spanish hill town, the 165-room complex (which took 28 years to complete) includes a 115-room central building, three guest cottages, terraces, pools, gardens, and courtyards.

Hearst collected all the European objects he could get his hands on–beds, chairs, carved doors, church statuary –much of it from Spain and Italy. He even acquired an entire Spanish monastery, which was shipped in 10,700 crates.

The cathedral-like main building, La Casa Grande, was designed after a church in Ronda, Spain. Medievel banners, a Flemish tapestry, and Spanish choir stalls dominate the dining room, where Hearst (1863-1951) and his live-in girlfriend, actress Marion Davies, entertained heads of state, titans of industry and movie stars like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.

Tour 1, recommended for first-time visitors, features old home movies of celebrities at the castle. The movie is shown hourly on a giant screen down at the visitors center.

The marble Neptune Pool, which was kept heated at a constant 70 degrees, is noted for its classical temple facade and semi-circular colonnades. One tour shows the swimming pool’s 17 colorfully painted dressing rooms. The indoor Roman Pool is tiled with gold and Venetian glass.

North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate is equally grand. Imagine living in a French Renaissance chateau with 34 bedrooms, 43 baths, and 65 fireplaces–a rambling palace adorned with priceless paintings and furniture acquired on your collecting trips around the world.

George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914) not only imagined it–he had the money (inherited from his family’s railroad empire) to make his vision a reality in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ensconced on 8,000 acres outside of Asheville, the 250-room residence is billed as “America’s largest privately owned home.”

Completed in 1895 and today owned by William Cecil, grand, son of George Vanderbilt, the mansion was one of the most technologically advanced homes in its day. It boasted hot and cold running water, central heating, refrigeration, elevators, 10 Bell telephones, and some of Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs–luxuries unheard of at the turn of the century. House guests were also able to enjoy the indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, billiard room, and gymnasium.

In the cavernous medieval Banquet Hall (70 feet high), the Vanderbilts staged lavish affairs. Enough fresh fish to feed 50 people was flown in daily from New York, and the same amount of lobster was shipped twice a week.

Biltmore’s lordly library, the favorite room of many visitors, served as a personal retreat for the scholarly George Vanderbilt, who employed a librarian to catalog his 23,000-volume collection of books. The walnut stacks rise almost to the ceiling, which is graced with an 18th century painting that once decorated the ballroom of a palace in Venice, Italy. Equally impressive are the black marble fireplace and richly carved walnut over-mantel framing a 17th century French tapestry.

In addition to a house tour, visitors to Biltmore can stroll through the exquisite flower gardens, tour the estate’s winery, dine at several restaurants, and stay overnight at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, a 213-room hotel.

The historic Hudson Valley, a tranquil setting for the posh estates of movers and shakers from New York City, is a gold mine for castle-hopping tourists. As early as the 1830s, writers turned out literary works extolling the Hudson as America’s Rhine, complete with its own castles and legends.

Crowning a wooded hilltop above the Hudson River in Tarrytown is one of the valley’s most imposing homes–Lyndhurst, the Gothic Revival mansion of railroad magnate Jay Gould. Located 20 miles north of New York City, Lyndhurst was an escape hatch for the “robber baron” financier (1836-1892) who acquired control of Western Union Telegraph, Union Pacific Railroad, the New York World newspaper, and New York’s elevated trains.

Away from the pressure cooker of his empire, Gould, once called “the most hated man in America,” could spend quiet time with his wife and six children, and raise orchids, palm trees, and other exotic plants in his greenhouse. Gould’s art collection is housed in a gallery with a timber-vaulted ceiling and a massive window of Tiffany stained glass.

High above the Hudson in Pocantico Hills, Kykuit is the six-story stone house built in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, and his son, John D. Jr. The estate has terraced gardens, fountains, and Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller’s extra-ordinary collection of 20th century sculpture, including works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and Pablo Picasso. The Coach Barn houses vintage cars and carriages.

Also in this area on the east bank of the Hudson, called Sleepy Hollow Country, is Sunnyside, the 1835 home of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Nearby living history museums are Philipsburg Manor in North Tarrytown and Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. To totally immerse yourself in the splendor of Sleepy Hollow Country, reserve a room at The Castle at Tarrytown, a luxury inn. The stone chateau dates from the early 1900s.

