Smith Mansion: 'Everything is pretty much how he left it'

Posted 1/28/10

“People steal so much,” Smith Larsen says, looking around a now-barren front room that was once adorned with animal horns and a wooden hammock.

She's looking for local volunteers to help get the site cleaned up next …

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Smith Mansion: 'Everything is pretty much how he left it'


{gallery}01_26_10/smithmansion{/gallery} The Smith Mansion in Wapiti Valley, built by the late Francis Lee Smith, may soon undergo renovation. Smith's daughter, Sunny Larsen Smith, is looking for volunteers to help her clean up and restore the towering structure, which has fallen into disrepair.Tribune photo by Carla Wensky"It's pretty much just trashed at this point.”Sunny Smith Larsen is leading an impromptu January tour of the home her father built west of Wapiti — the 75-foot-high Smith Mansion, or, as it's also known, “The Crazy House.”Smith Larsen, who grew up in the home, is organizing an effort to restore and preserve the site, which has been repeatedly damaged by vanadals and the elements over the years.

“People steal so much,” Smith Larsen says, looking around a now-barren front room that was once adorned with animal horns and a wooden hammock.

She's looking for local volunteers to help get the site cleaned up next month.

“One step at a time,” says Smith Larsen, a stay-at-home mom who now lives in Billings. “I bit off more than I can chew.”

It's going on 18 years since Francis Lee Smith died. On an April day in 1992, while working on the home, he slipped from the third floor and fell to his death.

“Everything is pretty much how he left it,” says Smith Larsen.

You can still see stains on the roof of the first floor where he fell.

Beneath the spot, on the rocky ground, a wild rose bush has grown.

“Makes you kind of wonder,” says Smith Larsen. “Nothing grows up here.”

Most of the floorboards of the old Meeteetse High School gymnasium still are sitting on shelves in the first-floor attic of the house, right where Smith put them after tearing the boards out of the gym. They're still waiting to be used — or, as Smith Larsen now plans, to be cleared out.

A deflated vacuum cleaner sits on the floor of the central “cold room,” tied to the wall in a weave of extension cords. The cords once ran all the way through the house — powering everything from a TV in the eating room to a lamp in the crow's nest.

The cords were the only source of electricity for the home, stretching from the electrical pole a couple hundred yards away at the foot of the hill.

“I bet he (Smith) would have 15 extension cords at a time,” Smith Larsen says, adding, “I'm surprised we never had a fire.”

She took a renewed interest in the mansion after her brother, Bucky Smith, died in 2005, leaving her with sole ownership.

“It's amazing that it was all done by hand,” she says, pointing out pieces that were to be used as a hand-drawn elevator.

“We've had architects come up here, and they're amazed,” she said.

It was a talent unique to Smith, who, when not working on the home, worked as an architect in Cody.

Many years ago, Smith Larsen and her late brother Bucky spent a good six hours trying to finish a portion of the third floor.

“We ended with two logs up, and we lost them both,” she says.

Any blueprints for the site are gone, leaving Smith Larsen with few clues as to what exactly her father had planned.

“I wish he was here so I could ask him,” she says.

At the time of his death, Smith was close to completing two decades of work on the mansion.

“That's all I can remember him doing pretty much as a kid,” says Smith Larsen, adding, “Boy, did we have a weird upbringing.”

“He was very strange in a lot of ways,” she says.

Smith was also wildly creative.

“That's something he built,” Smith Larsen says, gesturing to a collection of wooden branches that appear to sprout from a wheeled wooden base. “I have no idea what it was going to be used for.”

In another room, Larsen points out a large metal object that looks like it might be a cage for large birds. It's actually a laundry hamper.

Here, on the western porch, she and her brother used to play basketball. There, in a section of the cold room, Smith had set up a reel-to-reel music studio.

Sleeping in the home, Smith Larsen caught her winter zzz's in sleeping bags rated to -50 degrees.

