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The Biltmore Estate

February 3, 2019

Measuring nearly 179,000 square feet, the Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned home in America. Constructed between 1889 and 1895, this impressive architectural marvel—the epitome of Gilded Age grandeur—originally served as George Washington Vanderbilt II’s summer retreat home, intended only to be accessed by highly-esteemed members of society. Over the years, however, the estate’s purpose evolved into something much greater. Biltmore became a major stimulus to the local economy, promoted the development of arts and skilled craftsmanship, and was a primary advocate for forest conservancy. Over 1.4 million visitors flock to this once-exclusive estate each year, eager to become enthralled by one man’s vision and appreciation for natural and architectural splendor.

 

George Washington Vanderbilt II was born on Staten Island, New York, November 14, 1862. He was the youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt and grandson of shipping tycoon and railroad magnate Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. George was described as a quiet, introverted young man who had a passion for arts and literature. He was studious and a rapacious reader, fluent in eight languages and a high-honor graduate from Columbia University.

 

In 1888, George and his mother, Maria, traveled to rural North Carolina to escape the pollution of New York City and provide relief for Maria’s chronic malaria. While touring the Asheville countryside, George became enamored with the rolling meadows of the French Broad Valley and peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially Mount Pisgah. He immediately acquired large tracts of land around Lone Pine Mountain and requested the services of architects Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted to make his dream vacation home a reality.  

 

Richard Morris Hunt was regarded as one of the most prolific architects of the 19th century. His grand designs and attention to detail earned him numerous contracts from America’s wealthiest patrons. He built magnificent halls on college campuses, catered to the millionaires on New York’s 5th Avenue—including George Vanderbilt’s brother, William—and constructed the New York Tribune Building, which was the second-tallest building in the city at the time.

 

Frederick Law Olmsted is arguably the greatest park designer in U.S. history. He pioneered the field of landscape architecture and took great pride in horticulture and natural conservancy. He had the uncanny ability to arrange environmental elements in specific patterns, creating some of the world’s most compelling and aesthetically-pleasing parks and gardens. Among his most famous works are the United States Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C., Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan, and New York City’s Central Park.

 

By 1889, Vanderbilt had acquired 125,000 acres of land for his estate. Olmsted suggested the manor be placed on the lower slope of Lone Pine Mountain, which offered an unadulterated view of Mount Pisgah and the surrounding French Broad Valley. As Olmsted prepared the land for development, Vanderbilt and Hunt made a trip to Europe. Vanderbilt, an avid collector of fine arts and literature, spent time acquiring coveted European décor and furniture for his future home, while Hunt toured the French and English countrysides looking for architectural inspiration. One estate, in particular, caught Hunt’s attention: Waddesdon Manor—a Neo-French Renaissance Chateauesque-style mansion constructed for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion emulated the Chateaux of the Loire Valley in France with elaborate ornamentation, turrets, gargoyles, and iconic steep-pitched roofs. Hunt used these architectural qualities in his design for the Biltmore Estate. Once Vanderbilt approved the design, construction was underway.

 

In the midst of his land acquisition, Vanderbilt purchased the neighboring town of Best, North Carolina, and renamed it Biltmore Village. The Village served as living quarters for the nearly one thousand construction workers conscripted to build the estate and develop its grounds. Vanderbilt, using his own funds, ordered the construction of a three-mile rail spur from the main line to the town to make the importation of raw materials and other goods easier. He also organized a small hospital, sawmill, brick foundry, and church on the premises. All of Vanderbilt’s development required labor, which led to a surge in job opportunities for the impecunious Appalachian community of Asheville.

 

Despite the abundant workforce, construction was slow-going at times. Limestone was transported from Indiana via railroad, and the delivery of goods could take well over a week. Subfreezing temperatures in the winter months prevented masonry work and the subsequent spring thaw saturated the clay in the ground, which made brick production nearly impossible.   

 

As construction on the house slowly progressed, Olmsted was busy developing the extensive tract of land for the Biltmore Estate. Much of the land Vanderbilt acquired was either overworked farmland or poorly forested patches of woods. Olmsted spent much of his time developing reforestation programs to make the land more hospitable for his developmental vision. In 1892, Olmsted gained the assistance of Gifford Pinchot to implement forest conservancy on the property. The duo and their workforce planted nearly three million trees around the property between 1892 and 1895. The concerted effort of Olmsted and Pinchot to revitalize the natural terrain earned Biltmore the distinction of being the first privately-owned property to engage in scientific forestry on a large scale.  

 

On July 31, 1895, less than five months before Biltmore was completed, Richard Morris Hunt died after a prolonged period of declining health. The final stages of construction were overseen by his associates, Richard Sharp Smith and Warrington Lawrence. George Vanderbilt formally opened his estate on December 24, 1895.

