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The 25 Best Historic Homes in America

Great Estates: A new look at historic house museums

Written by Judith H. Dobrzynski
  • “You must have Mount Vernon,” says Susan Weber, the founder and director of New York’s Bard Graduate Center for studies in the decorative arts and design. “It’s beautiful, and the spot is fantastic.” She’s warming to the question posed: Which historic houses in America does she admire most? “And you must have the White House,” she adds.

    The United States may lack the medieval castles and wondrous palaces of Europe, but it boasts hundreds of noteworthy homes, including Weber’s choices. For our 25th anniversary, Traditional Home decided to shine a light on 25 of them, all open to the public. It turned out to be easy to go beyond the most famous, like the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina or The Breakers in Rhode Island. 

    The U.S. has thousands of remarkable houses! Built by barons of industry, adventurous architects, and wealthy eccentrics, these homes may have stately architecture, sumptuous interiors, eclectic style, gorgeous grounds, history—or, usually, a combination. This selection focuses on 25 estates, in all regions of the country, with a unique visual appeal—homes whose lives are as fascinating as those of the original owners. 

    New England

    1. Isaac Bell House Newport, Rhode Island

    2. Castle Hill Ipswich, Massachusetts

    3. Hildene Manchester, Vermont

    4. Naumkeag Stockbridge, Massachusetts

    5. Beauport Gloucester, Massachusetts

    Mid-Atlantic

    6. Winterthur Wilmington, Delaware

    7. Fonthill Doylestown, Pennsylvania

    8. Cairnwood Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

    9. Olana Hudson, New York

    10. Lyndhurst Tarrytown, New York

    11. Sotterley Hollywood, Maryland

    The South

    12. Monticello Charlottesville, Virginia

    13. Vizcaya Miami, Florida

    14. Harper Fowlkes House Savannah, Georgia

    15. Drayton Hall Charleston, South Carolina

    16. Oak Alley Plantation Vacherie, Louisiana

    The Midwest

    17. Alden Dow House Midland, Michigan

    18. Glessner House Chicago, Illinois

    19. James J. Hill House St. Paul, Minnesota

    20. Glensheen Duluth, Minnesota

    The West

    21. Larkin House Monterey, California

    22. Gamble House Pasadena, California

    23. Pittock Mansion Portland, Oregon

    24. Filoli Woodside, California

    25. Hearst Castle San Simeon, California

    Produced by Doris Athineos

  • Gavin Ashworth

    Isaac Bell House Newport, Rhode Island

    The Isaac Bell House in Newport, Rhode Island, is a favorite of Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection in New York. This 1883 McKim, Mead & White Shingle house doesn’t immediately look exceptional. But, Wardropper says, “The inside is really interesting—you see all the bare bones of the architecture. And they had flights of fancy.” One example: “They took traditional Japanese frying pans and made them into light fixtures,” he says. 

    Photo: Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County

  • Courtesy of The Trustees of Reservations

    Castle Hill Ipswich, Massachusetts

    A far more glamorous “Great House” on the coast in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Castle Hill epitomizes the landscaped summer estates built in the American Country Place era, circa 1840–1930. 

    More of Castle Hill on the next slide. 

    Photo: Courtesy of The Trustees of Reservations

  • Courtesy of Jumping Rocks

    Castle Hill Ipswich, Massachusetts

    This 1928, 59-room Stuart-style mansion is furnished in antiques, including ornate, imported woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), whose work also graces England’s Hampton Court and Blenheim palaces.

    Photo: Courtesy of Jumping Rocks 

  • Hildene Manchester, Vermont

    The Lincoln name adds allure to Hildene, in Manchester, Vt., built by the president’s son Robert Todd Lincoln in 1903-05. This stately Georgian Revival, whose entrance hall has a working 1,000-pipe organ, is furnished mainly with Lincoln family furniture. 

    See more Hildene on the next slide. 

  • Hildene Manchester, Vermont

    Outside at Hildene there’s a formal garden planted to resemble a multi-colored stained glass window and, touchingly, a rectangle of bricks that occupies the same space as Honest Abe’s birthplace. 

