Published: February 12th 2012May 13th 2011
Statue of Diana at the Biltmore
I spent today in Asheville
, North Carolina, visiting the Biltmore
It’s a Gilded Age masterpiece that happens to be the largest house ever built in the US.
Visiting here creates a painful dilemma.
Biltmore is an entirely private attraction, so it charges very high admission fees
to pay the cost of keeping the place running.
The fees are so high that the only way to justify a visit is to spend the entire day seeing everything it has to offer.
Thanks to the schedule I had to keep, this meant I had to choose between seeing Biltmore and seeing anything else in Ashville.
I ultimately chose Biltmore, because a sight this impressive is just too important to pass up.
It put every other house tour I have seen so far to shame. Biltmore
was built by George Washington Vanderbilt
, the younger brother of William Vanderbilt who built the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park (see March 4th
His inheritance was thirteen million dollars of New York Central railroad stock.
He spent a large percentage of it building this house and estate.
Biltmore and Mountains
The Biltmore with the Blue Ridge behind it, the most famous view in North Carolina.
knows exactly how much, because he paid everything in cash and kept no records.
George Vanderbilt first came to Ashville in the late 1890s.
At the time, it had the reputation of a health resort.
He fell in love with the place and the North Carolina mountains.
He started quietly acquiring land.
He ultimately bought multiple square miles worth.
He built his house close to town, and everything he could see to the north and west, he owned.
The estate is a classic example of what can happen when someone with money meets people with taste.
George Washington Vanderbilt wanted the best available, and he paid enough to get it.
He hired Richard Morris Hunt
, one of the best architects of the era, to design the house.
He had worked with Hunt on other projects, and trusted him completely.
This trust was important, because it meant Hunt could design without interference.
For the grounds, George hired the preeminent landscape architect of his day, Frederick Law Olmstead
Olmstead was near the end of his career, but the prospect of thousands of acres
A closer view of the Biltmore. This is less than half the house!
to work with (four times the size of Central Park!) and a nearly unlimited budget was too good to pass up.
Between them, they created an estate that would make a European prince jealous.
One first experiences the estate on the entrance road.
It looks like a lush landscape, but in fact every bit of it was deliberately designed.
It followed a winding stream through a narrow valley.
Large trees hang over the road, and there are azalea and mountain laurel bushes everywhere.
Periodically, the stream is dammed to form small ponds.
These are filled with lily plants.
I found out later that the ponds are the one part of the grounds that are not faithful to the original design.
George Washington Vanderbilt added them in the 1920s so carriage horses would have a place to drink.
Soon enough, the road reaches a series of parking lots.
These were not part of the original design either. :)
The lots are hidden in the trees, so they do not detract from the overall landscape.
The parking areas are surprisingly large given the
George Vanderbilt's Blue Ridge
The view of the Blue Ridge from the back porch. At the time George Vanderbilt lived here, he owned everything he could see in this view.
After parking, one can either take a shuttle to the house or hike a short trail.
I took the trail.
It passes through pine trees, and then forks.
Taking the upper fork reaches a sculpture of Diana
It’s located in a gazebo covered in lilacs.
The statue is located on the top of a hill at the end of a long lawn.
When seeing it, look only at the statue to maximize the effect of what comes next.
Turn around slowly, and see the Biltmore house at the bottom of the hill with endless mountains behind it, perfectly framed by the trees on either side of the lawn.
This may be the most famous view in North Carolina, and it shows Olmstead’s genius.
Reaching the bottom of the lawn, one encounters a set of steps.
These pass through a series of fountains.
At the bottom is the carriage road, and the front lawn of the house.
It also contains fountains.
The house stretches like a neoclassical wall on the far side.
Needless to say, the purpose of
This building is the original carriage house. The photo covers only half of it. Its now a huge complex of gift shops.
all this was to show the wealth of George Washington Vanderbilt.
Biltmore House by Richard Morris Hunt
The house is seen on self-guided tours.
Guided ones are available, but they (of course) cost more.
The standard route covers roughly half the house.
Be prepared to walk over a mile!
Richard Morris Hunt had a very coherent vision for the Biltmore.
Both he and his patron where enamored with French architecture, so he copied the Biltmore from chateaus in the Loire Valley
Both the scale and the workmanship take ones breath away.
