One man's ambition created this psychedelic log home
Wyoming's dizzying Smith Mansion is rumored to be built over a mine shaft or by the hands of a madman or as a perverse joke, but the truth is that it is simply the work of a man who could not stop building.
Located in the picturesque Wapiti Valley, the former home of builder and engineer Lee Smith rises out of the landscape in a seemingly random collection of wooden terraces and staircases. Smith began building the home for his wife and children from locally harvested logs and wood, and in the beginning the house had a fairly mundane form. However, after completing the basic home, Smith continued to build, adding extra floors and seemingly tacked-on balconies, all from logs he would collect in his small pick-up. Even after his devotion to the building project led to a divorce, Smith simply redoubled his efforts, building winding organic staircases and scenic terraces on the upper floors. Tragically, Smith fell to his death while working (untethered, as was his way) on one of the upper balconies.
The Smith Mansion has since sat empty, accumulating myths and legends about ghosts and madmen. However, Smith's daughter, Sunny Smith Larsen, has begun a preservation campaign for the site and hopefully her efforts will keep her father's astonishing house from being destroyed by daring teenagers and superstitious tourists.
John Burcham for The New York Times
Gone With the Whimsy
The New York Times FEB. 1, 2012
WAPITI VALLEY, Wyo.
EVERYONE here seems to know the story of the house on the hill. The rambling log structure, with its undulating staircases, umpteen balconies and fun-house warren of half-finished rooms, has for nearly 30 years loomed over the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway, inspiring stories. Lots of stories.
A sampling: At a nearby shop that sells elk-antler chandeliers, the clerk said that the house appeared to a man in a vision and that he built it as a monument to the town. At a filling station, a motorist who had stopped for soft-serve ice cream said that the house was meant to be a lookout tower if an underground volcano in Yellowstone National Park ever erupted. And the teenagers who break into the abandoned structure on Saturday nights point to its writhing balustrades of warped pine and insist it was built by a madman.
“None of them are fact,” Sunny Larsen, 32, said of the tales. Ms. Larsen should know. Her father, Francis Lee Smith, is the one who built the house, and she and her brother, Buckles (or Bucky), spent part of their childhood there.
Still, it’s hard to pin down the truth about why Mr. Smith, an engineer, labored single-handedly for more than a dozen years on a house that calls to mind grand follies like the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif., built by the rifle company heiress Sarah L. Winchester.
“His original intent was to build a home for his family, and it just took on a life of its own,” said Ms. Larsen, who now lives in Billings, Mont., and is the steward of the house.
But in 1992, when Ms. Larsen was 12, her father fell to his death from a balcony at the age of 48. It was the last of several falls he took while working on the pagoda-like roofs — untethered, as was his habit, despite the wild Wyoming winds.
And since then, the sun-filled whimsical home of Ms. Larsen’s childhood has acquired a sinister air, she said. The dining table, a giant tree stump surrounded by smaller stumps, evokes a fairy banquet hall, but it is no longer warmed by her father’s country cooking. And after her brother drowned in 2005 in a nearby river, the room that was a miniature indoor basketball court has been too quiet.
While her father lived, though, the five-story house was the center of his life, Ms. Larsen said. The whole family lived there, although there was no electricity except for what was provided by an extension cord connected to a generator. When her parents divorced in the early ’80s, her mother moved into town with the children and Mr. Smith threw himself into the quirky construction. Her mother was his one true love, Ms. Larsen said, and without her, the house became his everything.
It was Mr. Smith’s preoccupation with the house, however, that contributed to the couple’s split, said his ex-wife, Linda Mills. He labored on it all weekend and every night after work, by the light of a single bulb powered by the generator, she said.
Ms. Larsen said that only as an adult did she realize her father had no blueprints — the endless additions were all off-the-cuff. “He never knew what his next step was going to be,” she said.
The interior is a jigsaw puzzle of rooms, but not one of them is a dedicated bedroom. In the “cold room,” half buried in the hillside, a giant swing where Mr. Smith would sleep during the summer hangs from the ceiling. In the winter, he and the children, who stayed with him occasionally, would huddle in sleeping bags on the floor of the “hot room,” beside a wood stove that was the home’s only heat source. A structure resembling an oversize doghouse on the front porch was another sleeping spot for the children.
The house’s frame is made from fire-damaged lodgepole pine Mr. Smith cleared from nearby Rattlesnake Mountain after a wildfire, dragging each pole by hand to a horse trailer, then carting them up to the house. Other materials he gleaned like a magpie: wood flooring from a high school gymnasium still sits in the house, awaiting the next project; haunting metal skeletons, Dali-esque contraptions made of scraps, are scattered about. One, a misshapen cage, was for laundry.
Why not just use a hamper?
Ms. Larsen, who rejects the idea that mental illness played a part in her father’s endless construction project, shrugged. “He built,” she said. “He was an artist in every sense of the word.”
Her mother agrees. “They call it the crazy house,” Ms. Mills said. “But there was nothing crazy about him.”
Since Mr. Smith’s death, the house’s constant growth has been replaced by decline: windows have shattered, log railings are about to fall off porches and only one elk-horn doorknob remains.
Ms. Larsen is determined to raise money on her Web site, SmithMansion.org, to restore the house and perhaps turn it into a museum, but she has had little success so far. “I want it to be here so my kids can see it,” she said, peering up at it from the foot of a rickety staircase. “Look at it: I’ve never seen anything like it.”