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Smith Mansion: The House That Killed its Builder

For over thirty years a five story rickety wooden structure with long undulating staircases and haphazardly protruding balconies have been standing atop a hillock in the middle of Wapiti Valley, near the town of Cody, in the US state of Wyoming, not far from the Yellowstone National Park. The house was a labor of love, built single-handedly by an eccentric engineer named Francis Lee Smith.

Smith spent twelve years building the log house using timber salvaged from a wildfire on the nearby Rattlesnake Mountain. After the fire damaged trees on the mountain slope, the half-burnt timber became free picking for anyone who could help clear the mountain. Using a few extra hands for help, Smith carted them down to the valley and started building his dream cabin.

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Photo credit: richardrealty.com

Smith, who hails from Cody, took up residence in the house along with his wife and two kids as soon as the first floor was complete, but he never stopped construction. Night after night, Smith worked on his house by the light of a single bulb, until his crazy infatuation with the house tore apart his marriage and eventually took his life.

The house wasn’t even remotely cozy. There was no running water, or plumbing or electricity, except that provided by a small generator. A wood burning stove on the bottom floor was the only source of heat. The stove was also used to cook meals. The family dining table was a large tree stump, with smaller stumps around it as chairs. During winter, the entire family would sleep in sleeping bags on the floor huddled around the house’s only source of heat—the stove. During summer, Mr. Smith would sleep on a hammock, and sometimes his children would sleep in a separate oversized doghouse-like cabin on the front porch. Plenty of wild animals made the mansion their home when the family was still living. Raccoons, skunks, wild cats, owls and many other creatures took refuge in the structure or below the flooring.

After a few years his wife had enough of this hobo-like living and divorced Smith. She took the kids and moved to another town. The kids continued to visit their father and occasionally spent nights in the house.

With his family gone, a dejected Smith threw himself into the construction of the house, building addition after addition without blueprints or a plan. The chaotic building of the house is reminiscent of Sarah Winchester’s famous house in San Jose, California, which the widow of the gun magnate built for 38 years. In 1992, Smith lost his life to his obsession when he fell from a balcony while working on the house and died from his injuries. His body wasn’t discovered until two days later.

Since his death, the mansion has been sitting empty and abandoned. Exposed to the elements, the wooden structure has slowly started to rot and decay. Vandals have also caused some damage. For some years now, Smith’s daughter Sunny Larsen has been trying to raise money for its rehabilitation. Early this month, the house was put up for sale at the asking price of $750,000.

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Photo credit: Alan Rogers

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Photo credit: Alan Rogers

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Sunny Larsen, daughter of Francis Lee Smith and the current owner of the Smith Mansion. Photo credit: Alan Rogers

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