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Unusual house near Yellowstone attracts curious - Gillette News Record: Wyoming

Unusual house near Yellowstone attracts curious

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Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 12:00 am

WAPITI, Wyo. — 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.

In wintertime, Smith Larsen, her brother and father slept in sleeping bags near the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, called the "hot room." It was the only room with chinking between the logs. Smith made the kitchen table from a giant tree stump, smaller stumps serving as chairs.

"This was so much fun as a kid," Smith Larsen said.

Smith Larsen said she and her brother were always dirty. Most of their classmates' parents wouldn't let their kids play at the mansion. It was too dangerous, something Smith Larsen, now a parent, understands.

"It was just a different kind of lifestyle," she said.

Smith Larsen remembered her father as a master cook and a man who taught his children integrity and perseverance. He was strict and expected good grades, she said.

Even back then tourists would ogle the house from the highway. What they didn't know was Smith Larsen and her brother were watching them right back, through binoculars.

Her father may have been reclusive, Smith Larsen said, but he always welcomed strangers. If someone bothered to drive up to his front door, Smith would let him in and tell the story of his life's work.

"If you came, you'd get a show," Smith Larsen said.

In April 1992, while working on the second story roof, Smith fell from the house and died at age 48.

Smith Larsen grew up, got married. In 2005 her brother died in a tubing accident on the river. She thought of their childhood days spent at the mansion and felt reinvigorated to do something.

Two years ago Smith Larsen organized a cleanup, and volunteers cleared out trash. Earlier this summer, Smith Larsen hosted a fundraising party and collected $8,000. She didn't even plan her own wedding, but it took her a whole year and a half to prepare for the benefit.

Smith Larsen envisions her Smith Mansion Preservation Project becoming a nonprofit someday. She'd like to finish the second and third floors, if possible. Smith Larsen said it could take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some have asked her why they should help; it's a private home. Smith Larsen sees the house as an architectural work worth saving. She wants to open it to the public when the structure is safe.

"It's a beautiful piece of art, in my mind," Smith Larsen said. ". I'll be working on it every chance I get."

When the general public can finally visit, Smith Larsen will be able to put rumors to rest for good. She'll be able to tell them who her father was to her: a man dedicated to the two things most important in his life, his children and his house.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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