The first thing people see is an indoor garden.
These were a popular feature for the wealthy at the turn of last century.
This one is filled with tropical plants and flowers under an elaborately carved ceiling of skylights.
The dining room resembles the central hall of a medieval castle.
It’s three stories tall, and has five fireplaces!
The upper level contains intricate sculptures that represent the four seasons.
Unlike many houses of this time, all the sculptures in the house were specifically created for
The Italian Garden at the Biltmore
the Biltmore rather than being bought from somewhere else.
The dining room contains two tables.
One is very long and covered in flowers.
The Vanderbilts used this when entertaining guests.
A much smaller table is located near the end of the room.
The Vanderbilts used this one when they were here by themselves.
The library is even more impressive than the dining room.
George Washington Vanderbilt loved to read.
He ultimately collected ten thousand books.
Half of them are in the Biltmore library, in rows that reach to the ceiling.
The ceiling is covered in a large painting by Giovanni Antonio that Vanderbilt bought from an Italian palace in Venice.
It’s the only architectural element that is not original to the house.
A secret door is hidden behind one of the bookcases.
During the Gilded Age, it was considered unseemly for a gentleman to appear in the public areas of his house without proper dress.
The secret door allowed George to grab a book in his pajamas to read at night without people noticing.
The back parlor is worth
Part of the shrub garden at the Biltmore
It has windows that open out on to the back porch, with incredible views of the mountains beyond.
The Vanderbilts would often hold formal dances in this room.
The walls contain five separate portraits by John Singer Sargent
Three are Vanderbilt family members.
The other two are the architects, Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmstead.
Like any good Gilded Age house, this one had a games room.
It’s much larger than those in other houses.
While this shows off George Vanderbilt’s wealth and taste, it also had a practical function.
Ashville at the time was still far from civilization, so any guests that came stayed for a month.
The room ensured they would always have entertainment available.
It is filled with games of all sort, from billiards to cards and dice.
Next door is a room filled with rifles, so people could hunt on a moment’s notice.
After more public rooms, the tour moves upstairs.
The first view is the grand central staircase.
The outer walls are stained glass.
In the center is a chandelier with
Roughly one fourth of the English Garden at Biltmore
three separate levels, one for each floor above the first.
The second floor was the family’s private quarters.
There are lots of rooms here, for a family of only three people!
The most impressive has to be the Louis XIV bedroom, which was based on a room at Versailles
It’s a riot of red and gold leaf.
The Vanderbilt’s children were born in this room.
Every bedroom has its own bathroom.
They are state of the art for 1890, with indoor plumbing and showers.
The tour then moves into the third floor.
It does so by one of the servants’ staircases.
Servants would never be seen on the main stairs, so they had to have their own.
These stairs are rather cramped.
Even though the area is pretty plan, the workmanship is still first rate.
Richard Morris Hunt did not cut corners at any point.
Since the guest rooms are all similar, the tour only goes through some of them.
The rooms were strictly segregated by family status: married couples in one area, single women in another, and single men exiled to
English Garden and greenhouse
Another section of the English Garden at Biltmore, with the greenhouse in the background. The structure on the right is the gabezo.
the farthest reaches of the house.
It must be noted that the single men’s quarters alone were larger than most houses at the time.
The last part of the tour covers the basement.
Part of it is another recreation area.
Biltmore has one of the first indoor bowling alleys in the US.
It’s a long thin room paneled in wood.
Automatic pin setting machines did not exist at the time, so a servant had to manually reset them after every frame.
Next door is the pool.
It was empty.
At the bottom was a long hose, which was used to fill the pool from the boiler next door.
Chlorination did not exist at the time, so the pool was refilled every time the family used it.
The rest of the basement contains the servants’ area.
This is where all the work took place to allow the Vanderbilts to live in such splendor.
It’s the size of the staff area of a small hotel, and served about the same function.
There are three separate kitchens: one for cooking meat, one for
Part of the Azalea Garden at Biltmore. Its much more of a forest than a garden. Note the flowers on the right.
making pastries, and one for everything else.
George wanted to keep the odors separate, so the flavor or each dish would not be contaminated.
The kitchens are made of concrete, to reduce the fire risk.
Nearby is the laundry room, which is equal to that in most hotels at the time.
All washing had to be done by hand.
