Skip to main content


Recently named the most underrated tourist attraction in the U.S.A., the Stetson Mansion in DeLand, Florida stands as one of the most innovative homes of its era.

By Andrew Bradbury

“None but that of sterling quality.”

That was John B. Stetson’s guiding principle when he began his hat-making business in 1865 and, one could say, when he tasked architect George T. Pearson with building his winter estate in DeLand, Florida in 1886. The resulting mansion would be one of the most innovative homes in America at the time and now, after years of restoration, was recently ranked as the most underrated tourist attraction in the country (and among the top 10 in the world) by TripAdvisor, adding to a list of similar accolades from other travel websites.

Pearson, who had had designed Stetson’s groundbreaking Philadelphia factory, used a blend of cottage, Gothic, Tudor, Moorish, (and, in an inspired turn for a secondary structure, Polynesian), details to create a High Vicorian wonder; just under 10,000 square feet and a first-rate example of Gilded Age grandeur. Sixteen individual patterns of parquet flooring were featured in rooms on the first and second stories, some with patterns inspired by 17th- and 18th-century quilts and two 3D examples that produced an Escher-like optical effect. Ten-thousand individual panes of glass—many with stained glass designs—augmented the windows that adorned each facet of the mansion.

The Stetson Mansion during its construction and after its completion.

It was a technical marvel, too. Industrialist and Stetson friend Henry Flagler built the private railroad that allowed building materials to be shipped directly to the property during construction. Thomas Edison himself (another Stetson friend) supervised the installation of the electricity. It was the first private home in Florida, and among the first in the world, to be designed and explicitly built to be fully electric. Steam heat, with hot and cold water running up three stories, and an electric call bell system that rang throughout put the mansion at the forefront of modern comfort and convenience—as did the three indoor bathrooms (truly, an unheard of luxury at the time).

The surrounding estate, which sat on Stetson’s 300-acre citrus grove contained gardens, gazebos and fountains. There was also wildlife, in addition to the prodigious local bird population. Peacocks and monkeys roamed the grounds, and Stetson had at least two wild Florida alligators (“Ponce” and “DeLeon”) that he delighted in showing guests—an exotic sight for most non-Floridians. Particularly noteworthy, was the 800-square-foot schoolhouse used for educating the Stetson offspring during their winters in DeLand. The Polynesian-syle structure featured a striking 15-foot-high plank arched ceiling, lending a transportive South Pacific charm to the grounds (and probably made going to school on glorious sunny days a little more tolerable).

Though commonplace today, Stetson was among the first breed of well-off Americans to spend winters in the Sunshine State. Over the years, he drew to Florida a notable list of Astors, Vanderbilts, Mellons and Carnegies, plus the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and U.S. President Grover Cleveland, whom he entertained in the opulent style of the times. And while the period in Stetson’s life, seen in the mansion itself, is marked by extravagance, it was also his most philanthropic. He fervently supported local businesses, grew the area’s infrastructure and often entertained groups of DeLand residents at his home—just as he did the vacationing elite. His contributions to the area, including the funding of DeLand College (which would become Stetson University) are still felt in the present.

John B. Stetson died in his winter home in 1906 after ill health. The original contents of the mansion were sold off in 1920. Beginning in 2008, the mansion underwent a meticulous restoration and renovation by private owners who have kept all of the architectural details intact, with thoughtful modern upgrades and furnishings that blend styles and periods in a way that captures the eclectic spirit of the original design.

Today, the Stetson Mansion is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Though it remains a private home, the Mansion hosts events and weddings and opens its doors each November for its annual, three-month “Christmas Spectacular,” during which the Mansion is dressed up in its holiday best, with dazzling lights and themed displays. A schedule of historic tours (reservations strictly required) resumes through the year, which allows visitors to learn more about the life of John B. Stetson and see every corner of the Mansion, including the ornate parquet flooring and stained glass windows, Thomas Edison’s original fuse box (featuring the inventor’s handwritten notations), plus the charming Polynesian schoolhouse, which has been converted into a spa-like one-bedroom retreat.

All in all, not a bad place to hang one’s hat.

Photos courtesy of the Stetson Mansion.