The Marland Mansion: Ponca City's Palace on the Prairie
If the Marland Mansion’s lavishly decorated walls could talk, they would tell visitors of an unconventional family that stirred up drama in the small town of Ponca City.
From the immaculate gardens to the over-the-top rooms, the Marland Mansion exudes the extravagant lifestyle that could only be afforded by E.W. Marland, the legendary founder of Marland Oil (later known as Conoco), who once owned a tenth of the oil reserves in the world.
Visit Ponca City to stroll through the Marland Mansion Estate today and discover the mansion’s taboo history and scandalous past, from Marland’s rise to success and headline-making second marriage to his involvement in politics and his ultimate demise.
Inspired by Italy’s Palazzo Davanzati, the Marland Mansion is like no other structure on the Oklahoma plains. It was built and furnished almost 100 years ago by famous designers and sculptors of the time to meet every specification of oil tycoon and Oklahoma governor Ernest Whitworth Marland. Open to visitors as a National Historic Landmark, a tour of this mansion tells the story of E.W.’s fabulously dramatic life.
The story of the mansion begins with his move to Ponca City at 33 years old. Born in Pittsburgh, E.W. built a promising oil business in West Virginia but lost it all in the financial crisis of 1907. He moved to Oklahoma with his wife Virginia and after drilling seven dry holes in Oklahoma, E.W. finally experienced his first oil boom on land he leased from a Ponca Indian in 1911.
By 1922, Marland Oil Company employed more than a third of Ponca City’s population. His business expanded rapidly and the name was changed to Continental Oil Company, better known as Conoco. As he was building his oil empire, E.W. and his wife indulged in an affluent lifestyle. With no children of their own, the couple adopted Virginia’s niece Lyde (who preferred the nickname Lydie) and nephew George. The children relished their new wealthy family, attending expensive private schools and indulging in expensive parties.
As Lydie became a young woman, she and her adoptive dad grew closer. Somewhat of a tomboy and a lover of the outdoors, the two bonded over passions for horseback riding and hunting. Virginia struggled with an illness that made her an invalid and she died tragically in 1926. When E.W. showed little sympathy for his wife, friends, acquaintances and gossipmongers began to fuel rumors of a secret relationship between E.W. and Lydie.
During his two years as a bachelor after Virginia drew her last breath, Lydie was known to keep a close eye on her adoptive father. Sealing an already close relationship with E.W. and keeping other women at bay, the chatter grew even more risqué and rumors flew that Lydie was working her way into a new role in the Marland family. In 1928, after no apparent courtship, the gossip was only heightened when 28-year-old Lydie and 58-year-old E.W. boarded his private railway coach to Pennsylvania to have the adoption annulled. The two were married and Lydie, who was once E.W.’s niece and adopted daughter, became the new Mrs. Marland.
After their small wedding in Lydie’s Pennsylvania hometown, the couple took an extended honeymoon through Canada to California. While spoiling his new wife on a cross-country road trip, Marland chose to ignore that his oil empire was crashing back in Oklahoma. He had borrowed too much money from east coast lenders and was eased out of the business upon his return to Ponca City.
Although the couple had lost their fortune, newspapers still lit up during Lydie’s reign as Ponca City Princess. The pair attempted to move into what many were now calling the Palace on the Prairie, the over-the-top home E.W. had completed just in time to be a wedding gift for his young bride. Lydie became somewhat of a celebrity, attracting local and national press as the couple consistently hosted polo games, fox hunts and formal parties in the new mansion.
A guided tour uncovers breathtaking details such as Waterford crystals hanging from the chandeliers, gold leaf coverings on the ceilings and an elevator lined with buffalo skin.
Although much of their fortune had been lost, E.W. had just enough to get into politics. Frustrated with the banking system that drove him out of his own business, he campaigned, served in Congress and later became the 10th governor of Oklahoma. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed Lydie as the youngest and perhaps prettiest first lady Oklahoma had ever seen.
Visitors to the Marland Mansion today can experience the same opulence enjoyed by the Marland family. A guided tour uncovers breathtaking details such as Waterford crystals hanging from the chandeliers, gold leaf coverings on the ceilings and an elevator lined with buffalo skin. Rich tapestries hang on walls surrounded by detailed wall sconces and hand-carved oak paneled walls. E.W. spared no expense in creating the palace of his dreams.
