Monday, November 9, 2015

So, You Could Tour a Really Amazing House

They are all around the country.  The signs of bygone eras, the monuments to the super rich, the memories of the men who built America, and some really terrific places to look around and spend some time.  I'm the first one to miss the museum and go do something more interesting, but sometimes you just have to stop and take a look.  In my case that happens when I see a really great house.  So I decided to give you a list of whoppers that might sound interesting to you.

We'll start with the Biltmore.  This is one of Asheville, North Carolina's most amazing homes.  This was built by George Vanderbilt, one of the later Vanderbilts of note, and he designed this place to be a completely self sustaining property.  It is the largest of all the family mansions, with the smallest being in Hyde Park, New York; and it is the only Vanderbilt property that is still privately owned.  Nowadays, they are open for tours, there is a hotel and conference center and the family farm.  You would think that such a property would be in the country of Appalachia, but it's nestled right in town.  The property is amazing and elegant and is still the picture of extravagant luxury.

Another of the biggest and most luxurious properties in America is the Hearst Castle.  This sprawling property was originally purchased by George Hearst, which no one ever talks about.  But, when William Randolf Hearst inherited it, things really began.  William Randolf Hearst was famous for his genius in the media, and he is the one who made the house into the sprawling property that we see today in San Simeon, California.  It's been a while since this was a private home and it is now one of the more interesting museums in the country.

Then there's the Winchester House, or the Mystery House as it's also called and it is a wonder and a puzzle.  There are many reasons tossed around about why Sarah Winchester continued to build this house around the clock day after day throughout her entire life.  There are stairs to nowhere and doors that open to nothingness all over this sprawling property in San Jose, California.  The most common diagnoses of this behavior is that Sarah had nightmares about all of the killing that had gone on with the guns that her family's business produced and it induced some kind of psychosis making her believe that bad things would happen if she didn't continue to build the house.  At any rate, today it is one of the most fascinating homes in the country to tour and well worth the trip.

While we're talking about some strange behavior, I'd like to mention the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.  This is only one of the homes where Ernest Hemingway lived.  He was well traveled and considered one of the most interesting men in the world, but he was a tortured soul.  The property has long been public and the house a museum.  The best part about this place though is the cats.  The unusual six toed cats have been the residents of this home for decades, but you can visit during the day.

If you haven't heard of Graceland, Elvis' sprawling home in Memphis, Tennessee then I don't know where you've been hiding.  Not only is it fabulous to look into the homelife of the King of Rock and Roll, but you will get your fill of American Capitalism while you're there.  They have all kinds of ways that you can spend your money and many ways that you can pay to stay on the grounds.  Even the website is mostly advertising.  But, if you can circumvent all of that, and deal with all of the followers making their pilgrimages, the house is historic and there are many items from the King's history for you to look at.

It's one of the most famous homes in Texas and we've all seen it on television.  Southfork Ranch is just outside of Dallas and is extremely well known as the setting for Dallas, the TV show.  It's been a while since this was a private residence, and it is now a convention center and special event location.  They hold weddings and other special occasions all year round.  But, if you're in the area and you were a Dallas fan, you must stop by.

Long gone are most of the great homes where Scarlet Ohara would have lived, and the house that Forrest Gump called home was just a stage set.  But, if you want to take a look into times gone by, Magnolia Plantation of Charleston, South Carolina is the place to go.  The house is magnificent with settings from times gone by.  They also do special occasions there if you need it.  You can tour the house or you can tour the magnificent southern gardens that will make you feel like you've stepped back into far more romantic times.  You can easily spend the whole day at this one and you will love the view.

Here's one of may favorites and it's not far from my house.  Gillette Castle is the creepy old castle that overlooks the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Connecticut.  This place was built for the stage actor, William Gillette, not the guy who invented the razor.  William Gillette didn't like people much, which was a little weird since he was an actor and a celebrity.  Instead, this place was his haven where he could hide and visit with his close circle of friends.  The entire place is made of natural stone and the inside is all wood and velvet and looks like an old castle.  He was a little nuts with the opiates, but he was very creative.  He even had a little train on the property for visitors to play on.  Today, in addition to the house tour and the grounds, they tend to do scenes from some of the plays Gillette was in for the guests on the weekends.

