The Smith Mansion towers large on a hill in the Wapiti Valley.
Locals may know the story of the man with an insatiable building lust and tourists may speculate to the Seuss-like wonder and many looming levels of the place. But for those with an appreciation for imagination and ingenuity, it’d be easy to see why a place like this deserves preserving.
That’s what Sunny Larsen is trying to accomplish. She and her husband Paul started the Smith Mansion Preservation Project in 2009. They have been actively relying on donations and for the past two years have opened up the
house for public tours to raise money to preserve the home her father built.
Larsen not only wants to show people her father’s vision, but openly share the joys of her childhood home. A place so full of whimsy that Sunny and her brother slept in wooden hammocks – half the size of train cars – dangling from the ceiling, had whole rooms devoted to Olympic sport and watched raccoons run amok.
“It was a strange, but great upbringing,” Larsen said.
Larsen’s father, Francis Lee Smith started building the mansion back in the 1970s, though it was never intended to be a mansion. It was simply going to be a family cabin.
He chose the spot perched atop a hill because of the strength to hold the house. He wanted to build something to fit into the beauty of the countryside.
Smith who studied architecture at Montana State University and graduated with honors, loved to build, Larsen said.
House on the hill
In 1971, Smith began digging and excavating for the house. It took three men two years to dig it out.
For the foundation, Smith used a concrete mixer to pour five gallon buckets of concrete at a time. He built around large boulders in the floor when he grew weary of digging them up.
Larsen said that during the 1950s there were a lot of forest fires on Rattlesnake Mountain and the forest service allowed individuals to take timber from the mountain as long as they moved it themselves.
It was a full day trip and exceedingly difficult. Smith took 300 logs off of Rattlesnake Mountain with a half ton pickup and sometimes used horses for the really large logs. He would get five or six at a time, depending on the size. With each new level of the house the timber got bigger.
A hole goes all the way up through the house and every floor, so that Smith could retrieve lumber from lower floors.
“He loved building and had a mind for it,” Larsen said. “It wasn’t a job, it was fun and it challenged him.”
He never used any blueprints and was proud of repurposing. Smith reused what he could, scavenged for wood and other items he could make into something useful. Like a gargantuan set of wind-chimes that sway between the third and fourth floors, made out of old railroads parts including old springs and a pick axe. But the chiming sound is still the same: clangy and melodic. On windy days the chimes can be heard down the hill at the Red Barn Store.
Smith worked enthusiastically, building temporary scaffolding and working through the night by the light of one bulb strung up on a two-by-four and hooked up to an extension cord plugged into an electrical outlet box down the hill.
The neighbors were always curious what he was up to. They’d wake up wondering what was new on the house. To them he was the weird guy on the hill, Larsen said.
• Cold Room: Where it always stayed cool and there was an enormous wooden hammock for sleeping or lounging. Large shuttered windows with hinges Smith made himself in a shop class helped lock in coolness and attempt to keep animals out.
“Wild animals were living in here all the time,” Larsen said.
The children slept in sleeping bags, roll outs or elaborately crafted wooden hammocks and swings. There isn’t a designated bedroom in the house.
“We even had a TV and an old red lamp that looked like something that belonged in a brothel,” Larsen said.
• Basketball Room: Sports were an important facet of the Smith’s childhood.
“We would wear through the floors,” Larsen said.
• Tool/Sports Room: The space was used to occupy Smith’s menagerie of building supplies and tools. Though the only tools he used besides hand tools were chainsaws and half inch drills.
The family also held Smith Family Olympics. The children would swing back and forth from metal chains or bars hooked into the ceiling. Smith would rate his children’s performances.
“We’d get gold or silver washers on a chain,” Larsen said. “If you were really good you might get a candy bar.”
• Hot Room: The kitchen. There was one wood burning stove in the whole house that kept the family warm. With the combined heat from the stove and it being the only room in the entire five-story house that was chinked, it held heat well. A giant log stump and smaller stumps make up the table and chairs.
Larsen’s father had once had an old shot glass collection of his mother’s stolen from him and this created a fervent determination to never be robbed again. Smith created log stump safes that were sliced almost through with a hinge, so that the log secretly opened. Here Smith would stash away money or valuables. The hinge side would face toward the wall, looking like one of the other stump stools in the kitchen. No one was the wiser.
The cupboards were bright green old bear panniers. There was one small fridge that never worked for long, Larsen said.
“We lived out of coolers,” she added. “We did a lot of cast iron and dutch oven cooking. He was a marvelous cook.”
• Laundry Room: Smith crafted a laundry hamper out of old metal telephone pieces bent into a pseudo basket-drying system. There was an inner circle for socks and undergarments, and outer spokes for draping pants and shirts. Old shovel handles were stuck into the walls to hang wet winter coats from.
• Wood Cutting Room: Where a large swing faced out toward the mountains and the children often slept.
All the walls in the home were bedecked with the children’s artwork.
“He was a very strong family man,” Larsen said.
Her father loved outer space and the stars, and this was evident in the home as well. Some of Smith’s hand-hewn pieces reflect this kind of imagery, like the hamper.
“He was very eccentric,” Larsen said. “One day I came home from school and he had collected moose droppings and put them in a basket in the window.”
Once the children used a magnifying glass to burn their initials into a wooden beam in the hot room. Larsen said her father was furious.
“We got in huge trouble,” Larsen said.
When Sunny and her brother got into trouble they were forced to watch NOVA, a science series broadcast on PBS.
One year a raccoon moved in with them.
“He got into everything,” Larsen said of the raccoon.
Her father had made cornish game hens for dinner one night and left them in the kitchen to cool while the family occupied itself elsewhere.
“When we came back, the raccoon had cleaned them to the bone and put the lid back on the pot,” Larsen said. “We only knew it was him because of the greasy paw prints.”
Smith did not have a bathroom in the house. There was a five-gallon bucket outside and if the children had to go in the middle of the night, they had to tough it out and go alone.
“All you ever had were the stars over your head,” Larsen said. “It didn’t matter if there was four feet of snow.”
Smith fell a couple of times while building the home and this ultimately caused his death when he fell from a roof in 1992, landing on the first floor about 12 feet down.
Christy Speck, a friend of the Larsens who volunteered during the public tours, said the house is incredible and reminds her of a permanent camping trip.
“Everyone looks for that peace and quiet and here it stands,” she said. “I could see the appeal.”
To preserve the house, the Larsen’s have raised more than $20,000. The family wants to keep the home open for public tours and keep it standing for future generations.
During a recent home tour they raised $3,000 for their preservation efforts.
“We depend on everybody: donations, support and volunteers,” Larsen said. “This is nothing we could do on our own.”
Larsen said she would love to open the bottom floor to local artists to showcase their work. She said her father was a phenomenal artist and she has a lot of his pen and ink drawings she would like to display.
To learn more about preserving the Smith Mansion, visit the Facebook page or smithmansion.webnode.com. Donations are also accepted via mail at SMPP PO Box 51256, Billings, Mont., 59105.
(Cassandra Sturos can be reached at email@example.com.)