Last Updated on September 30, 2022
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Updated for 2022 / 2023
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, there are historical homes of America 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 historical homes of America 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 Historical Homes of America: The Biltmore Estate
The incredible Biltmore Estate, the former historical home of George Vanderbilt, the grandson of famed industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, is the granddaddy of them all.
On 8,000 acres in the rolling hills of western North Carolina, this 250-room French Renaissance chateau and National Historical 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. There is a dining room capable of seating 67 guests. The room has three huge fireplaces at one end and a pipe organ at the other. There’s also, a master bedroom that resembles a museum more than a place to retire for the night. And nine guest bedrooms; an interior swimming pool and bowling alley, walk-in refrigerators (a marvel at the time), stables, etc.
The house also has 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
Open: The Biltmore is open 365 days a year, although hours vary by location and season. Check here for current opening hours for different areas of the estate.
Admission: Ticket prices for the house from $89, except November 4 – January 8 from $99. Check here for the Biltmore’s ticket options.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens – Miami, Florida
If you see no other place during an afternoon getaway from the beach in Miami, you should visit Vizcaya. It’s the former winter vacation home of industrialist James Deering.
This historical home of America is 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 historical residence is a blend of Renaissance and Neoclassical styles. Thankfully it was built with great care so as not to disrupt the surrounding subtropical environment.
As you wander about the house, you also find one of the greatest collections of Italian furniture in the USA. This is in addition to all of the items Deering purchased on his shopping trips all over Europe. Several of its rooms, as you might expect, 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 visitors greatly enjoy the bay side of the house, with its striped poles evoking the beauty of Venice. Also around the estate are beautiful formal gardens, mixing 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
Open: The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is open Thursday through Monday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Select areas of the Main House remain open until 5:00 pm and the gardens until 5:30 pm.
Admission: You must purchase all tickets online. Adults (13+) $25 / Children (6-12 years) $10 / Children (5 and under), visitors in Wheelchairs $10, active military and veterans (with ID) free.
A Historical Home of America 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 historical home of America 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 historical 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 full of 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.
Also to sure to visit its Tap Room with its beautiful stained glass and painted panels evoking the atmosphere of a small bar tucked away in Venice.
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Opening Hours: Open daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.
Admission: To visit Ca’ d’Zan you must first purchase the Museum Admission (which includes admission to the adjacent Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, and Bayfront Gardens). Adult $25 / Senior (65+) $23 / Children (6-17) $5 / Children 5 and under are free. Admission to Ca d’Zan is an additional $10 per person.
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 historical home of America “the ranch.”
Set on a hilltop five miles from the coast, the “castle” encompasses several beautiful buildings. Surprisingly, the main building alone, Casa Grande, has 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, and 42 bathrooms. There are also 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 historical 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
Opening Hours: Open daily at 9 a.m. To view the castle you must take a tour; the time of the final tour varies. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Admission: ticket prices start at $30 for adults and $15 for children (5 – 12 years).
An Incredible Historical Home of American: 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. Its purpose was to house his collection of more than 40,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. Surprisingly, 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.” More than 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
Admission: Admission is free, but a timed-entry ticket is required. There is a fee for parking.