7 Grand American Estates and the Women Behind Them
I’ve always had a thing for castles. What’s not to love about beautiful buildings set in acres of gardens?
But it occurs to me, in all my travels, that the stories of the villas and mansions I visit usually revolve around men. Sometimes there’s a leading lady in a supporting role, but it’s Louis or Ludwig or Rockefeller or another monarch or business tycoon as the star.
The seven historic homes on this list are decked out with everything that makes a palace great. They’ve got turrets, towers, and ivy-covered walls with the best of them.
If you live in the US, you don’t even need a passport to visit. And they each have a memorable woman behind them, a powerful character who stood out at a time when that simply wasn’t done.
1. Belmont Mansion, Tennessee
A little off-the-beaten- path of downtown Nashville tourist stops, Belmont Mansion is an 1850s Italianate villa on a quiet university campus. The foyer is filled with marble statues and dimly lit through stained glass. From there, it opens into the grand salon: white columns, a sweeping double staircase, and gold-rimmed dome ceiling. It’s ornate, to say the least.
The real attraction, though, isn’t the architecture. It’s Belmont’s creator, Adelicia Acklen. Guided tours of her summer home walk you through her life story. I found myself enchanted.
Adelicia wasn’t your stereotypical Victorian miss. An heiress after her first husband’s death, she took control of her fortune and her future. She talked business. She spoke her mind. In some cases, she ruffled feathers among the Nashville elite because she didn’t seem to know her place.
She had her second and third husbands sign a prenup — not exactly standard procedure in the mid 19th century. She also chose her own causes to support, volunteering and raising money for war refugees, orphans, and eventually the Working Women Exchange, which helped women with jobs outside the home.
Since she controlled the purse strings, it’s her taste you see reflected at Belmont. She designed her home with a collector’s eye. It’s filled with porcelain, silver, chandeliers, sculptures, and other artwork. Outside, the zoo Adelicia once had is gone, but the grounds include gazebos, statues, and a fountain.
2. Villa Lewaro, New York
With its bright white stucco exterior and red-tiled roof, Villa Lewaro calls to mind Spanish castles. It sits a mile from the Hudson River in Irvington, New York, a popular spot for turn-of-the-century millionaires.
The front is striking, a grand entrance with a semicircular portico, but it’s the back of the house you always see featured in photos. Cascading stairs lead to a fountain-fed in-ground pool framed by hedges. It’s a palace fit for a princess.
Its owner, though, was more than a queen. Madam CJ Walker was the first self-made female millionaire in the US. The daughter of freed slaves, she supported herself as a washerwoman before inventing and launching her famous hair care line.
Living in Harlem and managing a growing business, she chose to build the villa as a testament to her accomplishments and what is possible with drive and dedication. She hired New York’s first registered black architect, Vertner Tandy, to design the home in 1916. Though she lived there for only a year before her death, her dream was that the house would remain an inspiration to others.
A National Historic Landmark, the house is privately owned today, but you can see the outside from the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail that runs behind it. The trail is part of a state historic park that winds past several bygone mansions.
For easiest access, park near Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and walk the level trail to the villa. It’s a 30-minute moderate stroll, worth it for a glimpse of such an historic site. You can just make out Villa Lewaro’s iconic stairs rising over the stone wall, a monument to one woman’s genius and determination.
3. Swan House, Georgia
The Swan House wasn’t always called the Swan House, but it’s easy to see how it got its name. There’s a definite motif: swans are on the bathroom ceiling, over the front door, carved into columns, and elsewhere. It’s not really just a house, though. The entire estate is around 100 acres, including a massive multi-tiered fountain leading up to the facade. That’s a mansion.
It sits in Atlanta’s swanky Buckhead neighborhood and is probably my favorite attraction in the city. For one thing, it’s part of the Atlanta History Center, a cultural complex with museums, historic homes and gardens. For another, there’s the lady of the house, Emily Inman.
On the tour, you’ll learn about Emily’s fondness for antiques and striking a good deal. But to hear more, you have to ask — which, of course, I did.
Emily was a suffragette. Her mother, a president of Georgia’s suffrage party, taught her that women needed to know how to handle their own affairs without a man’s help. Widowed young, Emily took advantage of this advice. She bought stocks and bonds, attended classes, studied her financial portfolio. Even through the Depression, she made money.
As grandaughter-in-law Beulah Inman Heinitsh recalls in a 1990 interview, “What she had left after she died was what she made.”
And what we can see inside the Swan House is largely her bold but discerning taste. From the marble checkered floors and hand-painted wallpaper to the 18th century art, it’s Gatsby-style 1930s elegance at its finest. If you can, go in early summer. The roses bloom in profusion over the stone wall making for an idyllic scene.
4. Sherman-Gilbert House, California
The smallest home on this list, the Sherman-Gilbert House still cost a pretty penny, somewhere in the neighborhood of what today would be $400,000 USD when it was built in 1887. If you like over-the-top Victorian architecture, this one’s for you.
The historic home stands with dignity in a row of 19th century houses preserved in San Diego’s Heritage Park. Each of the buildings has been relocated to the park, nicknamed “Victorian Village,” just a block from the city’s tourist-friendly Old Town. When I visited on a Wednesday afternoon, I had the place to myself.
