Some may have owned larger tracts of land and built bigger houses, but few figures in American history exemplify the traits of a real estate whale better than publishing baron William Randolph Hearst. This is the guy who built an entire hotel just so his mistress and her friends would have a place to stay, who dreamed up a fantastical compound deep in the woods of Northern California, and who, most famously, devoted much of his time and fortune to the construction of Hearst Castle. Located on a remote stretch of the California coastline, the 90,000-square-foot castle compound was built on a 250,000-acre ranch that Hearst had inherited from his mother in 1919. In that year, he commissioned society architect Julia Morgan to design a personal palace of epic proportions. After almost three decades of construction, the castle contained "56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 entertaining rooms, indoor and outdoor tiled swimming pools, tennis courts, a private movie theater, an airfield, the world's largest private zoo, and 127 acres of gardens," plus an untold amount of art and artifacts torn from some of the great homes of Europe. It is a stunning architectural achievement and one that is unlikely to ever be properly replicated.
Photo: Flagler Museum
↑ Where Hearst was all about spending his fortune on personal extravagances, Standard Oil founding partner Henry Flagler saw a potential for profit in real estate development, particularly in the opening of swampy Florida to deep pocketed winter residents. Flagler founded the city of Palm Beach—where modern day whales now spend many, many millions on grand seaside mansions—and built himself a lavish estate to rival the famous Newport summer "cottages." Known as Whitehall, the 55-room Beaux Arts mansion is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operated as a museum, detailing Flagler's legendary exploits. Among them, the construction of a railroad to service the east coast of Florida, the founding of several destination hotels, and the eventual extension of that railway to reach Key West.
Photos: Kelly Simpson via Michael Gross
↑ Another Standard Oil potentate, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. used his wealth to finance not only cushy digs for himself and his rich friends, but also the preservation and restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, and the creation of many of America's favorite national parks, donating the land that would become Grand Teton, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Shenandoah National Parks. After one of the family estates in the NYC suburbs was turned down as a site for the United Nations headquarters, Rockefeller purchased the East River site where the headquarters now stands and donated it to the organization. Of course, even with all that money flowing to philanthropy, his family's overwhelming wealth permitted the finest of lifestyles. In 1936, "Junior" moved into a 40-room duplex at Manhattan's legendary 740 Park Avenue. In the '50s, he bought the entire building and converted it to a co-op, selling the units quickly to society friends, and establishing the address as one of the city's most coveted.
↑ Like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilt family counts plenty of real estate whales in its family tree, but George Washington Vanderbilt was the man responsible for the construction of the famous Biltmore Estate, in the Blue Hills Mountains of North Carolina. Set amid 8,000 private acres, the 179,000-square-foot mansion remains the largest privately owned home in the United States. Designed by prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt, the Châteauesque mansion was completed in 1895 and first opened as a house museum in 1930, along with the 75 acres of formal gardens, designed by none other than landscape architecture legend Frederick Law Olmsted. Today, it remains in the family, and is operated as a tourist attraction, one that attracts more than 1 million visitors each year.
· The Many Magnificent Estates of William Randolph Hearst [Curbed National]
· Divorce, Oligarch Style [NYT]
· Flagler Museum [official site]
· Biltmore Estate [official site]
· All Whale Week 2013 posts [Curbed National]