Discover The Stetson Museum: Florida's First Luxury Estate
By Sandra Ketcham
The Stetson Mansion, a stunning 10,000-square-foot Victorian listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, was Florida's first luxury estate.
When John B. Stetson (he of hatmaking fame) wanted a large winter home for his family, first he chose the central Florida town of DeLand as its location and then he chose architect George T. Pearson to design it.
You might think a 10,000-square-foot circa 1886 mansion resting on more than two acres is impossible to miss -- but you'd be wrong.
But is it really Victorian? Well, yes, but it turns that it also includes a unique architectural blend of Gothic, Moorish, Polynesian and Tudor styles.
Sadly, most people don’t even know that Florida’s first luxury estate. But it does thanks to JT Thompson and partner Michael Solari who purchased the house in 2005. Structurally sound, they completely restored the interior and exterior of the Stetson Mansion and successfully incorporated a few modern conveniences into the home such as updated electric and kitchen appliances.
One of the grandest homes built during the 19th Century, Thompson points out that the home is "the epitome of the Victorian era.”
With a Little Help from My Friends
Sponsors from around the country aided the restoration by donating everything from appliances to paint to furniture. One sponsor, Blenko Glass, gifted all the glass vases inside the mansion after learning that John B. Stetson was likely a client.
The work paid off. Visitors immediately notice the spacious front porch and exquisite Tiffany stained and leaded glass windows. Around the estate are multiple fountains, a putting green, gazebo, pool and tranquil meditation garden, complete with hammock. The gardens have a fresh and modern feel, while still melding seamlessly into the overall design of the estate.
Inside are intricate parquet floors in the world, many of which are designed in 3D patterns that change from room to room. One of the most striking features of the home is a glass and wood wall the Stetsons purchased from a French chateau and had disassembled and shipped to DeLand over several years. The wall remains in pristine condition, and the glass is original and dates to the late 1700s.
The lavish home contains pieces from many different eras, including Victorian furniture from the 1880s and from later generations. While none of the furnishings is original to the home, many are similar to those the Stetson family would’ve chosen during their early trips to DeLand.
In Good Company
When Henry A. DeLand, the founder of DeLand, heard that his good friend John Stetson was seeking a warmer climate for his health, he invited him to Central Florida. John liked what he saw, purchased 250-plus acres for use as an orange grove, and built the mansion in less than a year.
Elizabeth, his wife, thought the area was lacking in culture and insisted John cut the size of the house in half. Still, the mansion was one of the largest and most elegant residences of the time.
DeLand became the Stetson family's winter home, and they traveled from Philadelphia each year to enjoy six months of warm weather and sunshine. The Stetsons were some of Florida's first true snowbirds, and they spent their winters entertaining many of the era's most influential and wealthy families.
President Grover Cleveland and King Edward VII were both guests at the Stetson luxury estate, as were the Vanderbilts, Astors, Tiffanys, Carnegies and Mellons. Another guest, Thomas Edison, left his mark on the mansion during construction; the Stetson Mansion was one of the first homes in the world to be equipped with Edison electricity.
Edison was good friends with the Stetsons and stayed in the house to oversee the electrical installation. Some of Edison's original light fixtures remain in the mansion, and the original Thomas Edison circuit box hangs inside the breezeway that connects the kitchen and dining room. Edison’s handwriting is still visible on tags inside the box.
Early guests would have been impressed with the mansion's ornate details and phenomenal craftsmanship. The home was built during the Gilded Age, but before the machine age, so all the elaborate embellishments were done by hand or with steam-assisted machinery.
Stetson spared no expense when building the house, using the best wood available and even building closets in the bedrooms, which was rare for Victorian-era homes.
Public Tours and Events
Today, visitors can tour the mansion year-round and are treated to the entire estate. No rooms are roped off, and visitors can even look inside the current owners' bedroom and bathroom.
The master bedroom closet is also open for examination and is a new addition to the house. Originally the servants' bedroom, Thompson and Solari have converted it into a large, walk-in closet, complete with three leather walls, a window and an original Edison light fixture on the ceiling.
Tours run 60 to 90 minutes, depending on whether visitors choose the Standard or Grand tour, and begin in the Reception Parlor on the first floor. In this room, visitors learn a little about the history of the mansion while standing beneath a ceiling painted to look like abalone shell.
There’s also a magnificent piano, a Dali lithograph, and a fireplace dating back to 1886. As the tour proceeds through the home's many rooms, visitors hear about the mansion's renovations and the Stetson family‘s life.
Art-loving visitors will enjoy the home’s more-recent decorations, too; different artists from around the country have contributed to the beauty of the mansion’s walls, ceilings and windows.
Winter is a popular time to tour the estate, and the mansion is extravagantly decorated during the holidays to create a magical wonderland of ribbons and lights. Tours to view the award-winning decorations start Nov. 15 and run through Jan. 15.
Individuals or groups can also visit the mansion for Sunday tea in the schoolhouse. Following a quick tour of the mansion and a surprise visit from “Elizabeth Stetson,” sandwiches, scones and tea are served beneath the schoolhouse's 15.5-foot Polynesian ceiling. Local businesses cater the tea, which is hosted by the Stetson Mansion Foundation.
Reservations are necessary for tours and tea, and the luxury estate is available for beautiful Florida weddings, parties and other private events. The Stetson Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.