The excesses of today's tycoons have come under lots of scrutiny lately due to the dire financial situation. Titans of business have always been at the forefront of American mythology however, in both good times and bad, and it's worth putting today's crop of nabobs in their proper historical context. That's what William G. Scheller has done admirably in his new book, Great Estates: The Lifestyles & Homes of American Magnates (Universe, $35). The oversized, lavishly illustrated volume celebrates the history of 40 of America's true barons of business, from the 1700s through this year's Forbes list, and opens the door into their private palaces along the way.
Beginning with the colonial era, when trade was overtaking landholding as a way to get rich, Great Estates follows the "restless careers of our most brilliant and driven merchants, industrialists, and financiers as they mastered a new economic world of textiles, railroads, oil, and steel." With the twentieth century came fresh opportunities: "automobiles, motion pictures, broadcasting, publishing, and retailing on a massive scale, and the vast horizon of high technology." And of course the massive mansions that men of great fortune erected as monuments to their success along the way.
These include Henry Clay Frick's Manhattan mansion, now a magnificent museum; William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon in California, aka Hearst Castle; and one of our personal favorites, railroad magnate Jay Gould's gothic castle on the Hudson River, Lyndhurst (pictured above on the book's cover). Shortly after he purchased the estate as a summer home in 1880, Gould was at the zenith of his power, having gained control of Western Union Telegraph, the New York Elevated Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad with rapacious methods that once caused him to be beaten by a Wall Street mob.
Gallery: Magnates' Great Estates