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

Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

(Mick Hale)

Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

Built in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller, flush with Standard Oil's real-life Monopoly money.

What you'll see With soaring views of the Hudson River Valley toward Manhattan, 25 miles to the South, Kykuit (pronounced kye-cut) is the hilltop centerpiece of Pocantico Hills, the 2,000-acre playground of the Rockefeller dynasty. The house itself is more architectural mishmash than streamlined marvel, with a neoclassical façade and romantic details on the interior. The real treasure is grandson Nelson's extensive modern art collection, including striking wool tapestries by Picasso, as well as important works by David Smith, Louise Nevelson, and Henry Moore, two of whose sculptures adorn formal gardens designed by William Welles Bosworth.

Pssst! The books lining one wall of the study are fake. Nelson, vice president in the 1970s, wasn't much of a reader--he preferred to unwind by watching TV shows like All in the Family.

Tip The three-hour Estate Life Tour ($34) adds an exploration of the nearby Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s 80-acre preserve of woodlands and sustainable farming (and home to chef Dan Barber's expensive but splurgeworthy Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant). The Hudson Valley website has info on the estate as well as train and boat tickets from Manhattan.

Info: 914/631-9491, hudsonvalley.org, $19.

The Breakers in Newport, R.I.

Built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of railroad tycoon Commodore Vanderbilt.

What you'll see During the Gilded Age, Society summered in Newport, leaving behind several glorious mansions. The Breakers is considered the most magnificent, in part due to Cornelius' wife, Alice, trying to one-up her sister-in-law Alva's nearby Marble House. Family architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the 70-room palazzo after those found in 16th-century Genoa. Highlights include a 2,400-square-foot, two-story dining room in alabaster and gilded bronze, and the music room, constructed (furnishings and all) by artisans in Paris and reassembled on site. A behind-the-scenes tour, debuting in August, opens up the labyrinthine basement, among other areas.

Pssst! Cornelius died only four years after construction was completed, following a stroke suffered while fighting with one of his sons over money.

Tip The Gilded Age Experience ticket includes access to four other properties: The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, and Green Animals Topiary Garden ($31).

Info: 401/847-1000, newportmansions.org, $15.

Shangri La in Honolulu, Hawaii

Built in 1938 by tobacco heiress and surfer girl Doris Duke.

What you'll see Oahu's most elaborate Spanish Mediterranean-inspired structure is where Doris Duke, known then as "the richest girl in America," hid from her money-grubbing relatives, and amassed one of America's premier Islamic art collections. Throughout much of her turbulent life, Duke found solace studying the order and symmetry of Near Eastern design (and purchasing it, of course). Highlights among her 3,500 objects: a 13th-century Iranian mihrab, or prayer niche, and an entire wooden room, carved and painted in Syria in the mid-19th century.

Pssst! At age 75, Duke adopted a 35-year-old Hare Krishna, Chandi Heffner. The two became estranged when Duke suspected Heffner of poisoning her food. Claiming a toothache, Duke said she was going to the dentist, but instead hopped her 737 to L.A. and had her staff boot Heffner from Shangri La.

Tip Opened to the public in 2002, Shangri La is still a tough ticket--advance reservations are a must (the 8:30 a.m. tour is the easiest to book last minute). There's also an extensive one on the website.

Info: Tours begin at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 866/385-3849, shangrilahawaii.org, $25.

Fair Lane in Dearborn, Mich.

Built in 1915 by Auto baron, curmudgeon, and old-time dance enthusiast Henry Ford.

What you'll see The 56-room, prairie style-cum-English Gothic mansion, designed by architect William Van Tine, reveals Ford's taste for rustic hominess with cypress, oak, and walnut walls and staircases. The controversial industrialist retreated here as assembly lines at nearby Highland Park churned off scores of Model Ts every hour, minting him millions. Ford felt most at home in spaces beyond the main house--particularly the Thomas Edison--designed powerhouse, which generated hydroelectric power from the Rouge River and made the property self-sufficient; and of course, the garage, which holds six of Ford's historic car models.

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