 

By the time of its completion, Vanderbilt’s extravagant mansion contained 255 rooms and nearly 2.4 million cubic feet of space. However, Biltmore was more than commodious. The mansion also sported two elevators, hot water, refrigeration, indoor toilets, electricity, and telephone service, major utilitarian advances of the day. In addition, the house was made fireproof due to the volatile nature of early electric wiring. Over eighty servants were hired to maintain the manor’s day-to-day functions. It is reported that the construction and continuous upkeep of the home virtually depleted George Vanderbilt’s inheritance.

 

Vanderbilt arrived at Biltmore a bachelor but married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser three years later in 1898. That same year, Gifford Pinchot left the estate to head the Division of Forestry (later the United States Forestry Service). He was replaced by Dr. Carl A Schneck who founded the Biltmore Forest School (1898-1913), the nation’s first professional forestry school.

 

In 1900, Edith gave birth to the couple’s only child, Cornelia. The following year, the Vanderbilts founded Biltmore Estate Industries, an apprenticeship program that taught traditional craftsmanship practices (such as weaving and woodworking) to young men and women in Asheville.

 

On March 6, 1914, tragedy struck the Vanderbilt family after patriarch George died from a botched appendectomy. Widow Edith continued to live in Biltmore after her husband’s death and fulfilled his wishes of selling off some of the estate’s land to forest conservancy. Edith ended up selling 86,700 acres to the U.S. government, the majority of which formed the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest. She later sold Biltmore Industries in 1917 and Biltmore Village in 1921 to consolidate her responsibilities to the main estate. In 1924, Cornelia Vanderbilt married British diplomat John Cecil and moved into the estate. The couple bore two children: George Henry (b. 1925) and William Amherst (b. 1928).

 

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. While the Cecils possessed a safety net of old money, the greater Asheville community suffered. Local industries struggled greatly, displacing many citizens from work. In response to the downfallen economy, the Cecils opened Biltmore to the public as a way to create hundreds of new jobs, increase tourism, and revitalize the local community.

 

John and Cornelia Cecil divorced in 1934. Cornelia left the estate while John maintained residence there for another two decades. During World War II, Biltmore housed valuable paintings and sculptures from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. as a precautionary measure barring an attack on the U.S. mainland. The property was passed to William and George Cecil following their father’s death in 1954 and the estate remains in the hands of George Vanderbilt’s descendants to this day.

 

When I entered the Biltmore Estate grounds, I was infatuated by the size of the mansion and its surrounding property. It is unfathomable to imagine that this magnificent homestead originally belonged to just one man! Before I entered the mansion, I climbed the Rampe Douce (double staircase) on the slope of Lone Pine Mountain to get a downhill view of the estate. As I walked back toward the main house, I noticed a spiral column next to the front façade, adorned with gargoyles and statuettes. This impressive external feature is the stair tower, inspired by Chateau de Blois and sculpted by Karl Bitter.

 

I walked through the mansion’s massive double doors and was greeted by an extravagant entrance hall. To my right was the Winter Garden—an octagonal indoor sunken garden with another Karl Bitter sculpture, Boy Stealing Geese, at its center. Adjacent to the garden is the Banquet Hall. This colossal room, fashioned much like a medieval castle, measures 42’ x 72’ with a 70-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling and is lined with 16th century Flemish tapestries. To the upper right of the dining table is the Organ Loft, which features a 1916 Skinner pipe organ. Around the corner from the Banquet Hall are the Breakfast Room, Music Room, and Salon.

 

Across from the Salon is the Loggia, a covered exterior gallery that offers unparalleled views of Biltmore’s Deer Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Flanking the Loggia is the Tapestry Hall, which displays the 1530s Flemish Tapestry The Triumph of the Seven Virtues. At the end of the hall is the Library, one of the most impressive room in the mansion, in my opinion. The two-story Library holds 10,000 volumes of classic literature from Vanderbilt’s personal collection and exhibits the original Chariot of Aurora (c. 1720s) by Giovanni Pellegrini on its ceiling, transferred to Biltmore from Venice’s Pisani Palace during the 1890s.  

 

After finishing the tour on the first floor, I ascended the limestone cantilevered staircase to the second floor living hall. I entered Mr. Vanderbilt’s chambers, adorned with 17th century Portuguese furniture and an ornate walnut canopy bed. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s room, furnished in a King Louis XV style, adjoins Mr. Vanderbilt’s via the Oak Sitting Room. The third floor exhibits four luxurious guest rooms of the estate—the Damask Room, the Claude Room, the Tyrolean Chimney Room, and the Louis XV Room.

 

From the third floor, I descended down to the basement. I entered a long stone hallway that had the ambiance of an old world castle and made my way to the Halloween Room, which exhibits pictures and narratives of Biltmore’s construction. The walls of the Halloween room, which display some unusual color palettes, were decorated by John and Cornelia Cecil for their 1925 New Year’s Eve party.

