High on a hill overlooking the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway in Wapiti Valley, Wyoming, sits a twisty, teetering structure that looks like it’s been beamed in from the set of American Horror Story or conjured up by a backwoods witch. The truth is more poetic: this place, known as the Smith Mansion (no relation to yours truly), was the hand-crafted obsession of one man, Francis Lee Smith, who cobbled it together over a couple of decades before tumbling to his death from one of its balconies in 1992.
Since then it’s sat empty, eerie and unfinished, intriguing motorists driving past on their way to Yellowstone National Park and inspiring local legends about ghosts and madmen. But Smith’s daughter Sunny Larsen insists her dad was completely sane and simply wanted to build his family a home. Things just got a little out of hand, as the project “took on a life of its own.”
An engineer by trade, Smith constructed his mansion using fire-damaged logs he collected from nearby Rattlesnake Mountain. With no architectural plans (or experience), he worked organically, adding whatever he felt like whenever he felt like it: a vertiginous staircase here, a Pagoda-like tower there, and assorted higgledy-piggledy protrusions in between. “This enormous log creation manifested itself from deep inside Lee's mind,” Sunny says.
Inside is similarly eccentric, fitted with fanciful fixtures such as log hammocks, a tree-stump table setting and inexplicable metal sculptures.
The family lived there until the ’80s, with no running water and minimal electricity from an extension cord attached to a generator. Suffice to say, Sunny and her brother Bucky had what you might call a unique childhood, sharing their ramshackle residence “with racoons, skunks, wild cats, owls and many other creatures who'd take refuge in the structure or below the flooring.”
Finally, Smith’s wife Linda could take his fixation with their ever-evolving home no longer, and moved out with the kids, leaving him to pursue his passion to its unfortunate conclusion. Incidentally, his fate echoes that of another architectural iconoclast, Antoni Gaudi, who met his own untimely end while building his famous Sagrada Familia. But while others picked up on Gaudi’s masterwork where he left off, Smith’s project died with him.
Until recently, that is. Sunny now runs the Smith Mansion Preservation Project, dedicated to restoring her father’s dream to its former glory. And donations are welcome.