Drying was done by hanging the laundry over heaters; it wouldn’t do to have it hanging outside, now would it?
Next to this is the servants’ dining room.
The servants had their own chef, who cooked food just for them (yes, the Vanderbilt servants had their own servants!)
Near this area are the dorm rooms where servants actually lived.
Most servants were on call twenty four hours a day.
To me, they looked like better than average jail cells.
The house tour ends after this.
Most house tours end in the gift shop.
It says something about the Biltmore that the former carriage stables have been turned into five separate gift shops
, plus two casual eateries and an ice cream parlor.
The Biltmore has
The Bass Pond at Biltmore. The entire thing is artificial, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
an entire shop just for books, and another for Biltmore branded home furnishings.
I had lunch in the sandwich shop.
The food was better than your average deli, at prices that were significantly higher.
Biltmore Gardens by Frederic Law Olmstead
Until this point, I had spent time exploring the legacy of Richard Morris Hunt.
I spent the rest of the time exploring Frederic Law Olmstead.
of Biltmore are divided into roughly two parts, one very formal and one much less formal.
I find it interesting that this matches the rough design for Middleton Place (see April 1st
) even though it was all done by one person.
The formal gardens are arranged on terraces stepping down to the French Broad River.
The first garden is the Italian Garden.
It’s a riot of pools, fountains, and plants laid out with geometric precision.
It’s also long and narrow.
The scrub garden comes next.
This garden is filled with flowering trees, with paths meandering through them.
It must have been a really fun place to play hide and seek.
A formal lawn within the Deer Park section of the Biltmore Estate.
The third garden tier is the formal English garden.
I’ve seen this garden style
many times by this point, including a near copy of this design at Reynolda [see Pigs and Tobacco
The difference, of course, is size and luxuriousness.
English gardens are square, and divided into four quadrants.
Plants are arranged in each quadrant so they are mirror images of each other.
The type of the flowers and their color varies, but the overall design must match.
Here, a gazebo runs through the center from one end to the other.
A wide path runs across the garden at the midway point to create the four quadrants.
Within each quadrant, the flowers are arranged in circles.
Surrounding it all is a high stone wall with marble gates.
On the far end, there is a large greenhouse, also designed by Hunt.
Starting with the next tier, things become more informal.
The next garden is the Azalea garden.
Azaleas grow wild here, and this large garden is filled with them.
It’s worth noting that many of the varieties were brought here from elsewhere in the South.
Biltmore exit road
A typical view of the Biltmore exit road. Every part of this landscape was deliberately designed.
This garden also has a number of other trees and plants, so the effect is more of an azalea filled wilderness rather than a solid landscape of flowers (contrast this with Middleton Place, where an entire hillside was planted with azaleas and nothing else: South Carolina Plantation Country
I’m pretty sure that was the point; landscape architecture at the time held that wilderness-like areas had a calming effect on people.
Below this tier is yet another area, the Bass Pond.
The pond is entirely artificial, but Olmstead designed it to look natural.
It’s surrounded by trees, native mountain laurel, and other plants.
A small boat dock sits on the shore, which is as well designed as the house.
George Washington Vanderbilt and his guests could go boating on the pond, and fish for bass.
(Yes, he had a privately stocked pond just so he could fish on his estate).
Beyond the Bass Pond lies a large naturalistic area called Deer Park, where George often when hunting.
I didn’t explore it very much due to time constraints.
The road out of the estate provided one last reminder to George Vanderbilt’s guests (and us) just how wealthy he was.
Since the road out first passes the house entrance lawn, the visitor gets one last look at the incredible view of the house.
A number of people can’t resist stopping to get one last picture, which causes traffic jams.
Beyond this, the carriage road winds its way through the gardens.
It passes directly next to the English Garden, for instance, giving every guest a full view of its grander.
It later passes the Azalea Garden, and then the pond.
From here, it winds its way along the river banks.
I ran into another traffic jam here, caused by a group of geese on the riverbank.
From here, it winds its way past fields.
At one point, these fields held a herd of horses.
Eventually, the road reaches the entrance gate and the main highway.
Biltmore has one road to get in, and a completely separate road to get back out.
On the way out, the former gate guardhouse has been turned into one last gift shop, so visitors can pick up anything they may have missed earlier.