One of my most enduring obsessions is visiting historic homes. It might sound lame… and historical. But how often did you get such an up-close peek at how the rich and famous live—does it matter if it’s the rich and famous of 100 years ago? They didn’t have to pay income tax! They could spend all their money on Carrara marble houses and fancy dress parties instead–it was insanity. And often their reproduced French chateaus are all that are left of the legacy of the Jennifer Lopezes and Angelina Jolies (without much of the philanthropy) of today.
The most spectacular places contain original furnishings and decor (or well-researched and immaculately produced reproductions) as if their owners are just out of town for the season…whatever season that may be. On the other hand, the most dreamy places are often falling apart at the seams, conjuring visions of rebuilding one’s own Gilded Age palace. Because I also love lists, here are my five favorite homes in the States and abroad:
Centereach, Long Island, NY
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Its Spanish/Moorish design is reminiscent of a “mini” Hearst Castle, and WK Vanderbilt II’s Eagle’s Nest is the house that started my love affair with houses and history. As there’s a planetarium and some semblance of a science museum on the premises, most elementary school kids on Long Island visit at least once. And while most of them just want to get to the light show, I was transfixed by the house itself. Its walled courtyard and stucco and clay tiles transported this 8-year-old from suburban Long Island in a big way. Highlights are Mrs. Vanderbilt’s circular mirrored dressing room that women today would still lust after. For the guys there’s a building full of dioramas of hunting trophies straight from Africa—and not too surprisingly, an Egyptian mummy.
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(And now that I’ve seen this, I absolutely HAVE to go at Christmas!)
Oh how I would move into the Breakers on a moment’s notice. Sure it’s unbelievably ostentatious and gaudy, but less so than Marble House, its neighbor down the street. It’s also an exquisite Italianate villa right on the ocean, something that most real Italian villas just aren’t. I would literally never leave Its atrium and loggia—that is, if it came with the nineteenth century servants. Oh, and just imagine the parties.
When I visited this house years ago, it needed so much help! But it had such raw potential, I just wished I had money to throw at them to save (and furnish!) this beauty. It had a conservatory that would make any Victorian proud, along with several delightful oval rooms, and a magnificent foyer and stairwell, that blended typical McKim, Mead & White classicism with charming Arts & Crafts-like woodworking.
pc: Ted Drake via Flckr
Versailles is…Versailles. A list like this, and my life in general, just wouldn’t be complete without visiting. But, and maybe it was the mid-November grey skies, it was oddly…soulless. I guess this is to be expected of the palace that was so ridic it contributed in part to the demise of a monarchy. There was a glimmer of its prior splendor through the crowds and clouds in the way the afternoon sun streamed through the arched windows. For a moment I could see what held people to this place with its strange relationships and politics and looming downfall. But the Hall of Mirrors, like the Sistine ceiling, is so difficult to appreciate en masse.
San Simeon, CA
pc: Jill Clardy via Flickr
(And this is just a guest house.)
Because it’s in the middle of nowhere California, I didn’t make it out to Hearst Castle until I was in college in LA. I took the trip with my mom which meant, if that wasn’t bad enough to a 19 year-old, that it was the first time in months I was separated from the friends and roommates that I’d been umbilically joined to all year. But despite all that, it was just as magical as I’d always thought it would be. It’s a stunningly beautiful middle-nowhere-CA coast. So remote that I think William Randolph Hearst built a railroad all his own to bring groceries, so dreamy that we wound up driving through the midst of a Porshe rally all day, and so picturesque that we stayed at a Best Western that I’ll remember forever because it was hanging off a cliff.
The house itself is beyond. You’re driven with a small van of people through the California moors, and you’re practically the only ones there as you tour the property of bougainvillea laced bungalows, the imposing main house, indoor AND outdoor swimming pools. And all of this designed by a woman, the incomparable Julia Morgan.
If I could never leave my house again, I would without a doubt want it to be Hearst Castle.
I’ll be blogging soon about the fulfillment of a childhood dream–my recent visit to the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.
Meanwhile, anybody else out there a lover of historical homes?