  • Naumkeag Stockbridge, Massachusetts

    Naumkeag, in Stockbridge, Mass., is a pick of architect Annabelle Selldorf, renowned for her work renovating historic properties. “It is a Stanford White Gilded Age ‘cottage,’ ” she says, “an excellent example of the Shingle style with well-maintained interiors that really show how people lived at the turn of the century and beyond.” Built in 1885, Naumkeag’s rooms are paneled in cherry, oak, and mahogany. “The house is beautifully situated with a combination of pasture land and formal gardens including the wonderful ‘Blue Steps’ by Fletcher Steele,” a series of four, deep-blue fountains, flanked by stairs, that descend into the gardens.

  • Beauport Gloucester, Massachusetts

    Decorator Mario Buatta loves Beauport, the home of Henry Davis Sleeper, one of the first male decorators in the United States. 

    See more of Beauport on the next slide. 

  • Beauport Gloucester, Massachusetts

    Overlooking the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts, “it’s a charming, charming house,” Buatta says. “It’s a 40-room house, and it’s a miniature version of Winterthur,” the Delaware estate of chemical company heir Henry Francis du Pont. “They were friends and collected together.” Beauport’s curiosities, from folk art to china to silhouettes, fill every nook, cranny, and alcove. 

    See Winterthur on the next slide.

  • Winterthur Wilmington, Delaware

    Winterthur, however, is a majestic 175-room mansion that houses what may be the world’s best collection of American decorative arts. Its masterpieces of furniture, porcelain, and glass date from the 1600s through the 1800s, and the house abounds in notable features, including the stunning hand-painted 18th-century wallpaper in the Chinese Parlor, historic millwork, and a two-story spiral staircase. 

  • 2daysphotos.com

    Fonthill Doylestown, Pennsylvania

    Weber suggested a folly, specifically Fonthill in Doylestown, Pa. Between 1908 and 1912, tile maker Henry Chapman Mercer created this 44-room castle, which except for its 200-plus windows looks like a fortress. 

    Find an interior photo of Fonthill on the next slide. 

    Photo: 2daysphotos.com

  • Jack Carnell Photography

    Fonthill Doylestown, Pennsylvania

    It’s Fonthill's mazelike interior that’s so engaging: along with built-in furniture, it’s decorated with Arts-and-Crafts-style tiles and filled with Mercer’s collectibles, including Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and ceramics embedded in the concrete. 

    Photo: Jack Carnell

  • Joy Marie Photography

    Cairnwood Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

    Cairnwood, built between 1892 and 1895 in Bryn Athyn, Pa., was designed by Carrère and Hastings, the premier architectural firm for Gilded Age mansions, to look like a French chateau. 

    Another photo of Cairnwood is on the next slide. 

    Photo: © Joy Marie Photography

  • Allure West Studios

    Cairnwood Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

    Inside, the two-story great hall features a vaulted ceiling, a massive carved stone fireplace, and three arched doorways that lead to a flagstone terrace and manicured lawn. Other rooms exhibit rich brocade wallpaper, details trimmed in gold leaf, and mantles of Siena marble. 

    Photo: © Allure West Studios

  • Andy Wainwright

    Olana Hudson, New York

    With its sweepings views of the Catskill Mountains and Persian-inspired design, Olana, artist Frederick Edwin Church’s well-preserved domicile above the Hudson River in New York, has charmed from its start in 1870. “There is no more important site to the Hudson River School of painting,” Weber says. “I like the Moorishness of it, and you can see where an artist worked and lived.” Surrounded by 250 acres that Church designed, Olana contains many original furnishings and paintings.  

    Photo: Andy Wainwright

  • Lyndhurst Tarrytown, New York

    Further south, in Tarrytown, N.Y. stands Lyndhurst, the turreted Gothic Revival mansion once owned by tycoon Jay Gould. Designed by architect A. J. Davis in 1838, who later expanded it, this opulent home displays hundreds of treasures, including furniture by Davis and Herter Brothers, plus paintings by the likes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, many in a grand arched-ceiling gallery.  