Unfortunately, the newlyweds would live in the mansion for less time than it even took to build. Within two years of moving in the couple was unable to afford utilities in the sprawling estate and were forced to move into a smaller structure on the mansion grounds. The staggering cost of operating the mansion should have been no surprise to E.W., whose elaborate construction project ended with 861 light bulbs working to illuminate the four-level, 43,561-square-foot house.
E.W.’s over-the-top lifestyle came to a close with the heartbreaking sale of the mansion six months before he died. The mansion he built and furnished for $5.5 million was sold in 1941 to an order of monks for $66,000. He died of a heart ailment six months later in the cottage where he and Lydie resided.
The unique combination of extreme wealth, success and unusual circumstance of their marriage kept the rumor mills churning throughout their lives. Many speculated the age gap between E.W. and his young love had a hand in destroying his business success. Anyone who knew Lydie knew she had expensive tastes. A Pittsburg newspaper reported in 1934 that she enjoyed “a frolic with her Irish setters” and “a cool plunge” in her spare time and also spent time studying French and piano and visiting friends in Washington.
After the death of her husband, Lydie became a recluse. Many thought she had died and the Saturday Evening Post even ran an article titled “Where is Lyde Marland?” E.W. had spent his entire life proclaiming his love of Oklahoma and dedication to Ponca City, even promising to stay in town no matter how much money he acquired. However, it was easy for Lydie to leave town after his death and she spent 22 years as an elusive drifter while continuing to pay taxes on the small cottage on the property left in her name.
The Palace on the Prairie served as a home for monks from 1941 to 1948 and then a nunnery from 1948 to 1975 before Lydie returned to Ponca City to help facilitate the sale of the mansion for public use. The city of Ponca City and Conoco joined together to purchase the mansion and the 30-acre complex surrounding it. Lydie returned to live in the cottage from 1975 until her death in 1987, only visiting her beloved mansion a handful of times.
Many pieces of E.W.’s lavish life remain in Ponca City today, even outside the mansion walls. The millionaire conducted elaborate fox hunts on the property, shipping in special trainers, horses and red foxes. Although they’re not indigenous to Oklahoma, visitors can sometimes glimpse a red fox that much like E.W.’s extravagant hopes and dreams, got away from him.
While touring the mansion, don’t miss the Marland family statues. E.W. had his favorite sculptor design three statues of French limestone. Lydie’s statue is the most popular. Although she paid a man to destroy the statue after E.W.’s death, it was discovered buried in 1987 and was refurbished. It now sits in the lobby alongside the statue of her brother George.
Also, don’t forget to look up during your tour. A carving on the ceiling in the Hall of Merriment reveals a group of monks eating. Overhead on the balcony adjacent to E.W.’s living quarters on the North Terrace you’ll find the Latin phrase meaning “A man’s home is his castle” etched into the corbels.
E.W. didn’t miss a single detail in the house. Even the drainage system meets his standards for perfection. Gutters, drain pipes and water boxes made of lead bear the initial “M” and the date 1927. The elaborately decorated draining system includes ornate gargoyles overlooking the pool terrace and allows runoff to pour out the mouth of a Greek creature of mythology on the south terrace.
The oil baron was famous for his love of animals. He and Lydie’s two horses are buried at the mansion’s stable and he commissioned a famous Italian stone carver to create the likeness of his four dogs and place them along the west entrance of the mansion. Flanking the porte cochere entrance are windows with iron grill work featuring the heads of the dogs as well.
Recurring themes can be found throughout the architecture and décor in the mansion. Keep an eye out for dragons and angels as they appear in wall sconces, tile mosaics and doors throughout the home.
While still extravagant, guests should keep in mind that the mansion was even more over-the-top in its heyday. Several changes were made to the estate after E.W. died to make it easier to maintain. For example, an elaborate double Olympic-size pool was filled in, as well as four of the five lakes surrounding the mansion. Lake White Marsh, named for E.W.’s yacht, remains.