One of my favorite pastimes as a tourist is visiting architectural landmarks, especially great homes, enormous white elephants from the past, or those of famous people from American history...or often both at the same time. I've written about some of them, Biltmore, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and others. And the feeling some might have is that such amazing edifices are all things of the past. Actually, just the opposite is true. There undoubtedly more of these homes in private hands, still being lived in and enjoyed today, than what are open to the public. And they're still being built today. Bill Gates and his $40-million Redmond, Washington mansion, for instance. And there are others.
In Princeton, New Jersey, there stands a rather plain looking stone mansion that used to be (before Bill) the most expensive house in the United States. The architect is unknown, or at least wishes to remain anonymous. It was completed in the 1960s and owned by Seward Johnson, the heir to the Band-Aid Fortune. He was eighty-two, his third wife was in her thirties; a woman of Polish descent who apparently had little else to do but direct construction of the modest, nine-room mansion (not counting guest and service quarters in a separate wing). The original architect's estimate was just over two-million dollars. Before the house was finally completed to Mrs. Johnson's liking, the cost had skyrocketed to over $21-MILLION. It seems she kept having completed parts of it torn down and rebuilt so as to get the colors of the stone "just right."
Atop a high hill in Bel-Air, California, stands another immodest bungalow, a bachelor pad designed and built for Wilt Chamberlain. The house is large, but not excessively so by California standards. However, the seven-foot, one-inch former basketball player isn't likely to have to duck to move about. The magnificently modern, stone, glass, concrete, and cedar house hasn't a square corner anywhere it it's soaring design. One might guess that Picasso had been a consulting engineer. Describing it is an act of futility. From the air, it looks vaguely like four giant lutes, their bases leaned against a triangular stone chimney rising through the center. A sixteen-foot-tall crystal chandelier of modern design hangs over the table in the dining room. The master bedroom contains a circular waterbed approximately ten feet in diameter, covered with the soft furry muzzles of 1,500 Arctic wolves. Surrounding the bed is a ring of tightly fitted ottomans adding yet another four or five feet on all sides. The walls around the bed are paneled in...you guessed it...mirrors.
If you've ever flown into Palm Springs, California, maybe you've noticed a bright green, L-shaped patch of 1,500 sprawling acres in the midst of the otherwise trackless, brownish, desert wasteland. It's a eigheteen hole golf course, a favorite of Republican presidents, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford, and the estate of their friend, former TV-Guide publisher, Walter Annenberg. The house, a spectacularly modern, single-story creation of glass and stucco bordered on two sides by a lake, is almost lost in this wondrously green oasis of carefully irrigated magnificence. Inside, amidst delicate shades of green stucco, is a multimillion-dollar, museum quality art collection populated by the likes of Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, Van Gogh, and Monet. In the midst of the marble entry foyer is a room-size garden-of-Eden-like centerpiece containing flowers, trees, and other lush foliage. The surprising element in all of this is the fact that there are several OTHER oasis-like estates just like it in the area, rising like mirages in the desert, owned (or once owned) by neighbors such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
And the US is not the sole proprietor of such lavish extravagance. Near Mexico City is the home of Octaviano Longoria, a Mexican financier and his American wife, Jeannette. A feature unknown is most such palaces, at least since the Roman Empire, is today's modern swimming pool. Electricity and other technical advances in this century, however, have made them standard equipment, so to speak, in all modern palatial domiciles. But nowhere else does the pristine sparkle of chlorinated water so dominate as in the Longoria villa. The rectangular indoor pool is seventy-five feet long. The hall containing it is 160 feet long. At one end is the living room, at the other end the dining room capable of seating fifty guests. Above the pool, the skylight may be opened to let in fresh air. Five bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen, and study open off the pool area.
And then there swirling lines of the Pearl Palace, built in the Elburz Mountains of Northern Iran by the erstwhile Shah, but it's just too much of too much. Louis XIV would trade in his Versailles for it in an instant. Decadence, sheer decadence...uhhh...where do I sign up?