Yellowstone mansion a curious attraction

By Margaret Matray

The Casper Star-Tribune

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 9:17 p.m. MDT

WAPITI, Wyo. (AP) — The hulking structure atop the hill creaks under its beams.

For 20 years it has rested alone in the brush, its wooden joints brittle and dry.

Harsh winter gusts have stripped away patches of red roof, twisted and pulled logs off kilter.

People have taken advantage of its aging state, trespassing and robbing it of its windows, daring each other to get close enough to jiggle loose its elk-antler door handles.

Tourists traveling west to Yellowstone can see it looming off U.S. Highway 20, about 20 miles outside Cody in northwest Wyoming.

Five stories stretch 75 feet toward the sky. A crow's nest on top sways in the breeze.

"Either you see the beauty in it, or you don't," said Sunny Smith Larsen, daughter of the home's architect.

Some see this: an empty building that looks part Swiss Family Robinson, part haunted house.

The unknown is eerie, so people whisper rumors: A crazy man tried to win back his estranged wife by building her a massive house. He wanted to construct a fortress to the heavens. It's not made with any nails.

This is what Smith Larsen sees: her childhood home, filled with happy memories. Her father's masterpiece.

She's current owner of the private home, Smith Mansion. In the two decades since Francis Lee Smith's death, Smith Larsen has seen vandals and weather tear it apart. Now, she's raising money and planning. Preservation efforts have already begun, and Smith Larsen hopes to one day restore the house to the condition it was in when her father died.

"I just don't think it's something that should be left to rot," Smith Larsen said.

Smith worked as an architectural engineer in Cody for more than 25 years and began construction on the mansion in 1971. He followed no blueprints and hauled timber that had been burned in a fire off nearby Rattlesnake Mountain. He set the logs by hand with the help of a pulley system and placed each beam using only his eyesight, Smith Larsen said.

"A cabin is really what it was meant to be," said Smith Larsen, 32, who now lives in Billings, Mont.

In the beginning, Smith and his wife lived in a wall tent, then a mobile home, at the bottom of the hill. He finished the first floor by the time Smith Larsen was born.

The Smiths divorced in the early '80s.

"He never really was the same again," Smith Larsen said of her father.

Smith Larsen and her older brother, Bucky, split their time between their mother's home in Cody and their father's mansion on the hill. They shot bows and arrows, fired guns, fished, batted at rocks and sledded down the hill all day until their dad whistled for them. Smith constructed scaffolding, then tore it down and moved it each time he worked on a new section of house.Into the night he built, using a single light bulb to see.

Smith created rooms for specific purposes. There was the basketball room, an indoor court where the family played. And a tool room, where Smith kept his equipment and the kids stored their sports gear. In the laundry room Smith bent metal into a spider-like sculpture the family used as hamper.

Extension cords connected to an electrical pole hundreds of yards down the hill pumped electricity to the house. The family had one lamp, Christmas lights and a television with four channels.

Smith Mansion never had plumbing. Smith Larsen remembered using a 5-gallon bucket as an outhouse. She'd have to go to her grandmother's to shower before school.

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