Some of the grandest homes in the United States were built and inhabited by America’s most affluent and influential men. Here’s a look at four millionaire mansions whose doors are open to the public.
George Washington Vanderbilt’s country retreat
Billed as America’s largest private home, the Biltmore spans 175,000 square feet in Asheville, North Carolina. Built in 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt II, the French Château-style mansion is situated on an 8,000-acre estate amid the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The four-story home and expansive gardens were created as a country retreat where Vanderbilt, the youngest child of industrialist William Henry Vanderbilt, could relax and pursue his interest in art, literature and horticulture.
Built of Indiana limestone, the mansion took six years to complete at an estimated cost of $10 million. The palatial home featured 1890s amenities such as electric lighting, telephones and an elevator. It contains 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces and three kitchens. The basement houses a bowling alley, gymnasium, swimming pool and servants’ quarters.
The home has been uninhabited since the 1950s and George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, 84, owns the estate. William A.V. Cecil Jr., 54, is president and CEO of The Biltmore Co.
The cost of maintaining the mansion led Vanderbilt’s daughter, Cornelia, to open the home to the public in 1930. Each year, about 1 million people tour the estate, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963.
William Randolph Hearst’s wilderness castle
Tired of camping in tents on his 250,000-acre wilderness ranch in San Simeon, California, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst asked San Francisco architect Julia Morgan in 1919 to “build a little something.”
The result is Hearst Castle, a 115-room Mediterranean Revival-style mansion with twin towers modeled after a Spanish cathedral. Built on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the 68,500-square-foot main house, called Casa Grande, includes 38 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms, 14 sitting rooms, 30 fireplaces, a billiards room, beauty salon, theater, library, butler’s pantry, staff dining room and indoor swimming pool. Three guesthouses offered plush accommodations to visitors such as President Calvin Coolidge, actor Clark Gable and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Hearst’s art and artifact collection can be admired throughout the 127-acre estate. Among the works and relics are Italian sculptor Antonio Canova’s marble Venus Italica statue, 150 ancient Greek clay vases, and the façade of an ancient Roman temple, which adorns a near Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool.
Though under construction for 28 years, the Hearst Castle was unfinished when its ailing owner moved from the remote ranch in 1948. After his death two years later, Hearst Corp. donated the estate to the state of California for a historic park. In 1976, Hearst Castle was designated a National Historic Landmark.
John D. Rockefeller’s palatial lookout
Towering 500 feet above the Hudson River near Sleepy Hollow, New York, the six-story Kykuit castle offered John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co., a spectacular view of the Palisades cliffs and distant New York City skyline.
Completed in 1913, the 40-room Beaux-Arts villa is built of locally quarried fieldstone and Indiana limestone, and is a showcase for art—inside and out. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the builder’s grandson and former governor of New York and U.S. vice president, in the 1960s transformed the empty basement passages into art galleries with works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Andy Warhol.
Landscape architect William Welles Bosworth designed dramatic hilltop terraces and formal gardens with pavilions, grottos, fountains and classical sculpture. In the entry courtyard is the Oceanus Fountain, a replica of the 16th-century fountain in Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. Modern sculptures throughout the gardens include works by Alexander Calder and Henry Moore.
Other extensive collections at the estate include Chinese and European ceramics and dozens of horse-drawn carriages and classic automobiles.
Upon his death in 1979, Nelson bequeathed Kykuit to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which opened the castle for tours in 1994. The property is maintained and administered by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Otto Hermann Kahn’s lavish summer home
On the highest point on Long Island in Huntington, New York, financier and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn built his 109,000-square-foot Oheka Castle, now a luxury hotel featuring 32 guest rooms and suites.
Completed in 1919 at a cost of $11 million, the French-style chateau features 127 rooms with marble floors, ornate plaster moldings in the library and ballroom, and a grand entry staircase modeled after the exterior staircase of the Chateau Fountainbleu palace in France. Formal gardens feature eight reflecting pools and multiple fountains.
During the 1920s, Kahn hosted lavish parties for royalty, heads of state and Hollywood stars in the castle’s cavernous ballroom with 24-foot-tall ceilings.
After Kahn’s death in 1934, the castle changed owners several times, serving as a retirement home for New York City sanitation workers, a radio operators’ school during World War II, and a boarding school before being abandoned in 1979.
Long Island developer Gary Melius, 68, bought the deteriorated structure for $1.5 million in 1984 and began restoring the castle to its original grandeur—recasting moldings, repainting murals and replacing 4,000 roof tiles purchased from the same Vermont quarry that supplied the castle’s original slate tiles. The $32 million restoration, reported to be the most expensive home improvement project in the nation’s history, is 70 percent complete.
“Otto Kahn was one of the movers and shakers of the time,” says Melius’ daughter Nancy Melius, 48, the castle’s marketing director. “He helped build the railroads and banks and was a big patron of the arts. This mansion is our history—America’s history.”