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By Penny Preston
In the mid-seventies, an architect named Lee Smith started building a structure on a hilltop in Wapiti. It’s log, five stories high. Hundreds of thousands of tourists on their way to or from Yellowstone have stopped, taken a picture of the house, and said, “What is that?” To Sunny Smith, it was home.
Sunny is Lee Smith’s daughter. About her father’s project, she said, “He wanted to build something that would fit in to the natural beauty of Wapiti.” The floor still has boulders in it. The beds: wooden hammocks. There’s no running water, or electricity, and the only heat came from a ground floor wood stove.
Smith said her father worked on the house in every spare minute. “You know this was his life project, his life dream to build this.” But, in 1992, Smith fell to his death as he worked on the second floor roof.
Eighteen years passed. Logs, boards, and trash littered the landscape. Vandals broke the windows, stole flooring and more. It was about to be lost to the elements. But, on a winter weekend, neighbors, friends, and even strangers came to help clean up “The Smith Mansion.”
Cleanup Volunteer Carl Bradford said he read about the cleanup in local newspapers, and drove from Ralston. He said, “I’ve driven by this place many times, and just thought it was really neat, and realized that there was a need for help.”
Smith’s 7 year old son, Royal Bradford, added, “It might be fun to help clean up the Crazy House.”
Sunny’s husband, Paul Larsen, looked down from the third floor, as he explained the work there, “We took the ridge board down. It was kind of swaying in the wind. And a couple of logs that were just barely hanging on.”
For safety reasons, the property is posted with no trespassing signs now. But, Smith hopes to let everyone see her father’s creation someday. She said, “It could be a bed and breakfast, a gift store, who knows. But I definitely want to be able to open it to the public.”
Thanks to the help of volunteers, it could happen someday.
Wapiti Mansion Documentary
Watch This VideoBy Penny Preston
It's a five story log home, never finished because its artist/architect builder fell to his death from the roof. Now, a film crew from Indiana is exploring the mystery of the Smith Mansion in Wapiti, Wyoming.
Lee Smith had been building this house for twenty years, when he fell to his death from the second story roof he was working on in 1992. His daughter said he worked on the structure every weekend, every spare minute, and while he did, she said the family lived there. In a 2010 interview, Sunny Smith said, “He wanted to build something that would fit in to the natural beauty of Wapiti.”
After Lee Smith died, the home he was building sat exposed to the elements for almost twenty years. The log hammocks inside were empty. The windows were broken and trash left by vandals. Then, in 2010, the neighbors pitched in for a cleanup, and Sunny Smith decided there was a purpose for her father’s unfinished creation. She called it the Smith Mansion. She said, “It could be a bed and breakfast, or a gift store.”
Sunny started a foundation, so people could donate to the Mansion’s renovation. Then, a young woman who was working in Yellowstone saw the house from the highway in Wapiti. Andrea Lewis told KULR-8, “I wanted to know more. I had to know more.”
Lewis had little luck getting information from locals, but, when she went back to the University of Indiana, she decided to return to Wapiti and do a documentary on the strange structure and its builder. Lewis explained, “It’s just kind of like a puzzle piecing together how he thought, what he was doing.”
Lewis brought a film crew of four with her. They were not disappointed in the project, the strange house, or it’s beautiful surroundings. Crew Member Julian Shine said, “I’d seen pictures of it, but pictures don’t capture the whole scope.”
Sunny said the film's research with her father's family and friends has been hard for her. She said, “I’ve been able to understand my dad more, what kind of man he was, or what he had to offer people, or what kind of man he was in general. It’s fascinating.”
The students hope the documentary will air on Indiana PBS, and Wyoming PBS. They’re encouraged it will. Smith hopes the documentary will help her foundation raise money to save the house. She said, “My main goal is to open up this house and share it with the people.” The structure is unsafe now, so it is posted with "No Trespassing" signs.