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American castles: Regal residences

Courtesy 1000 Islands International Tourism Council

“Home Sweet Home” takes on a differnt meaning when touring one of America’s grand houses. Although most of us think of snuggling up in our favorite recliner or enjoying a view of the petunias from the front porch, for the residents of these estates, “home” meant choosing from among dozens of opulent bedrooms the place to rest their heads.

These architectural wonders and their surrounding grounds are both stunning and astounding. Although they offer glimpses into a lifestyle that is for the most part unattainable today, they also offer stories about high society, romance and tragedy that are often as fascinating as the material wealth within the homes’ walls.

Boldt Castle

Alexandria Bay, New York
Visitors to Boldt Castle, a 200-room Rhineland castle, first experience a scenic boat ride at the grandiose structure that sits on Heart Island.

“George C. Bolt, millionaire proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, broke ground for the castle in 1900 for his wife, Louise, and renamed the island to Heart to reflect his love. There are even 365 hearts carved into the castle, one for each day of the year,” said Tillie Youngs, sales and services coordinator for the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council.

The castle’s love story ended sadly when Louise died unexpectedly and never had the opportunity to live there. “George walked away, and the castle has never been truly completed, but $34 million has been spent to restore it. The great hall, dining room, billiards room, library, an in-ground swimming pool in the basement and even elevators are just a handful of the highlights on tour,” said Youngs.

Youngs added that every year another project is completed, and in 2010, Louise’s bedroom is open for viewing. Other buildings on the island include a powerhouse, a children’s playhouse and a water tower, an exceptional structure that was known as the hennery, as Boldt was a collector of birds.


The Biltmore

Asheville, North Carolina

The 250-room, 16th-century French Chateau Biltmore House took six years to build and required its own brick factory, woodworking shop and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site. Owner George Vanderbilt opened the house for the first time for a Christmas Eve celebration in 1898.

Courtesy Biltmore Estate

“To this day, the Biltmore is the largest, privately owned home in America,” said LeeAnn Donnelly, senior public relations manager.

Donnelly said that groups visiting the estate, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and 8,000 acres of private grounds and gardens, may want to plan a two-day experience. In addition to 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces, the home includes a seven-story-tall banquet room and a library with 10,000 books.

“With priceless collections of antiques that include Ming Dynasty porcelain and 16th-century Flemish tapestries, this is quite the destination for not only antique-lovers but fans of history, architecture and landscape,” she said.

Groups will want to tour the formal gardens, which offer 70,000 tulips in the spring, and the Biltmore Winery, the Antler Hill Village and the Antler Hill Farm. “These additional venues connect the present with the past and offer groups a dining, shopping and historical experience,” said Donnelly.

Six restaurants are on this destination’s itinerary, and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six is on display. The 200-room Inn on Biltmore Estate is also the place where visitors can enjoy a slice of elegant service, if even just an afternoon tea.


Salisbury House and Gardens
Des Moines, Iowa
Completed in 1928, the Salisbury House, modeled after English homes of British royalty, was built by a pioneer cosmetics magnate, Carl Weeks, and his wife, Edith.

Courtesy Salisbury House and Gardens

“After visitors are awed when they enter the home in the grand great hall, they are then overwhelmed by this 42-room, four-story home that is full of collectibles from the Weeks’ travels. I suggest that groups take the Nooks and Crannies Tour that allows them to see more than the usual tour,” said Angela Kolbert, marketing and public programs director for the house.

Those collectibles include a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln, South American shrunken heads, a rare Bible collection, letters from Mark Twain and a 1930s custom-made Steinway piano. “The library also includes a rare and original collection of books and manuscripts that wow any literary fans,” said Kolbert.


Hearst Castle
San Simeon, California
From the visitors center 1,600 feet below the Hearst Castle, bank group members get their first view of this estate on the crown of a mountain. They will want to watch the film “Hearst Castle, Building the Dream” before making the ascent to this Mediterranean-revival-style complex that includes the estate house, Casa Grande, and three guest houses.

In 1919, William Randolph Hearst, a publishing superstar who also dabbled in political and Hollywood life, wrote a note to an architect saying, “I would like to build a little something.” The complex was completed in 1947 and totals 90,080 square feet, with 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces and 61 bathrooms.

Six tours are available that explore different areas, but first-timers may want to take Tour 1, which offers a broad overview of the massive property. Priceless art and collectibles, from mosaics to lamps to sculpture, a tiled indoor swimming pool and handpainted ceilings are just a few of the highlights.


Pocantico Hills, New York
Kykuit, often called a hilltop paradise, was home to four generations of Rockefellers, beginning with John D. Rockefeller in 1908. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, devoted his life to philanthropy, and visitors learn about his giving during the tour.

By Mick Hales, courtesy Historic Hudson Valley

“The 40-room main house is a six-story stone house and is understated — not grand in the sense of the Vanderbilt home and some other estates. There was no dancing and alcohol here, and it speaks to JDR’s life as a Baptist,” said Rob Schweitzer, director of public relations for Historic Hudson Valley.

“However, the collections here are extraordinary, from 25 sets of china to the Chinese ceramics to the modern art that includes Picasso and Warhol — art that was collected by Nelson Rockefeller who lived here when he was the governor of New York and vice president of the U.S.,” said Schweitzer.

Kykuit, which rhymes with “high-cut,” means “lookout” in Dutch and is situated on one of the highest points in Westchester County. Kykuit’s gardens are equally extraordinary. “The elaborate Italian and English landscaping cost 23 times of what the house cost to build. The gardens are also peppered with classical and modern sculpture and fountains,” said Schweitzer.

A coach barn, a structure that is home to antique carriages and classic automobiles, is also part of the tour.


The Breakers

Newport, Rhode Island
Built in 1895, the Breakers is the largest and most opulent of Newport’s summer cottages, according to Andrea Carneiro, communications manager for the Preservation Society of Newport County, the organization that owns and operates 10 historic homes in the area.

By John Corbett, courtesy Preservation Society of Newport County

“The Cornelius Vanderbilt family’s definition of ‘cottage’ was certainly a little different than ours. The Breakers has 70 rooms on four floors and is 138,000 square feet,” said Carneiro.

Groups first enter the two-and-a-half-story great hall and are then treated to sights of rare marble, alabaster, 22-carat gold gilding and crystal chandeliers.

“Our audio tour with voices from later generations of Vanderbilts and their servants gives a compelling look into what life was like. We also have newly opened areas so that even if you’ve been here before, you’ll see something new,” said Carneiro.

Carneiro added that formal landscaped gardens that include rare species imported from around the world, flowering shrubs and mature trees screen the grounds and give the feeling of complete seclusion.

(401) 847-1000

Staatsburgh State Historic Site
Staatsburgh, New York
Located on the banks of the Hudson River within the boundaries of Mills-Norrie State Park, the beaux-arts Staatsburgh mansion includes 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms. “Groups see the two main floors of this six-floor mansion,” said Melody Moore, historic site manager.

The home was remodeled and enlarged to its current size and stature in 1895.

The exterior is embellished with pilasters, floral swags and a massive portico, and the home is fully furnished with original objects, including carved and gilded furniture, Oriental rugs, silk fabrics and a collection of art objects from Europe, ancient Greece and the Far East.

“The architectural details, like marble walls and the carved heads on the ceiling of the library, are breathtaking,” said Moore.

Restoration and preservation continue at this elegant example of Gilded Age architecture, and Moore said workers are always happy to answer questions during guided tours.


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