“Growing up, we didn't really have any beds up here,” she says.

While some areas of the home were downright unsleepably cold in wintertime, she says an antique-looking cast-iron stove provided a surprising amount of heat.

“When you heated this bad boy, you could open those doors and it stays very, very warm,” Smith Larsen says of the stove in the home's “hot room” — an area that served as a kind of kitchen and dining room.

There hasn't been much eating in here in recent years, but apparently plenty of drinking by trespassers.

Emptied bottles of Coors, Budweiser and other alcoholic products fill up a 32-gallon garbage bin in the room.

Every time Smith Larsen visits, there are more bottles to pick up and put in the garbage can.

On this particular January day, in addition to the beer cans, the floor sports a crumpled styrofoam cup of Maruchan Instant Lunch.

Many of the windows are cracked or shattered. And they aren't run-of-mill windows, either — they're a quarter of an inch in thickness and must have taken some serious will to break.

“Boy that pisses me off,” says Smith Larsen.

While the stereotypical vandal might conjure up images of mischevious teens, the property's vandals have crossed classes and age groups. Once, a family of five tourists, staying at the motel near the base of the hill, was caught breaking windows.

When Smith Larsen visited the mansion in late November, she discovered that a transient apparently had taken up residence on the second floor. The individual left behind a shirt, an apparent fire ring, and a box that held, by Smith Larsen's gross estimates, a few gallons of his feces.

The Smith Mansion does not — and never did — have plumbing. Five-gallon buckets outside the home served as outhouses.

“If it was snowing at 2 in the morning, you would freeze your (butt) off,” recalls Smith Larsen, adding, “We never bathed. If we bathed, we had to go to town.”

A couple of broken porcelain toilets and sinks litter the property, but she says they must have come from illegal dumpers.

As a testament to its eccentricity, opinions of the home widely differ. Some neighbors enjoy the mansion's towering profile, others find it an eyesore.

“You either love it or you hate it,” says Smith Larsen. “You're either really intrigued or you're just put off.”

Interest in the hilltop high-rise, however, is near universal. For passing tourists or long-time locals, the structure is hard to miss or ignore.

One summer, Smith Larsen worked at the nearby Red Barn service station and dealt with a constant flood of inquiries about the mysterious house on the hill.

“I got tired from telling the story after two weeks,” she said.

Smith Larsen has a number of ideas for the mansion, perhaps selling branded memorabilia, perhaps creating a tourist attraction, perhaps turning it into a bed and breakfast where floors, and not rooms, would be rented out to guests.

“It just comes down to the money,” she says.

Realistically, Larsen says it would take $400,000 to $500,000 to restore the place. She's looking into the possibility of setting up an organization that could accept donations.

The interest has proven long-lasting. When Smith Larsen launched an informational Web site last fall,, she was blown away by the response.

“It just took off,” she said.

Larsen said she's received more than 100,000 visits to the page — even a call from a Florida man who suggested she try getting movie producers interested in the project.

A Facebook page she set up, The Smith Mansion Preservation Project, has drawn more than 275 fans.

She hopes the interest will translate into a small army of volunteers to help clean up the place.

Smith Larsen's job one is clearing out the clutter and making the structure safe. Parts of the first floor roof are decaying, and Larsen no longer dares to venture to the top of the crow's nest, where the howling wind has loosened some of beams.

She and her husband, Paul, hauled off some appliances, five abandoned vehicles and a camper, in trips to the home this summer and again at the end of November.

On Feb. 20 and 21, she'd like volunteer aid to pick up trash, wood and metal inside and around the mansion.

“Hopefully, this next cleanup, we can get all this (cleaned) and I'll have something to work with,” Smith Larsen says.

She's not exactly sure what she'll do to thank volunteers, but she does have one incentive that's sure to draw a response.

“I'll give tours to everybody,” Smith Larsen promises.

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the month of Francis Lee Smith's death.