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Gavin Ashworth | The Preservation Society of Newport County
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Winchester Mystery House
Jane Austen said, “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” but sometimes it’s fun to take a peek at someone else’s home. Comfort yourself with the thought of visiting these extraordinary houses, worthy of any bucket list.
Live the Gilded Age Good Life in Rhode Island
During the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island, was the place for America’s wealthiest families to have their “summer cottages.” New York’s 19th-century elite didn’t exactly subscribe to the idea of a cottage as a quaint and understated place to get away from the city, though—instead, they built downright palatial mansions, each trying to top the last.
The grandest of them all is The Breakers, owned by the Vanderbilt family. Inspired by 16th-century Italian palaces, the 70-room mansion was constructed from 1893 to 1895 and is a feast for the eyes. On a self-guided audio tour, learn about the Vanderbilts, the ornate materials used in the house (there’s plenty of gold and platinum) and what it was like to work as a servant here.
Highlights include the marble-covered Great Hall (tall enough to fit a two-story house), the surprisingly modern kitchen, the library with a fireplace from a 16th-century French chateau, the mosaic-ceilinged loggia overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Music Room, covered in gold leaf.
Become One With Nature in Pennsylvania
Fallingwater was famous from the start. Even before construction officially finished in 1939, it was on the cover of Time magazine, captivating Americans with its modern look and inspired locationatop a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The iconic house is perhaps the best example of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of designing structures that exist in harmony with nature. It’s not, however, his best example of containing costs—the total came to $155,000, well above the $20,000 to $40,000 budget (this at a time when a three-bedroom home in Pittsburgh went for about $5,500). It was commissioned by the Kaufmann family, known for their eponymous department store, who wanted a place in the mountains to spend time.
It’s the small details here that are most impressive—a floor waxed to look like water has rushed over it, windows that seem to bring the outdoors inside and subtle design choices that push guests to outside decks. Interestingly, Fallingwater has only two colors—light ochre on the concrete, inspired by the shade you’d find on the back of a rhododendron leaf, and Cherokee red on the metal and ironwork, said to be Wright’s favorite color.
Ponder Architectural Oddities in California
The Winchester Mystery House is filled with its fair share of strange features, as you might expect from a domicile with “mystery” in its name—doors that lead nowhere, staircases that go down a few steps before ascending, windows that face walls. That’s all by design—sort of.
After the tragic deaths of both her infant daughter and her husband, Sarah Winchester believed her family was being haunted by spirits because her family wealth came from manufacturing guns. Some say a Boston medium instructed her to move west and build a house to appease the spirits, claiming that as long as the home was constantly under construction, no harm would come to Winchester.
The wealthy woman relocated to San Jose, California, and kept carpenters busy around the clock, apparently with no master plan, for more than 38 years. The result is a sprawling 160-room Victorian mansion that’s as fascinating as it is supersized.
With secret passageways, tales of séances and upside-down posts, the Mansion Tour will keep you spellbound for the full 65 minutes. To learn even more, add on the Behind the- Scenes Tour, which includes stops at spots like the basement, greenhouse and ballroom, known for its stained glass windows with obscure Shakespearean quotes.