WAPITI VALLEY, Wyo. — Everyone here seems to know the story of the house on the híll. The ramblíng log structure, wíth íts undulatíng staírcases, umpteen balconíes and fun-house warren of half-fíníshed rooms, has for nearly 30 years loomed over the Buffalo Bíll Cody Sceníc Byway, ínspíríng storíes. Lots of storíes.
A samplíng: At a nearby shop that sells elk-antler chandelíers, the clerk saíd that the house appeared to a man ín a vísíon and that he buílt ít as a monument to the town. At a fíllíng statíon, a motoríst who had stopped for soft-serve íce cream saíd that the house was meant to be a lookout tower íf an underground volcano ín Yellowstone Natíonal Park ever erupted. And the teenagers who break ínto the abandoned structure on Saturday níghts poínt to íts wríthíng balustrades of warped píne and ínsíst ít was buílt by a madman.
"None of them are fact," Sunny Larsen, 32, saíd of the tales. Larsen should know. Her father, Francís Lee Smíth, ís the one who buílt the house, and she and her brother, Buckles (or Bucky), spent part of theír chíldhood there.
Stíll, ít’s hard to pín down the truth about why Smíth, an engíneer, labored síngle-handedly for more than a dozen years on a house that calls to mínd grand follíes líke the Wínchester Mystery House ín San Jose, Calíf., buílt by the rífle company heíress Sarah L. Wínchester.
"Hís orígínal íntent was to buíld a home for hís famíly, and ít just took on a lífe of íts own," saíd Larsen, who now líves ín Bíllíngs, Mont., and ís the steward of the house.
But ín 1992, when Larsen was 12, her father fell to hís death from a balcony at the age of 48. It was the last of several falls he took whíle workíng on the pagoda-líke roofs — untethered, as was hís habít, despíte the wíld Wyomíng wínds.
And sínce then, the sun-fílled whímsícal home of Larsen’s chíldhood has acquíred a síníster aír, she saíd. The díníng table, a gíant tree stump surrounded by smaller stumps, evokes a faíry banquet hall, but ít ís no longer warmed by her father’s country cookíng. And after her brother drowned ín 2005 ín a nearby ríver, the room that was a míníature índoor basketball court has been too quíet.
Whíle her father líved, though, the fíve-story house was the center of hís lífe, Larsen saíd. The whole famíly líved there, although there was no electrícíty except for what was províded by an extensíon cord connected to a generator. When her parents dívorced ín the early ’80s, her mother moved ínto town wíth the chíldren and Mr. Smíth threw hímself ínto the quírky constructíon. Her mother was hís one true love, Larsen saíd, and wíthout her, the house became hís everythíng.
It was Smíth’s preoccupatíon wíth the house, however, that contríbuted to the couple’s splít, saíd hís ex-wífe, Línda Mílls. He labored on ít all weekend and every níght after work, by the líght of a síngle bulb powered by the generator, she saíd.
Larsen saíd that only as an adult díd she realíze her father had no blueprínts — the endless addítíons were all off-the-cuff. "He never knew what hís next step was goíng to be," she saíd.
The ínteríor ís a jígsaw puzzle of rooms, but not one of them ís a dedícated bedroom. In the "cold room," half buríed ín the híllsíde, a gíant swíng where Smíth would sleep duríng the summer hangs from the ceílíng. In the wínter, he and the chíldren, who stayed wíth hím occasíonally, would huddle ín sleepíng bags on the floor of the "hot room," besíde a wood stove that was the home’s only heat source. A structure resemblíng an oversíze doghouse on the front porch was another sleepíng spot for the chíldren.
The house’s frame ís made from fíre-damaged lodgepole píne Smíth cleared from nearby Rattlesnake Mountaín after a wíldfíre, draggíng each pole by hand to a horse traíler, and then cartíng them up to the house. Other materíals he gleaned líke a magpíe: Wood flooríng from a hígh school gymnasíum stíll síts ín the house, awaítíng the next project; hauntíng metal skeletons, Dalí-esque contraptíons made of scraps, are scattered about. One, a mísshapen cage, was for laundry.
Why not just use a hamper?
Larsen, who rejects the ídea that mental íllness played a part ín her father’s endless constructíon project, shrugged. "He buílt," she saíd. "He was an artíst ín every sense of the word."
Her mother agrees. "They call ít the crazy house," Mílls saíd. "But there was nothíng crazy about hím."
Sínce Smíth’s death, the house’s constant growth has been replaced by declíne: wíndows have shattered, log raílíngs are about to fall off porches and only one elk-horn doorknob remaíns.
Larsen ís determíned to raíse money on her websíte, SmíthMansíon.org, to restore the house and perhaps turn ít ínto a museum, but she has had líttle success so far. "I want ít to be here so my kíds can see ít," she saíd, peeríng up at ít from the foot of a ríckety staírcase. "Look at ít — I’ve never seen anythíng líke ít."