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

Info: 1 Approach Rd., off Highway 25, 800/624-1575, biltmore.com, $39.

Monticello in Charlottesville, VA

Built in 1769 by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

What you'll see Jefferson made filling Monticello--"little mountain," roughly translated--his life project. Construction started in 1769 when he was 26 years old and ended when he was 66. It's the details that are most intriguing: Antlers in the entrance hall were a gift from Lewis and Clark; a bottle-sized dumbwaiter travels from the wine cellar to the dining room; a contraption copies letters as they're being written. Newly restored this year is the 1809 kitchen, an upgrade Jefferson started after returning from the White House.

Pssst! Jefferson considered his affair with slave Sally Hemings part of a therapeutic regimen using sex, exercise, and vegetarianism, according to Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, by University of Tulsa professor Andrew Burstein.

Tip The Presidents' Pass ($26) includes admission to Monticello, the 1784 Michie Tavern museum and restaurant, and Ash Lawn-Highland (President James Monroe's home). The pass is available at any of the museums or the local visitors center.

Info: 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., 434/984-9800, monticello.org, $14.

Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.

Built in 1919 by Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the real-life Citizen Kane.

What you'll see The 165-room Mediterranean Revival palace was designed by architect Julia Morgan, and was a work in progress for 28 years. Its proud owner first brought in the world, shipping in European treasures such as Roman tapestries and a 400-year-old Italian carved wood ceiling. Then he brought in the stars, hosting Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, and many others.

Pssst! On certain summer nights, after the tourists go home, the estate's employees (and a few of their guests) are given access to swim in the marble-lined, 345,000-gallon Neptune pool.

Tip The castle schedules evening tours in spring and fall--docents in period clothing act as though Hearst had invited them. For contrast, visit the nearby town of Cambria, home to the poor man's Hearst Castle. Nitt Witt Ridge, a 51-years-in-the-making hodgepodge of Busch beer cans and other discarded materials, was dreamed up by deceased eccentric Art Beal (805/927-2690).

Info: 800/444-4445, hearstcastle.com, $24.

Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, LA.

Built in 1839 by J. T. Roman, a sugarcane planter and French Creole socialite, as a wedding gift to his bride, Celina Pilie.

What you'll see Two rows of 300-year-old live oaks line the quarter-mile drive from the Mississippi River up to the colonnaded Greek Revival mansion. (You may recall the view from Primary Colors and Interview with the Vampire.) Inside, guides in period dress--hoopskirts, Confederate uniforms--lead a half-hour tour focusing on the Romans' day-to-day doings, their elegant parties, and the courting traditions of the era. Afterward, visitors are invited to purchase mint juleps and relax on the porch and grounds.

Pssst! The romance between J.T. and Celina may have been less than steamy. Celina preferred to spend her time at parties in New Orleans, while J.T. stayed home at Oak Alley. He signed many letters, "Kiss the children for me. Your Friend, J.T. Roman."

Tip Oak Alley has simple accommodations in the late-1800s outbuildings--no phones or TVs, but there are flashlights for late-night graveyard tours (from $115, with breakfast).

Info: 800/442-5539, oakalleyplantation.com, $10.

Five more mansions that you may not have heard about

Some will recognize the Gamble House in Pasadena, Calif., as the domain of Doc in Back to the Future. But design junkies are far more impressed by the overall American Arts & Crafts style: stained glass, hand-finished oak, Burmese teak. The mansion was built in 1908 for David Gamble (of Procter & ...) by architects Greene & Greene (626/793-3334, gamblehouse.org, $8). In Natchez, Miss., a town rich with antebellum mansions, Longwood rises above, if only for its shape. It's the largest octagonal house in America--a fad in 1860, when it was designed by architect Samuel Sloan for cotton planter Haller Nutt (601/442-5193, $8). Confederate General William Giles Harding inherited his father's Belle Meade Plantation, in Nashville, and built a world-class 1853 Greek Revival mansion. After guided visits through the house, self-guided tours take in the slave quarters and storied stud farm stable (615/356-0501, bellemeadeplantation.com, $11).

At Lyndhurst, a romantic 1838 Gothic Revival castle designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, pointed turrets tower over the Hudson River Valley. Three powerful New York families lived there in the 1800s. The most famous resident was railroad tycoon Jay Gould, who preferred to take his yacht from New York City to Tarrytown rather than board a train owned by his nemesis, Cornelius Vanderbilt I (914/631-4481, lyndhurst.org, $10). Captain Frederick Pabst, a steamship captain turned brewmaster, financed the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee in 1892 with proceeds from his company, which at the time was the world's largest manufacturer of lager. The 37-room Flemish Renaissance mansion demonstrates his taste for the finer things--including custom-built Louis XV-style furniture and 19th-century European oil paintings (414/931-0808, pabstmansion.com, $8).

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