My Favorite Famous Historic Homes

One of the things my kids hate more than reading every single plaque we pass on a hike in a national park...

Is going on an historic home tour.  

Yeah.  I don't blame them.  

I hated that stuff, too.  

But now I'm no longer a not-quite-cool, embarrassed-and-bored-by-everything teenager and I've turned into a  history geek instead.  

And one of my FAVORITE things to do is to go on historic home tours!  

I love imagining how it must have been to have lived in different time periods at different socio-economic levels.  

And I usually learn about some design or construction technique that I've never heard of or take for granted.  

But most of all, I love finding little pieces of those homes that I can reference in my own home.  It might be a particular fabric pattern or paint color.  Or it might be a daily practice that is no longer part of our regular lives.  


On the Style Matters podcast, I interviewed artist, shop owner and now author, Sean Scherer.  We talk about his book, Kabinett & Kammer: Creating Authentic Interiors.  In the intro he talks fondly about memories of visiting the famous Villa Viscaya in Miami and how it made quite an impression on his young, creative mind.  

So in that spirit, I thought I'd share my own favorite tours of historic homes.


Philbrook Art Museum (Tulsa, OK)

Villa Philbrook was the home of oilman Waite Philips and his wife, Genevieve.  Completed in 1928, the couple opened the 72 room mansion and 28 acres of gardens as a public art space.  I happened upon the entrance to the museum by accident the day before I began one of our Style Retreats outside of Tulsa.  I only had an hour before it closed and I ate up all of the eye candy as quickly as possible, feeling like I had found a hidden treasure.  Of course, it wasn't actually hidden and it's quite well known.  But going there unplanned and finding such beauty was a thrill.


The Gardner Museum (Boston, MA)

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was a dream of Isabella's and her husband, Jack and she got to work on it the year after he died in 1899.  Completed in 1901, she lived in the 4th floor rooms and opened the first three floors as a museum filled with her formidable, personal collection.  I first visited The Gardner soon after we moved to the suburbs of Boston.  One of my fantasies would be to follow in the footsteps of this magnetic woman and have enough wealth to amass a collection of pieces I loved that I could then share with the world.


The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia, PA)

I first read about the Barnes through a novel called "The Collector's Apprentice" by B.A. Shapiro.  I was fascinated by the lives of the two people who created it and when we were touring colleges for my son, we were able to stop in for several hours.  Originally set up as both a residence and a school for teaching art appreciation, Albert Barnes took an unorthodox approach to education.  He and his collaborator, Violette de Mazia, wanted to not only teach art appreciation to people from the middle and lower classes, they taught them by hanging works by different painters from all different eras next to one another for comparison.


The Frick (New York, NY)

This was my first visit to a home turned into a museum as a young adult.  The Frick made me fall deeply in love with the idea of living with real pieces of art.  Here's the succinct run down from their website: "The collection was assembled by the Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and is housed in his former residence on Fifth Avenue. One of New York City’s few remaining Gilded Age mansions, it provides a tranquil environment for visitors to experience masterpieces by artists such as Bellini, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough, Goya, and Whistler. The museum opened in 1935 and has continued to acquire works of art since Mr. Frick’s death."


Falling Water (Mill Run, PA, near Pittsburgh)

My favorite visit to Falling Water was when our oldest son was 16 and just becoming interested in design.  He couldn't believe that people from "SO long ago" were capable of such "modern" ideas :-)  He's now in his first year at Endicott College studying, of all things, Interior Architecture. Ha.  Anyway, Falling Water is probably the best known home turned museum in America.  It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and quickly became an icon of 20th century residential architecture.  Wright designed Fallingwater as a country home for the department store scion, E.J. Kaufmann.  The story of both the family and their relationship with Wright is fascinating and so well expressed now that the home is open for tours.


Nathaniel Russell House (Charleston, SC)

So this home definitely has a dark side and the tour I was on didn't shy away from that history, which I appreciated.  While we gobbled up the incredibly bright paint colors made from pigments imported from France and sighed and the majesty of the "flying staircase," we were always reminded of the forced labor of the slaves who lived there, making such a grand home possible.


The Mount (Lennox, MA, in the Berkshires)

This is one I haven't visited but need to!  First of all, it's the home of one of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton.  And second, she also wrote the heralded non-fiction primer, "The Decoration of Houses." Ms. Wharton is the O.G. everyday home decorator and I love her for it.


I'd love to know about other historic homes that you've visited and what you got from them! Post a comment below or send me an email! 

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