  • Sotterley Hollywood, Maryland

    Dating to the early 1700s, Sotterley, a onetime tobacco plantation in southern Maryland, evolved from a two-room nucleus into a long, bayed clapboard manor home distinguished by a steeply pitched roof and crowned by a cupola. The interior features carved half-shell alcoves flanking a marble fireplace in the formal drawing room and an unusual Chinese Chippendale central staircase.

  • Monticello Charlottesville, Virginia

    At Thomas Jefferson’s Palladian Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va., “the furnishings, the architectural work and the amazing site all work together,” Weber says. “Through the house, which is very idiosyncratic, you can see the mind of Jefferson working.” For example, “He had a dumb waiter at the foot of his bed that had 40 different outfits. He could spin it around and get dressed quickly,” she marvels. “He had absolutely divine taste. He has his furniture from Philadelphia, but he also has English and French things – and not too much of it.” 

  • Vizcaya Miami, Florida

    Vizcaya, in Miami, is a choice of Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the Art of the Americas department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “It was a way to do Venice in the U.S.,” she says. Built on Biscayne Bay between 1914 and 1922, this palatial property reinterprets an 18th-century northern Italian villa for the subtropics. 

    See another photo of Vizcaya on the next slide. 

  • Vizcaya Miami, Florida

    Surrounding the central courtyard are 34 rooms showcasing some 2,500 pieces of Italian decorative art—including the rare Admiral Carpet, woven in the 1450s.

  • Harper Fowlkes House Savannah, Georgia

    Curving stairs lead to the entrance of the Harper Fowlkes House, an 1842 Greek Revival mansion in historic Savannah. Inside, a columned central hall with Georgia marble floors leads to a large double parlor, furnished with the original marble consoles, gilded mirrors, and a 1740 Queen Anne-style chair. The house is famous for its chandeliers, made around 1847 by Cornelius Company in Philadelphia. 

  • Wade Lawrence

    Drayton Hall Charleston, South Carolina

    Drayton Hall, a Georgian pile built in 1738, remains in its nearly original condition, with a design inspired partly by English architects Inigo Jones and William Kent. 

    See an interior shot of Drayton Hall on the next slide. 

    Photo: Wade Lawrence

  • Tony Sweet

    Drayton Hall Charleston, South Carolina

    Among Drayton Hall's notable features is the hand-molded c. 1742 ceiling in the “withdrawing room.” Bordered by meandering vines and urns, it includes a central medallion with a design featuring corn. 

    Photo: Tony Sweet 

  • Courtesy of Oak Alley Foundation

    Oak Alley Plantation Vacherie, Louisiana

    Named for an 800-foot-long allée of live oaks dating to the 1700s, Oak Alley Plantation on the Mississippi in Vacherie, Louisiana, provides a glimpse of the Old South. The Great House, erected between 1837 and 1839, is Greek Revival with French Creole touches. 

    View another photo of Oak Alley Plantation on the next slide. 

    Photo: Courtesy of Oak Alley Foundation

  • Courtesy of Oak Alley Foundation

    Oak Alley Plantation Vacherie, Louisiana

    Twenty-eight Doric columns surround the square, symmetrical mansion, which features a spacious second-floor gallery overlooking the allée.

    Photo: Courtesy of Oak Alley Foundation

  • Courtesy of the Alden B. Dow Archives

    Alden Dow House Midland, Michigan

    Andrew S. Dolkart, architectural historian at Columbia University, chose the Alden Dow House, in Midland, Mich., rather than a Frank Lloyd Wright house: “I love Wright, especially the Dana House in Springfield, Illinois and the Darwin Martin in Buffalo, but these houses are shown as such precious relics that the visitor is afraid to breathe.” 

    See another photo of Alden Dow House on the next slide. 

    Photo: Courtesy of the Alden B. Dow Archives

  • Glen Calvin Moon

    Alden Dow House Midland, Michigan

    Dow studied briefly at Wright’s Taliesin and, Dolkart says, “His house is shown as a home. Visitors can sit on the furniture and are free to walk anywhere. Money was no object here, and the house descends into an artificial lake and is filled with amazing detail and furnishings.”

