American Empires

Private Mansions Now Open to All

The wealth that built America is evident in historic estates and grounds across the nation. From sprawling Southern plantations to chateau-esque manors, each one represents the unique personality and story of the family who founded it.

For the Romantic: The Biltmore Estate

The stunning Vanderbilt manor tucked away in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains is one of the few historic estates that allow guests to stay overnight, while the breathtaking landscape and luxurious setting make it a perfect escape for couples.

Visitors can meander through the gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of NYC’s Central Park, hike or bike the estate’s 22 miles of trails, relax at a wine tasting, take a carriage ride around the grounds or tour the 250-room Biltmore house, which was the largest home in the United States when it was built in 1895.

“Preservation of Biltmore gives the public unique opportunities to make tangible connections to history,” says public relations manager Marissa Jamison of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s country retreat.

Vanderbilt was interested in horticulture, and his legacy is still evident today in the Antler Hill Village, where you step into the lives of the families who tended crops and livestock on the estate.

The Kykuit mansion; underground passages once meant to house a bowling alley showcase pre-eminent artworks such as Picasso’s tapestries; the music room features a reproduction of Joan Miro’s “Hirondelle Amour.”

For the Artist: Kykuit

When Kykuit was in the planning stages, John D. Rockefeller Sr., the richest man in America, was in the midst of retiring from Standard Oil to work full time on his philanthropy. It was left to his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (known as Junior), to complete the estate in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Since 1913, Kykuit has been home to four generations of Rockefellers before becoming a museum.

Over the decades, the Rockefeller family amassed a rare collection of art and antiques, much of which is housed at Kykuit. Junior was very interested in Chinese porcelain, collecting items from the Ming Dynasty, while Governor Nelson Rockefeller commissioned works by many modern artists including Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson and Isamu Noguchi. Especially of note is the seventh-century Chinese bodhisattva in the Alcove Room and Moore’s large “Knife Edge Two Piece” sculpture near the Rose Garden.

The collection is so vast that visitors can tour underground art galleries. The space was once intended for a bowling alley, but Nelson Rockefeller reappropriated it to display works, including Pablo Picasso’s tapestries. A coach barn showcases antique cars and historic equestrian equipment.

Magnolia Gardens is the oldest public gardens in the United States.

For the Garden Lover: Magnolia Plantation

The Drayton family plantation and gardens located in Charleston, South Carolina, rival many city arboretums. Built in 1676, it’s the oldest public gardens in America, welcoming visitors since 1870.

“Magnolia is important in understanding the evolutionary nature of the plantation culture,” says house manager Scott Howell. “Having been owned by the same family since its inception, it is a monument to the tenacity and focus of a family that dearly loved it.”

The Draytons, an English family who arrived by way of Barbados, yielded generations of governors, unionists and independent thinkers. But it was Reverend John Drayton who devoted himself to the enhancement of the plantation garden in the mid-1800s. It is said that he lovingly tended to the grounds “to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there.”

Drayton introduced the first azaleas to America, and he was among the first to use Camellia japonica in an outdoor setting. Beyond the gardens, several tours, including the award-winning Slavery to Freedom tour, provide insight into the history of Magnolia Plantation.

The Cherokee Ranch’s unusual architecture was inspired by a 15th-century Scottish castle.

For the Outdoorsman: Cherokee Ranch and Castle

Even without illustrious names like Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, the Wild West has its share of estates worth visiting. Built in the 1800s, the once-named Flower Homestead in Colorado has a colorful past. In 1924, the Johnson Family moved from the East Coast and built a 15th-century Scottish-style castle on the property. But it was Mildred “Tweet” Kimball, the daughter of an Italian countess, who created a lasting impression, known today as Cherokee Ranch & Castle.

In 1954, the Tennessee-based Kimball was in the midst of a divorce. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband offered to buy her any property she wanted as long as it was west of the Mississippi. She obliged and moved to Colorado.

The avid horsewoman was set on breeding Santa Gertrudis cattle, and despite warnings that she was too far north for them to thrive, she prevailed. The offspring of her cattle have been sold around the world.

Before passing away in 1999, Kimball created a nonprofit foundation to preserve the 3,400 acres of natural landscape and wildlife and for the perpetual restoration of the historic structures. “With this foundation, I’m not giving anything up. I’m guaranteeing its future,” she said. “Now its natural beauty will be here forever for all to enjoy.”

Today, visitors and schoolchildren participate in an outdoor laboratory of educational adventures, take tours of the castle, enjoy cultural and musical events during the summer, and take in the breathtaking views.

Have a Question? Contact the Service Center at 1-877-799-6772.