 

I was greeted by a two-lane bowling alley walking out from the Halloween Room. I passed a row of dressing rooms and entered the heated indoor swimming pool. The pool can hold 70,000 gallons of water and features an early example of underwater lighting. The tile work around the pool, which consists of terracotta tiles set in a herringbone pattern, was arranged by famed engineer Rafael Guastavino. It is rather ironic, however, that Vanderbilt installed a pool in his home when he couldn’t swim! This feature speaks volumes to Vanderbilt’s willingness and desire to accommodate the needs of his guests.

 

Outside of the recreational area, I reached the servant’s quarters. This area of the mansion is fitted with bed chambers for the workforce, a rotisserie, pastry kitchen, and main kitchen. A cooking staff of over a dozen workers was needed to fulfill daily operations. Adjacent to the main kitchen are the walk-in refrigerator, laundry area, and servant dining room. After finishing up the basement, I climbed back up the stairs once more and entered the final stretch of the tour: the Bachelor’s Wing. This small section of the house consists of a Billiards Room, Smoking Room, and Gun Room—areas where Vanderbilt treated his male guests during social events.

 

It took me a little over 90 minutes to walk through the house…but my tour was far from over! The Biltmore Estate is far more than a mansion tour. There’s miles of pedestrian trails, beautiful gardens, horseback riding, wine tasting, and an entire village resort dedicated to the Vanderbilt name!

 

I decided to stroll through the sprawling system of gardens Frederick Law Olmsted had so brilliantly assembled 120 years ago. Although most of its blooms were out of season, the sheer scale of the grounds was nothing short of spectacular. My first stop was the South Terrace, a shaded outdoor extension of the Library that offered guests fresh air and relaxation during the warmer months of the year. Adjacent to the terrace is the Italian Garden. This arrangement of sculptures and reflecting pools, as Olmsted explained, created “an outdoor room conducive to quiet contemplation and leisurely games.” Matches of tennis and croquet were frequently played on its greens while koi and goldfish populated its pools during the summers.

 

A tier below the Italian Garden is the Shrub Garden (also known as the Ramble). Olmsted cultivated 43,382 plants from 669 varieties in this four-acre section of land. Over five hundred species of plant still thrive today. The Shrub Garden adjoins to the equally as extensive Spring Garden, which features groves of hemlocks and white pine trees.

 

After exploring the outer gardens, I made my way inside the Walled Garden. This formal garden exhibits a cornucopia of flowers and vegetation with each specie individually plotted and marked. During the spring months, the garden erupts with a vibrant spectacle of over 75,000 tulip blossoms, akin to the flowering fields of the Netherlands.

 

Below the Walled Gardens is the Conservatory—a grand greenhouse designed by Richard Hunt to nurture countless species of exotic plants. It was below freezing during my trip to Biltmore, but the Conservatory maintained a tepid tropical temperature. The building displayed beautiful arrangements of orchids, vines, and other blossoming plants.

 

Past the greenhouse are the Azalea Gardens, one of the country’s largest collection of native azaleas. This fifteen-acre garden represents the life’s work of horticulturist and Biltmore superintendent Chauncey Beadle, who collected thousands of samples of azaleas. From the Azalea Garden, I walked the mile-long loop down to Bass Pond. This area of the estate sports 22 more miles of hiking and nature trails, a towering man-made waterfall, and a curved brick bridge. The bridge, which was designed by Olmsted, is a coveted feature of the estate and was featured in the movie Last of the Mohicans (1992).

 

Once I was finished touring the main grounds, I drove to the Antler Hill Village and Winery, Biltmore’s once-bustling farm community. Today, the Village caters guests with restaurants, gift shops, luxurious hotels, and a winery. The Winery—America’s most-visited—is housed in Biltmore’s former dairy (c. 1902). Milk production was the leading agricultural enterprise for Biltmore, and it eventually evolved into one of the largest operations in North Carolina. At its peak, the Biltmore Dairy contained 140 head of cattle, producing cream, butter, and nationally-renowned ice cream.  

 

The Winery was established by William A.V. Cecil and Philippe Jourdain in 1971, although the company didn’t open to the public until 1985. Jourdain, a 6th-generation sommelier, spearheaded the cultivation and development of Biltmore’s wine, introducing sophisticated techniques from the wine-producing regions of France. The present facility contains a wine library of every vintage created at Biltmore and uses 1500-2500 barrels for their current batches. Wine tastings are free with every admission…not a bad way to wind down after a long day of sightseeing.

 

The Biltmore Estate has become one of my favorite destinations. The stateliness of the mansion and its grounds, paired with its history, is quite remarkable. Frederick Law Olmsted called Biltmore “the crowning jewel of [his] career,” and rightly so. While admission to Biltmore ranges between $50-60, remember that Biltmore is so much more than a house. There are expansive gardens, special tours and events, and an entire village waiting to be experienced! Biltmore is art expressed in the mediums of architecture and nature and deserves to be visited.

 

 

 

Visit the estate's official website for more on Biltmore and admission information!

Read reviews from Explore Asheville and Garden and Gun to gain a more historic perspective of the property!

 

 

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