America's 10 Grandest Mansions

The walls are talking: what the guides won't tell you, from The Breakers in the East to Shangri La in the West

Pssst! In his old age, Ford became increasingly eccentric. It's been said that he cultivated rust on old razors in his bathroom sink to use as a hair restorative.

Tip The on-site restaurant, in the room that once housed the Fords' 50-foot lap pool, is only open weekdays for lunch. Several dishes include soybeans, a crop Ford was fanatic about.

Info: 313/593-5590, henryfordestate.org, $10.

Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C.

Built in 1817 by John Robinson, a shipping merchant, who sold it to cotton tradesman William Aiken Sr. in 1827.

What you'll see The prosperous Aikens clan kept the estate in the family for nearly 150 years. Over the decades, as the family's numbers dwindled, they sealed up rooms they no longer needed, beginning in 1898. Thus, much of the house remained untouched to this day: Faded paints, peeling wallpaper, worn carpets, and gaslight chandeliers all lend a time-capsule aura. Many of the original working outbuildings also survived--including slave quarters, a kitchen, and stables.

Pssst! In the first-floor parlors, the spots of gray paint on the walls aren't the result of aging. They're a remnant from the filming of Swamp Thing, Wes Craven's 1982 horror flick, parts of which were shot in the house.

Tip The $14 combo ticket also gets you into the nearby Nathaniel Russell House, a grand neoclassical building noted for its flying spiral staircase and elaborate plasterwork. And don't miss Charleston's sprawling Magnolia Cemetery, the final resting place of the Aikens, as well as many other grand families from the area.

Info: 48 Elizabeth St., 843/723-1623, historiccharleston.org, $8.

Winterthur in Wilmington, Del.

Built in 1839 by Jacques and Evelina Bidermann (née du Pont). But the name worth knowing is that of her nephew's son, Henry Francis du Pont. He was born and raised in the house and inherited it when he came into the family's gunpowder fortune.

What you'll see Once a modest Greek Revival structure, the house went through several revisions until Henry Francis, an avid gardener and collector of American decorative arts, doubled its size in the 1920s to make room for his collection of 63,000 objects and furnishings. The collection of American decorative arts, dating from 1640 to 1860, now totals 89,000 pieces in 175 period displays. It's so valuable that 26 employees are certified as firefighters.

Pssst! Henry was neurotic about maintaining the furniture. In the 1930s, he hosted scores of weekend guests; those he considered careless got lesser-quality linens. And he often told them what couldn't be touched: One visitor was rumored to be so nervous, she slept in the bathtub to avoid disturbing anything.

Tip Henry took his flowers seriously; he maintained a weekly list of the ones in the height of bloom at the estate, a practice the gardeners continue today (call 302/888-4856 for updates). The nearby Hagley Museum, site of the family's early gunpowder mill, provides an explanation of how the du Ponts could afford all that art (hagley.org).

Info: 5105 Kennett Pike (Rte. 52), 800/448-3883, winterthur.org, $20.

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Built in 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt II, grandson of railroad tycoon Commodore Vanderbilt (and Cornelius II's brother).

What you'll see Lest he land in the shadow of his siblings' palaces in Newport and Manhattan, this Vanderbilt took his share of the family fortune south--and outdid them all. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the 250-room French Renaissance--style château, a confection of Indiana limestone that featured early electric lights, indoor plumbing, and water channeled from a reservoir five miles away. Frederick Law Olmsted sculpted 75 acres of gardens. The public has been welcome since 1930, but in July, several rooms--including an observatory--open for the first time.

Pssst! Not all of Vanderbilt's guests left bowled over. A visiting Henry James once wrote that the château was "strange, colossal, heartbreaking...in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke."

Tip Asheville's AAA branch (800/274-2621) offers members $5 off admission. And the website has discounts--as much as 30 percent off--on the property's Inn on Biltmore Estate (from $179).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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