There are many properties that I have visited that just make me wonder, and the Mystery Castle in Phoenix, Arizona is one of those spots.  It sits at the bottom of South Mountain and is one of the most baffling places I've ever been.  Boyce Gully is the builder of this montage of rock, metal, glass and wood.  This place is the place that he built for his little girl Mary Lou, because she loved sand castles.  There are nearly twenty rooms in the place and each one is unique.  I've been there multiple times and I still have a hard time describing it.  Mary Lou did love it though.  She was not only the owner, but the tour guide until 2010.  Now it is a museum and a great place to visit.  We miss you Mary Lou, and the stories you told of your dad.

But, if it's stories you like, then you should spend a weekend on Cherry Street in Newport, Rhode Island.  This was the playground of America's royal elite back in the beginning of the 1900's.  This was where the Vanderbilts left the bulk of there architectural marks.  There are several Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, with my favorite being the Breakers.  But the one house that always stands out to me is the Marble House.  This one is one of the most famous houses in town, and is still open to book for private parties.  You can tour it any day as well.  The place is pure opulence and was the set for the movie The Great Gatsby when Robert Redford was the star.  The best part about Newport is that not only can you see the beautiful mansions, but you can also walk one of the most beautiful cliff walks I've ever seen right behind them.

Here's one that was never a house at all but I need to mention.  This is called the Mohonk Mountain House, but it is a resort and spa.  Albert Smiley built this place in New Palz, New York back in the 1800's and it is one of the few resorts in the lower Catskill area that survive today.  This is the most luxurious spa I've ever seen and it's all about antique furnishings and wonderful activities.  Now, there is a Victorian Castle on the grounds that was the home of the owner for some time.  I guess that officially makes this one a historic home worth visiting.  You can stay for a high price or you can visit for the day for a fee.  The views are amazing, and you can't see it from outside the property making it one of the most private properties around.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most famous architects in America during his time.  I have visited many of the buildings that he designed including Taliesin, in Arizona.  Fallingwater is one of his most famous private property designs.  Fallingwater was designed for Edgar Kaufmann, a retail magnate in the area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Today the property is just as fascinating as it was in the day with the waterfall running right through the house.  As a note here, Frank Lloyd Wright designed properties all over the country and a lot of them are worth looking into.

Here's one that is a can't miss.  Jutting out over the Wyoming Valley outside of Madison, Wisconsin sits the infinity room of the House on the Rock.  This amazing place was the brainchild of Alex Jordan who began this place in the early 1940's and continued to build for years.  There are 14 truly unique rooms in the house and the property now covers 200 acres.  The infinity room is the star attraction here, because it is a completely glass room that hangs off the rock that the house was built on.  It is the only room like it in the world and caps off a great visit to a place with a carousel and many other things to enjoy.

And last, but certainly not least is one of my favorites.  The Hillwood Estate sits in Washington DC north of the National Mall and all the hustle and bustle.  It's a stately property that looks like any other luxury house from the turn of the last century.  But, for people like me, it's really different.  Marjorie Merriweather Post bought this place in 1955 and she lived there with her husband who was at one point an ambassador to Russia, or the Soviet Union.  Marjorie decided to turn her home into a museum of rare items that she had gotten from Russia.  This was a time when things from the days of the Tsars were vanishing.  Although it is illegal to take historic items from Russia, Marjorie brought them here to keep them from being destroyed.  The result was the most comprehensive collection of Russian art and antiques outside of Russia.  It's a fascinating place with portraits of the Tsars and even some of the Faberge Eggs have come here for a visit.  There are a constant flow of exhibits of Russian art and antiques through the property, so every time I visit I see something new.

So, if you don't know what to do with yourself, here are some ideas.  There are tons of homes to tour.  The Hudson River Valley is full of them.  Sometimes you just want to look at something different.  Architecture is one of my passions, and the people who built with daring and imagination keep me interested.  So, take some time away from the conventional museums and take a walk on the museum wild side.  Take a tour of someone's home.  You'll be surprised what you see.

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