Ever wonder how the rich and famous live? You can see for yourself at the Florida homes of some famous former residents that are now open to the public. Among them are the one-time residences of inventor Thomas Edison, carmaker Henry Ford, author Ernest Hemingway and circus magnate John Ringling.
Many of these homes, as one would expect, are elegant mansions with 50-plus rooms that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But, surprisingly, a few are relatively modest -- one actually did not even have a bathroom at first.
Nine of the following 10 residences are open for tours -- to see the last, the former Casa Casuarina estate where fashion designer Gianni Versace lived, you'll have to take a meal or afternoon tea in the dining room or splurge for an overnight stay in what's become a luxury boutique hotel in South Beach.
1. CA D'ZAN, SARASOTA
Circus magnate John Ringling and his wife, Mable, built this elaborate Venetian-Gothic residence, which is patterned in part after the Doge's Palace in Venice. In this 56-room bayside home, Ringling entertained such guests as 1920s screen idol Rudolph Valentino, comedian Will Rogers and showman Flo Ziegfeld. It has Venetian glass windows, a 4,000-pipe organ, a casino (a large playroom, not a gambling venue), period furnishings and art objects. An 81-foot-high belvedere tower overlooks the bay and the marble terrace below. In the same 20-acre complex are the internationally recognized Ringling Museum of Art; the Asolo, a restored Italian theater; and the Circus Museums, whose exhibits include the world's largest miniature circus.
ADMISSION $25 ($5 ages 6-17) includes mansion and museums. Docent-led tours are offered several times a day and cost $5 extra. Reservations recommended.
INFO 941-359-5700, ringling.org
2. VILLA VIZCAYA, MIAMI
Farm equipment industrialist James Deering built this bayside estate in 1916 and lived in it until his death in 1925. Encompassing a medley of styles -- Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassic -- the 70-room residence has 10 acres of formal gardens as well as a native tropical forest. Close to downtown Miami, the estate has been seen in many movies, among them "Any Given Sunday" and "Bad Boys 2." It also has been used for important political meetings. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan received Pope John Paul II at Vizcaya and in 1994 President Bill Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas there. Guests can tour on their own or with a guide.
ADMISSION $15 ($6 ages 6-12)
INFO 305-250-9133, vizcayamuseum.org
3. DEERING ESTATE, MIAMI
James Deering's brother Charles built his own bayside estate with two houses and extensive grounds on 444 acres on Palmetto Bay. It also is open for tours, which cover not just the historic homes, but also involve a naturalist leading the group through outdoor spaces. Special events range from nature hikes and butterfly walks to moonlight canoe tours ($40) with a campfire and s'mores.
ADMISSION $12 ($7 ages 4-14)
4. WHITEHALL, PALM BEACH
This is the elegant home of oil baron and Florida developer Henry Flagler, open to the public as the Flagler Museum. A partner of John D. Rockefeller Sr., Flagler brought a railroad down Florida's east coast all the way to Key West and built hotels in St. Augustine, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. His 55-room mansion, built in 1902, was once called the "Taj Mahal of North America." Its entrance hall alone is so large -- 110 by 60 feet -- that a suburban home could fit inside it. It has an enormous ballroom and a huge pipe organ, and its dining room is done in the style of French King François I -- all well suited for his wife, Mary Lily, who loved to entertain. Flagler, however, wasn't so keen on parties and had a secret stairway built so he could make surreptitious getaways from the festivities. Flagler's private railroad car is on the grounds.
ADMISSION $18 ($10 ages 13-17, $3 ages 6-12)
INFO 561-655-2833, flaglermuseum.org
5. MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS HISTORIC STATE PARK, CROSS CREEK
By contrast, the home where author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived and worked for 25 years is simple in the extreme. The cracker-style farmhouse is where Rawlings wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Yearling" and other works. When she bought the home in 1928, it had no electricity or bathroom, but as her novels began to sell, she made improvements. During Prohibition, she siphoned moonshine down to her parlor from five-gallon jugs in the attic. State park rangers in 1930s attire lead tours through the home. On the front porch, visitors can see the Smith Corona typewriter on which she wrote most of her works.
