A closer look at the extravagant estate in central Florida, "the house that hats built."
07/20/2022 Latest News, News and Film
When the Gilded Age took hold in America—the confluence of the growth of cities, industry, and wealth among the country’s elite—many of the nation’s most prosperous individuals and families spent a fortune on opulent, decadent homes. From San Francisco’s Cliff House to The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, such mansions were built in nearly every state in the nation and remain living monuments to a distinct era.
Though the Gilded Age as a term may call to mind the wealthiest Americans—Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan among them—another name stands out as a slightly distinct Gilded Age icon: John B. Stetson.
Best known for popularizing and mass-manufacturing the cowboy hat in America, Stetson was deeply influenced by his time in the American West in the mid-19th century. Having grown up in Orange, New Jersey, Stetson headed west during the midcentury gold rushes and was inspired to create an all-purpose hat that would protect cowboys, ranchers, and settlers from the sun. When he returned to the East Coast in 1865, he settled in Philadelphia and began to make this dream a reality.
The resulting hat design—called “The Boss of the Plains”—quickly became so popular and iconic that Stetson had to relocate from small studios in Old City and Callowhill to a factory in Northeast Philly to keep up with demand. Stetson’s design influenced American culture so deeply that it was worn by figures from Annie Oakley to Ronald Reagan. In his own lifetime, it also earned Stetson a fortune that he took, in part, to DeLand, Florida, where he spent his winters.
The resulting structure, known as the Stetson Mansion, is a stately, 10,000-square-foot Victorian mansion designed by the noted Philadelphia architect George T. Pearson. Pearson’s legacy can still be felt in Philadelphia, particularly in the northwest neighborhoods of Germantown and Chestnut Hill—but his design for the Stetson Mansion incorporates a host of different influences and styles, from Gothic and Tudor to Polynesian and Moorish.
Stetson’s friends in high places lent certain unique qualities to the residence: Thomas Edison installed the mansion’s electricity (it was one of the first homes to ever use electricity); it is believed many of the windows could have been fabricated by Louis Comfort Tiffany; and oil tycoon Henry Flagler constructed a private railway track directly to the mansion for the delivery of construction materials.
Though many of the Gilded Age’s most prominent businessmen garnered a reputation for single-minded wealth acquisition and monopolistic business practices, Stetson was well-known for his philanthropic bent: the legacy of his donations can be felt in community centers, schools and universities, and soup kitchens in both DeLand and Philadelphia. His particular focus on education can be seen at the mansion itself, which includes a separate schoolhouse built for Stetson’s children’s education.
Stetson passed away in 1906, and all of the personal possessions of the Stetsons that remained in the mansion were sold in 1920. After falling into disrepair for many years, the estate was extensively renovated and restored in 2008 under new ownership. The estate is a private property today, open to tours and private events.
The mansion remains a testament to the ethos of the Gilded Age—from its genesis as a snowbird getaway made possible by entrepreneurial wealth to its eclectic architectural influences and stately opulence.