Fit for a King Peek Inside the Royal Estates of America's Aristocracy

Article excerpt

Byline: Randy Mink Daily Herald Correspondent

From the auto-baron estates of Detroit to the high-society mansions in Newport, R.I., visits to the most sumptuous houses ever built in America provide a window on how the rich and famous lived out their wildest dreams.

Curious about the lifestyles of people blessed with unlimited cash reserves? We've all envisioned our own ideal home, fantasizing how we would relax and entertain in a showplace castle designed to satisfy our every whim.

Touring historic mansions once inhabited by the likes of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers not only reveals intimate glimpses of how the upper crust lived, but spotlights America's rich cultural and artistic heritage as well.

Many of these architectural masterpieces were built between the 1880s and 1920s, as the United States emerged as an economic powerhouse. Captains of industry amassed great fortunes faster than they could spend them.

Many members of this new aristocracy used their millions to build royal estates, commissioning lavish homes fashioned after European castles and palaces, and furnishing them with art treasures from abroad. Taxes were low or nonexistent, servants plentiful and cheap.

Hearst's hideaway

Hearst Castle, perhaps the best known of America's great manors, was the 127-acre California estate of bombastic publisher and movie mogul William Randolph Hearst. Now a state historical monument, it overlooks San Simeon Bay, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In 1919 Hearst began constructing his personal Xanadu, naming the mountaintop hideaway La Cuesta Encantada, or The Enchanted Hill. Created to give the illusion of a Spanish hill town, the 165- room complex (which took 28 years to complete) includes a 115-room central building, three guest cottages, terraces, pools, gardens and courtyards.

Hearst collected all the European objects he could get his hands on (beds, chairs, carved doors, church statuary), much of it from Spain and Italy. He even acquired an entire Spanish monastery and had it shipped in 10,700 crates.

The cathedral-like main building, La Casa Grande, was designed after a church in Ronda, Spain. Medieval banners, a Flemish tapestry and Spanish choir stalls dominate the dining room, where Hearst (1863-1951) and his live-in girlfriend, actress Marion Davies, entertained heads of state, titans of industry and movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.

Tour one, recommended for first-time visitors, features old home movies of celebrities at the castle. The movie "Hearst Castle: Building the Dream" plays hourly on a giant screen in the visitors center.

The marble Neptune Pool, kept heated at a constant 70 degrees, sports a classical temple facade and semi-circular colonnades. One tour shows the swimming pool's 17 colorfully painted dressing rooms. The indoor Roman Pool is tiled with gold and Venetian glass.

Vanderbilt's abode

You'll find North Carolina's Biltmore Estate equally grand. Imagine living in a French Renaissance chateau with 34 bedrooms, 43 baths and 65 fireplaces. This rambling palace is adorned with priceless paintings and furniture acquired on collecting trips around the world.

George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914) not only imagined it, he had the money (inherited from his family's railroad empire) to make his vision a reality in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ensconced on 8,000 acres outside of Asheville, N.C., the 250-room pleasure dome bills itself as "America's largest privately owned home."

Completed in 1895 and today owned by William Cecil, grandson of George Vanderbilt, the mansion was one of the most technologically advanced homes in its day. It boasted hot and cold running water, central heating, refrigeration, elevators, ten Bell telephones and some of Thomas Edison's first light bulbs - luxuries unheard of at the turn of the century. …