The Sherman-Gilbert House is one of the few surviving examples of the Stick-Eastlake style. That will earn points with architecture enthusiasts, but the rest of us can still appreciate the photo-worthy details like the widow’s walk, elaborate windows, and latticework.
Locals have reported sightings of the late owner, Augusta Gilbert, on that very widow’s walk. While I personally doubt she’s a ghost, Augusta is assuredly an inspiring historical figure.
She purchased the Sherman-Gilbert House in 1897 as a home for herself and her three children. By no means wealthy at her husband’s death, Augusta became an entrepreneur to support her family. She went into real estate just as the population was beginning to surge in southern California, building a rental property off their Fifth Avenue home and later a two-story office building.
She was active in the community, campaigning to save the historic buildings of Balboa Park. Her own house would later become famous for hosting international artists like opera singer Enrico Caruso and ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, who came to visit her daughters.
While you can’t go inside the home, there are plaques around Heritage Park that provide a self-guided walking tour of the homes. It’s a free hidden gem in San Diego.
5. Winchester Mystery House, California
An hour south of San Francisco sits America’s strangest home, the Winchester Mystery House. It has stairs that go nowhere, walled-up rooms, secret passageways, and a dozen other oddities. The genius behind its construction? Sarah Winchester, widow of the famous gun maker.
As the story goes, Sarah was distraught over losing her husband and child, so she consulted a medium who told her to appease the spirits by building this house out west. It makes for a bit of a ghost-story angle, which the tour guides gladly play up, but no one really knows for sure why she did it.
By all accounts, Sarah was a very bright lady, fluent in four languages, gifted in music, and liberally educated in science and math. In building her maze-like home, she adapted a number of innovations to suit her needs, like a window catch inspired by the Winchester rifle and a water conservation system for her garden. Starting in 1881, she continued building her home for nearly four decades until her death.
Legends aside, the tour of the house is fascinating. In one place, there’s a window in the floor. In another, a door opens onto a wall. There are fabulous details like mosaic floors, obscure symbols, and spiderweb windows. I found it hard not to be impressed at the weirdness and sheer scale of it all.
Call her eccentric. I call her a woman who knew what she wanted. Maybe that included a mansion with 47 fireplaces. Why not?
6. Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina
By far the oldest estate on this list, Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, who owns it still today. Built on the banks of the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina, it was once a rice plantation.
Today, it’s famous as the oldest Romantic-style arden in the US. Hundreds of flowers bloom throughout, connected by rambling trails. Visiting in late April, I had just missed the signature azalea display, but the trees draped in Spanish moss and ornamental statues and bridges were plenty scenic.
Magnolia’s first owners were Ann and Thomas Drayton, but Thomas died young, leaving Ann in charge. She held her own in a man’s world, selling leather goods and managing the estate shrewdly to ensure financial security for her children. In her lifetime, she doubled their property.
The family house she lived in burned down in 1810, so the only thing you see of hers today is Flowerdale, a small formal garden she created with her mother. The current plantation home, some parts of which date back to Colonial days, is decorated to reflect early American life, and you’ll learn much about the Draytons, but personally, I found Magnolia’s other homes more compelling. A row of five cabins represent different periods of African-American history, from slavery to Civil Rights. The 45-minute tour explores the culture of the Lowcountry Gullah people and pays tribute to those who built Magnolia Plantation into what it is today.
On the way out, stroll the boardwalk of the Audubon Swamp Garden. It’s a different world of cypress trees submerged in green water, duckweed, and cattails. I was lucky enough to spot a heron in the distance. There are alligators, too, so step lively.
7. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington DC
Nestled in one of Washington DC’s quiet neighborhoods, Hillwood is a mix of different times and places. Built in the Roaring 20s and renovated in the 50s, it’s decorated in 18th-century style. There’s neoclassical French furniture, like the Louis XVI canopied bed, and art from around the world, including the largest collection of imperial Russian art outside of Russia.
Outside, the formal gardens remind you of old-world Europe. Tall hedges covered in English ivy form a series of outdoor rooms, and Greek and Roman statues mingle with flowers. The 25 acres include a Japanese garden, an imitation Russian cottage or dacha, and an orchid-filled greenhouse.
All of this is thanks to Marjorie Merriweather Post, only child of cereal magnate CW Post, who bought the home in 1955. Marjorie was a savvy businesswoman, instrumental in the company’s expansion into frozen foods. She was also an active philanthropist and art lover. Early on, she knew she wanted to transform Hillwood into a museum for others to enjoy.
So she began filling her home with beauty: Sèvres porcelain, Fabergé eggs, chalices, tapestries, jewelry, and more. In the entry hall, she hung a full-length portrait of Catherine the Great, a powerful woman and patron of the arts Marjorie admired.
Marjorie loved Hillwood so much she chose to stay there forever. In the rose garden, a small granite memorial contains a Latin engraving that sums up her independent spirit: “All my hopes rest in me.”
I came to each of these grand castle-like estates first for their beauty, for an imposing facade or terraced garden.
But I left with the image of a beautiful woman, a beauty not about looks but grit.
It’s the fearlessness of Adelicia and the genius of Madame C.J. Walker. It’s Marjorie’s independent spirit and Augusta’s tenacity in the face of adversity. That is feminine strength we can still admire today, that can inspire and teach us.
Every castle deserves a story. These are ones worth telling.