ADMISSION $3 per vehicle. Admission to house available only October-July via guided tours, $3 ($2 ages 6-12).
INFO 352-466-3672, floridastateparks.org/marjoriekinnanrawlings
6. THE CASEMENTS, ORMOND BEACH
Another relatively modest home is that of oil pioneer John D. Rockefeller Sr., who bought The Casements in 1918 and spent his winters there until his death in 1937. During his years at The Casements, Rockefeller became known for his elaborate Christmas parties and his penchant for handing out dimes. After his demise, the home fell into disrepair and for a time became a hangout for vagrants. Purchased in 1973 and restored by Ormond Beach, it now serves as that city's cultural center. Some of its rooms have been furnished with items reflective of Rockefeller's years, but the only personal items on view are Rockefeller's desk, stationery, photos and high-backed beach chair. A special display of Boy Scout memorabilia is on the third floor.
INFO 386-676-3216, thecasements.net
7. EDISON AND FORD WINTER ESTATES, FORT MYERS
Inventor Thomas A. Edison and automaker Henry Ford were fast friends, so after Edison built his home, Seminole Lodge, on a 14-acre tract on the Caloosahatchee River, Ford bought the house next door, which he named The Mangoes. Edison also built a mirror-image guesthouse adjacent to his own, where he graciously housed such visitors as tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone and President Herbert Hoover. Both houses are relatively ordinary, but then neither Edison nor Ford was ostentatious. Edison conducted many experiments here, notably seeking to make rubber from plants. Visitors can explore his research laboratory and a museum of his many inventions in buildings across the street. Among the 400 species of plants in the gardens is a much-photographed banyan tree planted by Edison that now covers almost an acre of ground.
ADMISSION $20 ($11 ages 6-12) includes orientation, audio tour, Laboratory and Museum. Historian-led tours are $25 ($15 ages 6-12). Several other options are offered, including a three-hour "behind-the-scenes" tour.
INFO 239-334-7419, edisonfordwinterestates.org
8. HEMINGWAY HOUSE, KEY WEST
Author Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his most famous works here, among them "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Hemingway bought the Spanish-Colonial style home in 1931 and lived there for several years with his second wife, Pauline, and several six-toed cats. He did his writing in a study above the carriage house, reached then by a rope-and-wood catwalk from the main two-story house. The most famous tale about the home concerns the pool, which Pauline had built as a surprise for Ernest. On his return, he was surprised all right, but mostly by the price she paid for the pool: $20,000. Since he had paid only $8,000 for the house, legend has it that he took a penny from his pocket and threw it on the ground. "Here, take the last penny I've got!" he told his wife. She did, and visitors can see that penny today -- she had it embedded in the cement at the front of the pool.
ADMISSION $12.50 ($6 ages 6-12) for half-hour guided tours
INFO 305-294-1575, hemingwayhome.com
9. HARRY S. TRUMAN LITTLE WHITE HOUSE, KEY WEST
During his years as president, 1945-1953, Harry Truman spent many a vacation here. Many of the home's original furnishings have been restored, including Truman's piano and the poker table where he sipped bourbon and played with his buddies. It was here that Truman composed the letter firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean conflict, according to general manager Bob Wolz. Several other presidents also have stayed at the house: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
ADMISSION $15 ($4.50 ages 5-12)
INFO 305-294-9911, trumanlittlewhitehouse.com
10. CASA CASUARINA (NOW VILLA BY BARTON G.), MIAMI BEACH
In 1992, fashion designer Gianni Versace decided to make his home on South Beach and bought the Amsterdam Palace, a residence hotel modeled after the Alcazar de Colon, the home of Christopher Columbus' son in San Domingo, Dominican Republic. The designer also acquired the property next door and constructed a two-story addition, gardens and the Thousand Mosaic Pool, which is lined with 24-karat gold mosaics. Versace lived in the home until 1997, when he was murdered at the front gate. Last year, the property was converted by food entrepreneur Barton G. Weiss into a 10-room luxury boutique hotel and given a new name -- rates start at $895 a night. The restaurant, which is open to the public, has both indoor and poolside seating -- dinner entrees start at about $35. Alternatively, you can take high tea from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
INFO 305-576-8003, villabybartong.com.