California has drawn dreamers, business magnates, innovators and free spirits for decades, so it’s no wonder there’s such an abundance of West Coast homes that are nothing short of unique and boundary-pushing. From ultra-modern, mid-century marvels to sprawling, palatial compounds, these celebrated, historical and just plain weird architectural wonders in California are as unique as their often eccentric owners—and they’re all open to the public!
1. Winchester Mystery House
San Jose, CA
Image courtesy of Doug Letterman via Flickr
This Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion in San Jose, CA, was built and designed by Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester and heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune. It’s also considered one of the most haunted places in the United States.
Legend has it that Sarah met with a psychic who told her the victims of the Winchester rifle would come back to haunt her, and never-ending construction on the family’s home was the only way to appease these spirits.
For 36 years, construction workers labored round the clock until Sarah’s passing in 1922. What was once a simple, eight-room farmhouse turned into a sprawling, labyrinth-like mansion that clocks in at 24,000 square feet and boasts 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms and six kitchens—all built without a single architect or blueprint.
Some of the spookier peculiarities include switchback hallways, staircases to nowhere, doors that open to brick walls and a séance room. Tours are held daily, and there are also Halloween candlelight and flashlight tours if you’re feeling brave. For more information, visit www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/tours.
2. Eames House
Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, CA
Image courtesy of edward stojakovic via Flickr
Located in Los Angeles’ Pacific Palisades neighborhood, the Eames House is a mid-century modern marvel. Formally known as Case Study House No. 8, it is one of the 25 Case Study Houses sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. The project commissioned prominent architects of the day to design and build model homes in the post-World War II residential housing boom.
The Eames House was built in 1949 by husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames, and they lived there for the rest of their lives. The house is as much of an architectural spectacle as it is a functional, practical living space.
The structure comprises two glass and rectangular steel boxes: one is a residence; the other a studio. The exterior’s glass panes create a Piet Mondrian-esque appearance, and the interior is filled with unique objects like furniture, driftwood, plants and sculptures, dispelling the notion that “modern” design was cold and sterile.
The Eames House maintains visiting hours Monday, Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday. Visit www.eamesfoundation.org/visit for more information.
3. Tor House and Hawk Tower
Image courtesy of CelesteDavison via Wikimedia Commons
Poet Robinson Jeffers in 1918 contracted a local developer to build his family a modest, Tudor style stone cottage, constructed from massive granite boulders collected from the cove below. Jeffers became an apprentice and learned the art of masonry during the construction of Tor House, a Celtic word meaning “high cliff.”
He eventually went on the build a detached garage, courtyard and dining room. The pièce de résistance, however, is Hawk Tower, which took four years to complete. Now a skilled mason, Jeffers built the three-story Gothic style structure entirely himself, naming it after a hawk that repeatedly appeared during the build and disappeared the day it was complete.
It’s believed that Jeffers began to find his voice as a poet during the construction of Hawk Tower, which was completed in 1924. In total, he penned about 400 free-verse poems and became a master of the epic form. In his heyday, Jeffers was a more prolific writer than Robert Frost, and he ran in the same circle as many influential literary and cultural icons like Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Gershwin, all of whom visited Tor House.
Docent-led tours of the English cottage and gardens are held on Fridays and Saturdays, and reservations are recommended. More information is available at www.torhouse.org/tours.
4. Hollyhock House
Los Angeles, CA
Image courtesy of magicredshoes via Flickr
Hollyhock House is the first Frank Lloyd Wright home in Southern California, built between 1919 and 1921. Frank Lloyd Wright was a prolific architect and designer who is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American architects of all time. A master of organic architecture, Wright excelled in designing structures that are in harmony with their environment. Wright’s Hollyhock House is widely credited with changing the way Americans used and lived in residential interior spaces.
He was commissioned to build the home by Aline Barnsdall, an oil heiress whose favorite flower was the hollyhock. Geometric hollyhock motifs repeat throughout the home in window panes, columns and furnishings.
The home’s open, airy spaces, multipurpose rooms, and intersection of interior and exterior—all things that are must-haves in today’s residential architecture—were unconventional and ahead of their time. Visit Hollyhock House and marvel at the dramatic, temple-style, Mayan Revival architecture while taking in sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills and Los Angeles basin.
Hollyhock House offers self-guided tours Thursday-Sunday and docent-led tours Tuesday-Wednesday. For more information, visit www.barnsdall.org/hollyhock-house/tours.
5. Hearst Castle
San Simeon, CA
Image courtesy of Steve Moses via Flickr
Perched atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle is a 100,000 square foot mansion painstakingly modeled after a Medieval Spanish cathedral. It was the home of William Randolph Hearst, founder of what evolved into the mass media conglomerate Hearst Communications. He began construction in 1919 on a ranch and castle that would rival those in Europe.
The castle, helmed by architect Julia Morgan, is more than 100,000 square feet and has accommodations for 48 guests. In its heyday, the castle hosted Hollywood and political elite, including Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Hearst was also an avid collector of art and antiques; the castle houses a small portion of his vast collection of Mediterranean, Renaissance and Gothic works.
At Hearst Castle, it’s all about the views. This stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway has remained in the Hearst family since the 1860s and is undeveloped, so as you’re taking in magnificent panoramic views of the Pacific, you’re looking at a centuries-old view.
Hearst Castle offers several different types of tours, held daily. Get more information by visiting www.hearstcastle.org/tour-hearst-castle.
6. Greystone Mansion
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, CA
Image courtesy of Andrew Hitchcock via Flickr
You may recognize Greystone Mansion. It’s a popular filming location for movies and TV shows. This Tudor style manor was completed in 1928 after three years of construction and more than $3 million, an unheard of amount of money at the time. At the time, the sprawling estate boasted stables, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a greenhouse and even a fire station. Inside the 46,000 square foot mansion, you’ll find 55 rooms, hand-carved oak banisters, balustrades and rafters, seven chimneys, a movie theater, a billiard room and a bowling alley.
Today, visitors can tour the home and gardens and admire views of the Los Angeles basin, from downtown all the way to Santa Monica Bay. The grounds are free and open to the public daily. Guided tours of the mansion are held infrequently, but they are worth it. Visit www.beverlyhills.org/exploring/greystonemansiongardens for more information.
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