I've been roaming across the States the past few weeks – spent a few days in Boston/Providence and a few days in L.A. Although they're on opposite coasts, the two locations do have one thing in common: residences that make me feel like I live in a shack. A hovel, really. Don't get me wrong, I really do love my house, but how can you compare that with mansions built by the Vanderbilts and the Winchesters? Let's start with the first house that made me feel inadequate.
The Breakers, Newport, R.I.
photo from Stacy Conradt
Believe it or not, this incredible manse is merely a summer home for the Vanderbilts. Cornelius Vanderbilt II commissioned the quaint little cottage in 1893. It cost more than $7 million to build, which is pretty astronomical when you account for inflation – it would be more than $150 million today. The mansion that had previously occupied that spot burned down the year before Vanderbilt had the Breakers constructed, so one of his building criteria was that the building should be as fireproof as possible, including using steel instead of wood wherever possible. The furnace is even located under the street instead of actually inside of the house. If the outside of the house isn't opulent enough for you, venture inside to see vast halls made out of marble from Italy and Africa. The Gold Room was actually build in France, then disassembled and shipped in airtight cases to be rebuilt once it arrived in Newport. When Cornelius died in 1899, he left the house to his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. When she died, the house was given to her youngest daughter Gladys because Gladys didn't have any American real estate. In turn, Countess Gladys left the house to her daughter, Countess Sylvia. Countess Sylvia lived there until she died in 1998, but her children, Gladys and Paul Szapary, still summer there. They stay on the third floor, where the 300,000 tourists the Breakers gets every year are not allowed to visit.
The Mansion, Los Angeles, Calif.
photo from LaurelCanyon.org
Now we hop coasts and visit the Mansion, owned by music producer Rick Rubin. The Mansion is supposedly haunted, but that hasn't stopped artists from recording some of their biggest hits there. Just a sample of albums recorded at the Mansion include the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Stadium Arcadium, Jay-Z's 99 Problems and Maroon 5's It Won't Be Soon Before Long. The Chili Peppers' drummer, Chad Smith, was so convinced of paranormal activity within the house that he refused to spend the night there when the band was recording. There is good reason to suspect that the Mansion might be haunted – in 1918, a man fell from a balcony on the house to his death. After that, the house was inhabited by none other than Harry Houdini. The original Houdini Mansion burned nearly to the ground in 1959, but that apparently didn't deter any ghosts from haunting the new structure built in the same spot. The band Slipknot (from Des Moines!!) had numerous supernatural experience there when they recorded Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). Singer Corey Taylor took pictures that appeared to show two hovering orbs and drummer Joey Jordison had a strange experience in the basement that he won't talk about.
Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills, Calif.
photo from Beverlyhills.org
If you've seen There Will Be Blood, you'll recognize Greystone Mansion (aka Doheny Mansion) as the place where Daniel Day-Lewis uttered the now-famous words, "I. Drink. Your. Milkshake. I DRINK IT UP." And if you haven't seen There Will Be Blood, then you've undoubtedly seen Batman, the Big Lebowski, the Bodyguard, Death Becomes Her, Entourage, Ghostbusters, Indecent Proposal, X-Men or National Treasure. Oh, and the music video for Meatloaf's I'd do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That). All of those movies (and more) were filmed on location at Greystone. The mansion actually has the most in common with There Will Be Blood, though – the house was a gift from oil tycoon Edward Doheny to his son, Ned Doheny. It was built in 1928 and cost more than $3 million, making it the most expensive house in California at the time. Ned didn't get much time to enjoy the house, though – just four months after he, his wife and their five children moved in, he was found dead in his bedroom along with his secretary, Hugh Plunkett. It was apparently a murder-suicide orchestrated by Plunkett.
The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, Calif.
photo from WinchesterMysteryHouse.com
I've always wanted to visit this house. Sarah Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, built this house continuously from 1884 to 1922. That's 38 years that workers were constantly sawing, hammering and building, twenty-hour hours a day. The house stood at seven stories, but the 1906 earthquake claimed three of those stories and today it stands just four stories tall. There are 17 chimneys, 40 bedrooms, two basements, 467 doorways, at least five kitchens, two ballrooms and approximately 52 skylights. Why such a large, distorted house? Sarah believed that the ghosts of all of the people killed by the guns bearing her husband's name were out for revenge. She believed very deeply in the spirit world, so when a medium told her that she needed to build a house to contain herself and all of the restless spirits, she took it seriously. The medium told her that if construction ever stopped on the house, the spirits would claim her. When she died in 1922, construction stopped immediately – nails half-pounded into the wall can be found in the house to this day. There are some odd features in this maze of a house, including doors that lead to nowhere, stairs that lead straight into a ceiling, closets with no floors and numerous secret passageways.
Fair Lane, Dearborn, Mich.
photo from wikipedia.com
Now that we've visited both coasts, let's check out what's in between. Fair Lane was the home of Henry and Clara Ford and was named for an area in Ireland where Henry's grandfather was born. Ford isn't the only luminary to be involved with the house, though. Frank Lloyd Wright helped draw up the original design for the house before leaving for Europe. And Thomas Edison himself laid the cornerstone of the estate's powerhouse. The top floor of the powerhouse was reserved for Ford's Experimental Laboratory – the place he would go to tinker around with new ideas. Despite Ford's great wealth, the house really wasn't considered that extravagant by the standards of the day, even though it did have an indoor poor and a bowling alley. That's not to say that Fair Lane didn't have it's share of strange extravagances, though. As an avid bird watcher, Ford had a steam-heated birdbath installed to entice birds to make the estate their permanent dwelling as well. Oh, and if Fair Lane sounds familiar, it should – the Fairlane Ford cars were named after the mansion.
Bannerman's Castle, Pollepal Island, N.Y.
photo from Bannerman Castle Trust
Drive just 50 miles away from the sleek, modern skyscrapers of New York City and you'll find yourself at Bannerman's Castle – about as opposite from "sleek and modern" as you can get. Francis Bannerman VI bought the island in 1900 to use as an arsenal. Bannerman bought 90 percent of the U.S. army's leftover supplies from the Spanish-American War and thought that the island would be an ideal place to keep them. He even advertised that fact by having "Bannerman's Island Arsenal" engraved into a wall that faced the eastern bank of the Hudson River. In 1920, the arsenal backfired – literally. Two hundred pounds of shells and gunpowder exploded, destroying a good chunk of the castle and its surrounding buildings. New York State bought the island and all of its buildings in 1967, but after a fire consumed the grounds in 1969, the castle and the island were pretty much abandoned by all. In recent years, tours have been conducted by Bannerman's Castle Trust, but only if tourees consent to wear a hard hat.