    Photo: Glen Calvin Moon, Courtesy of the Alden B. Dow Archives

  • William Zbaren

    Glessner House Chicago, Illinois

    Completed in 1887, the Glessner House in Chicago was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, the foremost proponent of the Romanesque style in the U.S. He used rough granite blocks to form a U-shaped home, adding arches and columns as functional ornamentation, and created a large inner courtyard that gave the inhabitants privacy from the city. 

    See another photo of Glessner House on the next slide.

    Photo: William Zbaren, Courtesy of Glessner House Museum

  • Courtesy of Glessner House Museum

    Glessner House Chicago, Illinois

    Inside Glessner House, there are English and American Arts and Crafts objects by the likes of William Morris and Isaac Scott. 

    Photo: Courtesy of Glessner House Museum

  • James J. Hill House St. Paul, Minnesota

    The five-story James J. Hill House, in St. Paul, is another Romanesque showplace, with 22 fireplaces, 16 cut-glass chandeliers, a two-story art gallery, an 88-foot reception hall, and a dining room with a hidden door to a walk-in safe. 

    Another photo of the James J. Hill house is on the following slide. 

  • James J. Hill House St. Paul, Minnesota

    An elaborately carved grand staircase is just one example of intricate oak and mahogany woodwork that abounds in the house.  

  • Glensheen Duluth, Minnesota

    On the shores of Lake Superior, in Duluth, sits Glensheen, a 39-room Jacobean Revival home, built in 1905-08. 

    See another picture of Glensheen on the next slide. 

  • Glensheen Duluth, Minnesota

    The inside of Glensheen is a cornucopia of woodwork, panels and trims in oak, walnut, mahogany, cypress and more, and much of the original furniture is there, as are the rich wall and ceiling coverings and the 1908 art collection. 

  • Larkin House Monterey, California

    Michael S. Smith, the Santa Monica-based designer whose clients include the White House, singled out the Larkin House, an 1835 adobe brick box with a veranda encircling the second floor, in Monterey, Ca. “It is a perfect example of the beginning of relaxed California architecture,” Smith says. “It is a simple form in a beautiful location. Each floor is decorated beautifully, with many delicate yet meaningful French and Asian antiques” from the early 19th century. 

  • Gamble House Pasadena, California

    With both structure and furnishings designed by Charles and Henry Greene, the Gamble House in Pasadena – created in 1908 for heirs to the Procter & Gamble Co. – represents the apogee of American Arts and Crafts-style, the “new and native” architecture the Greenes invented. 

    See another photo of the Gamble House on the next slide. 

  • Gamble House Pasadena, California

    A leaded glass Tree of Life door lead to the home in warm woods (teak, mahogany, redwood, ebony, maple), outfitted with furniture designed to occupy specific spots and upper-level sleeping porches. 

  • Courtesy of Michael Henley, Contemporary Images, Inc.

    Pittock Mansion Portland, Oregon

    An eclectic mix of Jacobean, Edwardian and French Renaissance architecture, with a few Turkish touches thrown in, the Pittock Mansion in Portland, Or., is a charmer. Completed in 1914, this 22-room, richly decorated home is filled with period furniture, porcelain, silver and glass and up-to-date features like a central vacuum system. 

    Photo: Courtesy of Michael Henley, Contemporary Images, Inc.

  • Filoli Woodside, California

    Well known for its gardens, Filoli, in Woodside, Ca. is also one of the west’s grandest abodes, a Georgian English country estate with a Spanish mission tile roof and an Italian baroque entrance portico. 

    Another photo of Filoli is on the next slide. 

  • Filoli Woodside, California

    In the 43 rooms of Filoli are 17 fireplaces, carved moldings, inlaid parquet floors, and high ceilings that rise from 17 feet in most major rooms to more than 22 feet in the ballroom. 

  • Courtesy Hearst Castle®/California State Parks

    Hearst Castle San Simeon, California

    Hearst Castle, on a hilltop in San Simeon, Ca. is a pastiche of many styles, and with its 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 19 sitting rooms, represents the height of excess in the early 20th century. Ceilings, tiles, furniture and furnishings were bought back by Hearst from churches, monasteries, and palaces in Europe to make this dream estate. 

    Photo: Courtesy Hearst Castle®/California State Parks