Newport was the undisputed capital of Gilded Age society, a summer playground complete with costume balls, garden parties, and yachting events. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby would have felt right at home in these mansions. In fact, the 1974 movie The Great Gatsby was filmed at Rosecliff, built in 1902 for Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, whose Irish immigrant father discovered the Comstock Lode in Nevada.

It’s hard to believe these well-feathered Newport nests–referred to as “summer cottages”–were lived in for only four to 12 weeks out of the year. The Breakers, built in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is the most opulent of Newport’s high-class hangouts.

Resembling the 16th century Renaissance palaces of northern Italy, the 70room Breakers, perched above the blue Atlantic, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who conceived Biltmore for younger brother George Vanderbilt in North Carolina. Its magnificent dining room, rising two full stories, is embellished with crystal chandeliers and sconces, gold cornices, and rose alabaster pillars topped with gilded bronze Corinthian capitals.

Another jewel in Newport’s crown of cottages is Marble House, the cool marble temple of William K. Vanderbilt, brother of Cornelius and George. Artisans, mostly from France and Italy, worked for four years on the home that Hunt modeled after the Petit Trianon palace at Versailles. In its use of gold leaf, bronze, and marble, the interior, according to one architecture critic, “erupts with unrestrained hedonism.” The ballroom, or Gold Room, shimmers with mirrors and carved gilt walls.

Michigan, the cradle of the automotive industry, claims some of the fanciest homes ever built in the Midwest. It makes sense that Detroit, the Motor City, would have a collection of mind-boggling manors built with wealth accumulated by the great auto barons of the early 20th century.

A tour of these estates might begin with Fair Lane, the 56-room country retreat of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Located on the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the limestone home (completed in 1915 at a cost of $2.5 million) features eight intricately designed fireplaces, exquisite wood carving, and spacious rooms where Ford and his wife Clara entertained such luminaries as Charles Lindbergh, the Duke of Windsor, and President Herbert Hoover. The Fords maintained a staff of 30 full-time servants. Visitors may have lunch in the swimming pool room, now a restaurant.

In Rochester, Michigan, Meadow Brook Hall, largest of the auto baron estates, is the former showplace of Alfred and Matilda (Dodge) Wilson. Its living room is the size of a three-bedroom house. On Lake St. Clair in exclusive Grosse Pointe Shores, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House was the home of Henry Ford’s only son. Both homes were built in 1929.

In Akron, Ohio, the fledgling automobile industry also fueled the fortunes of Frank A. Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In 1915, six years after he had secured a contract to place tires on all General Motors cars, he built Stan Hywet Hall, a 65-room Tudor Revival manor.

At the opening of the English-style country home, the Seiberlings held a Shakespearean costume ball with help from a New York theatrical company. Straight out of Elizabethan times, the house boasts oak, black walnut, and sandalwood paneling, numerous chimneys, molded plaster ceilings, and rainbow-hued stained-glass windows.

Stan Hywet (old English for “stone quarry”) has 23 fireplaces, one for every major room except the enclosed porch. The manor house also boasts 25 bathrooms, 273 doors (plus 20 sets of French doors), and 21,455 panes of glass.

These regal estates of the 19th and early 20th century, with their fairy-tale aura, artistic legacy, and unabashed excesses, are truly national treasures. Their splendor and workmanship can never be duplicated. The stuff of fantasy, they are America’s castles.


For tour information on the great castles of America, contact:

Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, CA 93452; (805) 927-2020;

Biltmore Estate, One North Pack Square, Asheville, NC 28801; (800) 543-2961;

Lyndhurst, 635 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591; (914) 631-4481; www.

Historic Hudson Valley, 150 White Plains Rd., Tarrytown, NY 10591; (914) 631-8200; (Kykuit, Lyndhurst, and other historical sites.)

Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI 02840; (401) 847-1000; www.newportman (Tours of The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, Rosecliff, Kingscote, and Chateau-Sur-Mer.)

Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, 211 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226; (800) DETROIT; www.visitde (Auto baron estates.)

Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, OH 44303; (330) 836-5533;

COPYRIGHT 2002 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group