The U.S. may not have the royal castles of Europe, but it certainly has palatial historic homes fit for royalty…
By Jim Ferri
Unlike many other countries of the world, the United States doesn’t have castles and royal chateaux gracing its countryside.
Such royal digs were eschewed back in the late 18th century when the American colonists cut their ties with European royalty.
But despite its lack of kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, there are historic homes in the USA that befit a monarch. These were built by a different type of royalty – the famed American barons of business and industry, the ultra-millionaires that became household names around the world.
Here are five palatial historric homes I’ve enjoyed visiting. Three are on the East Coast of the USA, two on the West Coast. You should not miss visiting any of them during a tour of Florida, California or North Carolina.
One of the Most Historic American Homes: The Biltmore Estate
The incredible Biltmore Estate, the former historic home of George Vanderbilt, the grandson of famed industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, is the granddaddy of them all.
Set on 8,000 acres in the rolling hills of western North Carolina, this 250-room French Renaissance chateau and National Historic Landmark is the largest private residence in North America.
It is so massive it took 1,000 workmen six years to complete. Wandering about the chateaux-like house today I quickly discovered that it is over the top by anyone’s standards: a dining room capable of seating 67 guests with three huge fireplaces at one end and a pipe organ at the other; a master bedroom that resembled a museum more than a place to retire for the night; nine guest bedrooms; an interior swimming pool and bowling alley, walk-in refrigerators (a marvel at the time), stables, etc.
The house also holds a collection of 18th-19th-century art and sculpture; outside are beautiful gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.
The Biltmore Estate
1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens – Miami, Florida
If you see no other place during an afternoon getaway from the beach, you should visit Vizcaya, the winter vacation home of industrialist James Deering.
This historic American home is set on the shore of Biscayne Bay, just minutes from the downtown skyscrapers of Miami, it’s a subtropical interpretation of a country estate in the Veneto region of northern Italy. The magnificent historic residence, a blend of Renaissance and Neoclassical styles, was thankfully built with great care so as not to disrupt the surrounding subtropical environment.
As I wandering about the house, I found one of the greatest collections of Italian furniture in the United States, as well as many of the items Deering purchased on his shopping trips all over Europe. Several of its rooms, including the Reception and Music Rooms on the first floor, were inspired by Italian cities including Milan, Palermo, and Venice.
Don’t miss a visit to the second floor where you’ll find Deering’s personal suite of rooms and guest bedrooms, as well as a Breakfast Room and the Kitchen. Outside I greatly enjoyed the bay side of the house, with its striped poles evoking the beauty of Venice, and its beautiful formal gardens, which mixes Italian and French features with the tropical foliage of Florida.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
3251 South Miami Avenue
Miami, FL 33129
Tel: (305) 250-9133
A Grand Historic American Home on the Gulf of Mexico: Ca d’Zan –
Ca d’Zan, a Venetian-inspired mansion on Sarasota Bay on the west coast of Florida, is a historic home that was the winter residence of circus impresario John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Its odd-sounding name means “House of John” in an old Venetian dialect.
It is the crown jewel of the 66-acre Ringling estate, which also encompasses The Ringling Museum of Art and the fascinating Circus Museum. The mansion’s setting is beautiful, on a vast lawn populated with a scattering of statues, as well as several large banyan trees, some of the largest I’ve seen anywhere.
I first wandered about to the rear of the house to its beautiful terrace that overlooks Sarasota Bay. Like everything else in this historic home, it was both large and striking, and obviously used for outdoor entertaining since a wall of stain-glass doors opened onto it from the house.
Inside we found a home you’d only see in some Great Gatsby-era movie. It is five stories tall, and 36,000 square feet in all, with 41 meticulously restored rooms (plus 15 bathrooms) and an 81-foot Belvedere tower. It’s a treasure trove filled with fine art and tapestries, old Venetian furniture, marble floors, stained-glass ceilings with crystal chandeliers, just about everything one could desire to live well, really well, during the Roaring Twenties.
The main room, called “the court,” was the focal point for the Ringling’s entertaining. It’s both large and splendiferous, with a beautiful inlaid desk in one corner, a piano in another and, across from the grand fireplace, a beautiful Aeolian organ flanked by tapestries and paintings of Ringling and Mable.
Visit its Tap Room, which with its beautiful stained glass and painted panels evokes the feeling of a small bar tucked away somewhere in Venice.
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Hearst Castle – San Simeon, California
Hearst Castle, the famous estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, is a National and California Historical Landmark mansion located on the Central Coast of California, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although Hearst named the estate “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”), he usually just called his historic American home “the ranch.”
Set on a hilltop five miles from the coast, the “castle” encompasses several beautiful buildings. The main building alone, Casa Grande, has 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, and 42 bathrooms. There are 46 additional rooms in the three adjacent guesthouses.
Some of its other elements are just as monumental; the outdoor Neptune Pool holds 345,000 gallons of water, the Indoor Roman Pool 205,000.
The estate is a potpourri of architectural styles since the floor plans were developed to encompass the many antiques and architectural elements Hearst liked to buy during his European travels. His buying frenzies resulted in the design of the main building being a bit chaotic since Hearst enjoyed buying centuries-old ceilings, many from churches and monasteries, which dictated the décor and size of various rooms.
During its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s invitations from Hearst to visit the estate were highly coveted. Guests included such Hollywood luminaries as Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.
In this historic American home all guests were expected to attend formal dinners each evening but were allowed to cavort on their own during the day, while Hearst worked.
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452
Tel: (800) 444-4445
An Incredible Historic American Home: The Getty Villa – Pacific Palisades, California
The Getty Villa is a museum and educational center dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.
Oil tycoon J. Paul Getty built the museum down the hill from his home above the Pacific Coast Highway, about 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and about 13 miles from the renowned Getty Center. Although its purpose was to house his collection of more than 40,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities, Getty never visited the Villa prior to his death in 1976.
Its beautiful design, Inspired by the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, includes a much-photographed Peristyle garden and pool, the latter surrounded by statuary replicas.
With more than 1,200 antiquities on view in 23 galleries, the museum is fascinating, with the collection dating from 6.500 BC. It’s arranged by such themes as “Gods and Goddesses,” “Dionysos and the Theater,” and “Stories of the Trojan War.” Over 1,200 antiquities are on view in 23 galleries at the Villa. While some exhibits include monumental sculptures or gems and jewelry, other show artifacts from everyday life.
It’s a fascinating place, not only for the beauty of the surroundings but also for the explanations given along each of the exhibits. You’ll quickly understand why you see so many school groups walking about with their teachers.
The Getty Villa
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Tel: 310) 440-7300
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Things To Do in Miami – a Weekend Guide, Best Things to Do in Toronto, and Ca d’Zan, Ringling’s incredible Mansion and Museum(s)