The Wyoming Man Who Was Killed By His Own Mansion

Visitors approaching Yellowstone National Park from the east are greeted by an unusual sight: the so-called Smith Mansion, situated along the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway in the Wapiti Valley, near Cody, Wyoming, and the entrance of the park. Built as a labor of love by Francis Lee Smith over more than two decades, the unusual structure has towering turrets, several balconies, and a massive, winding staircase, all made by hand from logs salvaged in the nearby area. The entire labyrinthine structure was built without blueprints, and in 1992, Smith's overriding obsession with the project sadly killed him. 

While working on the house, Smith fell from the pagoda roof on the upper story of the home to his death, The New York Times reported. Smith was known to work without proper safety precautions, his daughter, Sunny Larsen, later said. Twenty years after her father died, Larsen, who spent a good deal of her childhood living in the house, told The Times in 2012, her father's original intent was "to build a home for his family, and it just took on a life of its own ... He never knew what his next step was going to be." And before that tragic accident that took his life, Smith sacrificed nearly everything to see his vision through.

[Featured image by HSV via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 4.0]

The project cost Smith his marriage

According to Francis Lee Smith's daughter, Sunny Larsen, the Smith family lived in the house until Smith and his wife, Linda Mills, Larsen's mother, split in the 1980s. After that point, Smith threw himself into the project with new urgency. The inside of the home — with no electricity or heating save a single wood stove in one room — included a fairytale-like dining room, an indoor basketball court, with a "cold room" burrowed into the hillside for the summer months, and a "hot room" where Smith and his children sometimes slept. 

On why her father embarked on such a task, Larsen denies he had mental health challenges, but instead, the project was simply an artistic pursuit. Referring to Smith, Larsen said, "He built. He was an artist in every sense of the word" (via NYT). And Smith's ex-wife added, "[T]here was nothing crazy about him." In the decades since he died, the property stayed in the family, though no one lived there. As it slipped into disrepair, it became a colorful landmark for Yellowstone visitors and local Cody residents. 

In 2020, Scott Richard, a real estate agent who helped facilitate the eventual sale of the home, told Cowboy State Daily, "I've seen this building my whole life. I'm a fifth-generation Cody (resident) and as a kid I used to go up to the Wapiti Valley here and go skiing, sledding. And every time we would drive by this, I always knew we were halfway between Cody and Yellowstone."

The Smith Mansion property sold in 2020

After years of decline, Francis Lee Smith's daughter, Sunny Larsen sold the home to Mountain Lodging, owners of several tourist and outdoor recreational properties in the area. By that time, the story of the Smith Mansion became the stuff of local legend. One person said it was built as a lookout for a potential Yellowstone volcanic eruption. Local teenagers dared each other to break into the derelict structure.

There was some interest in rehabbing the home for a reality TV series, but as of 2020, the Smith Mansion's future was unknown. According to Scott Richard, the real estate agent who helped broker the deal, the new owners, Mountain Lodging, appreciate the structure's history. "They're going to keep it, nothing's going to change right away. What they plan to do is still going to be part of that mystique, just like the structure," Richard said (via Cowboy State Daily).