THE MANICURED SLOPES beneath the balcony on which I stand stretch languidly toward the Blue Ridge far off in the dreamy distance. Behind me loom the limestone walls of George Vanderbilt III’s massive masterpiece burned honey gold by the setting sun. I am at Biltmore, the pride of Asheville, N.C., and I am at home here. It feels right. Proper. And as I gaze in thoughtful reverie at the still waters of the estate’s lagoon I contemplate my next words carefully. Finally, I speak.
“Okay, you people! Stop with the stupid selfies. What’s with the grungy T-shirts? You couldn’t put on something decent? And can’t you do SOMETHING about those screaming children?”
All right, I didn’t really say that. That would have been rude, and there is something about Biltmore that just doesn’t tolerate rudeness. People were meant to behave properly here. Manners were observed. Civility was practiced. Most of my fellow tourists got the idea, but then there always is that measured few who flout propriety. I expect Mr. Vanderbilt would not have invited them for a second visit.
As for me, he would quickly have tired of my presence for I would move in permanently if allowed, the guest who never left. Chatelaine or scullery maid, it wouldn’t matter. Just as long as I could freely move from room to room, upstairs and down, taking in every detail of Biltmore’s stunning architecture, art, antiques and furnishings.
By all accounts that was Vanderbilt’s intention. Biltmore was his crowning achievement, a palace built in the French Renaissance style for the pleasure and relaxation of his family and friends. His immediate family numbered only three, himself, his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia. But his guests were legion, and showing them Biltmore was his pleasure. Yet there was much more to the estate than simply showing it off. There was substance.
A LITTLE HISTORY
George Washington Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his first fortune with steamships and a second one with railroads. George Vanderbilt first visited North Carolina in 1888 on trips there with his mother, who was seeking the health benefits of the mild climate and mineral springs. He was enchanted by the mountainous beauty of the area and thought it perfect for a new home. In the book “Biltmore, An American Masterpiece,” George Vanderbilt’s great-grandson, Bill Cecil Jr., writes of his great-grandfather’s vision for Biltmore as “one of a self-sufficient estate, where a home equipped with cutting-edge technology would stand at the center of a carefully designed working farm, beautiful park and woods.”
Vanderbilt enlisted architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to help him achieve his dream. He then began buying parcels of land and amassed 125,000 acres. Construction of Biltmore House began in 1889, and over the next six years an army of craftsmen and laborers constructed the 250-room chateau that to this day remains the largest private residence in the country.
A FEW FACTS AND FIGURES
The floor space of the house is the equivalent of four acres.
Among the 250 rooms are 34 family and guest bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, a bowling alley and a heated 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool.
Biltmore House was the “smart house” of its era, boasting the latest technology of the 19th century. It had central heating, electricity, central plumbing, mechanical refrigeration, fire alarms and an elevator. The original elevator, with its original motor, is still in service and continues to be maintained by its maker, the Otis Elevator Company.
The library contains 10,000 volumes, which is slightly less than half of Vanderbilt’s 23,000-volume collection.
George Vanderbilt died in 1914 at the age of 51. He had barely 20 years of living at Biltmore. Edith Vanderbilt, overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing such a large estate, sold approximately 87,000 acres to the United States Forest Service for less than $5 an acre. That parcel became the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest.
In 1930 Biltmore House, then under the supervision of George and Edith’s daughter, Cornelia, and her husband, John Cecil, opened to the public as a way to help finance the estate and bring tourism dollars to Depression-poor Asheville. Admission was $2.
Today the estate, still owned by the family, includes 8,000 acres and remains the successful, self-sufficient working farm George Vanderbilt envisioned more than 100 years ago.
IN GOOD ORDER
There is much to take in and enjoy at Biltmore. Biltmore House, naturally, is the crown jewel, but there also are the restaurants, the winery, shops, extensive gardens and trails, the ponds, carriage rides and much, much more. The Inn on Biltmore Estate offers lovely and comfortable accommodations with a friendly, attentive staff that takes its hospitality assignment seriously, just as Mr. Vanderbilt would have expected.
Everything at Biltmore is about making guests comfortable and welcomed. This is just as it was when the house hosted its first guests all those years ago. Visitors would arrive by train in Asheville where they were met by carriage to begin the miles-long meandering ride through carefully cultivated parkland to the house. The ride gave them a chance to relax and de-stress while taking in the genius of Olmsted’s handiwork. Their trunks and servants would take a shorter route so that by the time the honored guest got her first jaw-dropping glimpse of Vanderbilt’s soaring chateau everything in her rooms would be unpacked and seamlessly in order.
Personally, I crave order. Many may find it boring and unimaginative, but for me order is exactly what allows me the freedom to imagine. When everything is in its proper place and protocol is being observed then the mind can wander unfettered to new ideas.
I would have relished drifting from room to room with Vanderbilt’s distinguished guests listening to their conversations, marveling at their dress, absorbing their opinions on the topics of the day. I would have followed them from the library, to the winter garden, to the billiards room, the smoking room, the tapestry gallery, the oak sitting room or either of the living halls just to hear the likes of Edith Wharton and her set dish about the Gilded Age. At bedtime I would have retired to an elegant bedroom to reflect upon the highlights of the day just passed and wonder at what the following day might hold.
Yes, I know. I’m a fuddy-duddy. But say what you will, I did notice this: All those unruly visitors who began the tour with me, one by one began to settle down and assume a bit of decorum as we progressed from room to room. Their better selves began to emerge. See, order will do that to you.
Now, if I can just get my hands on a trunk.
Kathy Legg is Art Director of My LittleBird.
More on Kathy Legg.
Where to stay: The Inn at Biltmore boasts four-star luxury accommodations. The Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate is newly opened and a bit more casual than the Inn. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom English-style Cottage on Biltmore Estate promises luxurious privacy. The city of Asheville also offers numerous hotel accommodations.
Biltmore’s admission price of $50 includes entry to Biltmore House and access to the gardens, the shops and restaurants of Antler Hill Village and a guided tour and complimentary tasting at the winery. The 90-minute audio guided tour of Biltmore House is $10.98 per person. The guide-led tour of Biltmore House, the guided rooftop tour and the behind-the-scenes upstairs/downstairs tour all require advance reservations and cost $17 per person. The Legacy of the Land tour, advance reservations recommended, costs $19 per person. The premium Biltmore House tour is a two-hour private tour with your own guide. The cost is $150 per adult.