Show homes: A chance to peek beyond the door

Show homes: A chance to peek beyond the door

( Michael Henley / Pittock Mansion )
The grand floating, curving, three-story baroque staircase is one of the highlights of the Pittock Mansion in Portland, Ore. More photos
Furniture and artwork and china and silver. Just as your home speaks volumes about you, the show houses of America -- open to the public for tours -- share the secrets, sometimes unwittingly, of their owners, designers and hometowns. They may reveal personal quirks or preferences, design or otherwise, that tell a story that goes well beyond bricks and mortar. Visitors to these show homes are legal voyeurs, peeking in on a past that may be fraught with drama or intrigue or genius. Here are seven to peruse, chosen by travel writers across the country. They've opened the doors, turned on the lights and listened to the whispers. Join them for a spell.

Ft. Snelling: Citadel on a Minnesota bluff

September 16, 2012

Ft. Snelling: Citadel on a Minnesota bluff

Begun in 1819, Ft. Snelling at the time was the remotest military outpost on the American frontier. (Now it's just a mile from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.) It was built to protect U.S. interests (read: fur trade) in this corner of the Louisiana Purchase and to keep peace among the region's Native American peoples even as the federal government laid claim to their lands. The fort did its job, but not without controversy: The slave Dred Scott based his bid for freedom on time spent here, and after the bloody 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, 1,600 Native Americans were imprisoned on the river flats below.

 Marston House: Right at home in this San Diego charmer

September 16, 2012

Marston House: Right at home in this San Diego charmer

This 16-room Arts and Crafts masterpiece on the edge of San Diego's Balboa Park was the home of George and Anna Marston and their five children. Marston, a philanthropist, civic leader and owner of the city's premier department store, commissioned architects William S. Hebbard and Irving Gill to build an English Tudor-style home. Mid-project, Gill visited his old friend Frank Lloyd Wright and was inspired to change the design. The result is this 1905 Craftsman masterpiece.

Rosenbaum House: Frank Lloyd Wright in Alabama

September 16, 2012

Rosenbaum House: Frank Lloyd Wright in Alabama

In the depths of the Depression, architect Frank Lloyd Wright developed a housing style called Usonian. These middle-class homes were meant to be affordable and connected to their setting. They blurred the distinction between indoors and out, featuring plenty of glass, extended roofs and a carport (a word Wright coined). The Rosenbaum House in Florence, Ala., has been called the purest example of the Usonian style.

 A stroll through history at Virginia's Berkeley Plantation

September 16, 2012

A stroll through history at Virginia's Berkeley Plantation

A place of beginnings and endings, Berkeley Plantation, about halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg, Va., is part of your life. Each time you celebrate Thanksgiving, there's an echo of the first Thanksgiving held here in 1619 (pre-Pilgrim, Berkeley happily reminds us). Each time the solemn notes of taps play at the end of a day or the end of a life, they echo the notes first sounded at Berkeley during the Civil War.

 The Old South at New Orleans' Hermann-Grima House

September 16, 2012

The Old South at New Orleans' Hermann-Grima House

"What's that?" Visitors often ask that in New Orleans, which is a trove of unexpected juxtapositions. Just steps off the French Quarter's raunchy Bourbon Street, for instance, is the stately Hermann-Grima House, a Federal-style brick mansion with French Louisiana balconies and galleries. Ring the doorbell.

Pittock Mansion: French Renaissance showplace in Portland, Ore.

September 16, 2012

Pittock Mansion: French Renaissance showplace in Portland, Ore.

The Pittock Mansion, a 16,000-square-foot French Renaissance-style masterpiece, reigns atop a 1,000-foot bluff overlooking the city of Portland, Ore. With panoramic views of the Willamette and Columbia rivers and five Cascade mountains, the mansion is a testament to what power and wealth could achieve in 1914, what civic activism could restore in 1965 and what could be a killer setting for a house party in 2012.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami shows a keen eye for detail

September 16, 2012

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami shows a keen eye for detail

The breeze off Biscayne Bay and playful fountains cool Vizcaya's elaborate gardens even on a sweltering summer day — not that International Harvester heir James Deering would have known. The Coconut Grove, Fla., mansion was his winter estate. When it opened in 1916, Miami's population was a mere 10,000.

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