The Biltmore House & Estate...
Nov 8, 2011
|Today we visited the absolutely, amazing Biltmore Estate located in Asheville, North Carolina. We knew little about this property, other than the fact that our friends, as well as other reviewers, highly recommend it as a trip destination. Larry wasn't convinced, and after learning the entrance price, was even less so! But, a bit of research convinced me that we shouldn't pass it up. We're both glad that we didn't. I located a discount coupon which made the decision easier. We went to the property and purchased our tickets for the following morning. Each ticketed visitor is given a printed Map & Guide to help plan your visit so we got ours in plenty of time to look it over. A side note, there are staff that are placed in many of the rooms that are happy to provide even more info and stories about the place. But, after a bit of 'Googling', we decided that we needed to splurge with an additional $20 for a self-guided audio tour. It covered all rooms open to the public, and several additional three digit entries on the keypad gave more in-depth info on the artwork and life on the estate. Well worth the additional cost. If you visit, please don't pass this option up. Also, be prepared for some serious climbing of stairs.
We arrived and were directed to one of the parking lots, then we were driven by shuttle right to the front door, which also returned us to our vehicle at the end of our tour. We then drove ourselves to the other areas of the property that we were interested in seeing. We spent about 3 1/2 hours in the house, another hour in the gardens & conservatory and another hour in the Antler Hill Village & Winery. We were interested in the free wine tasting. A very nice selection is available for purchase afterward. We didn't shop or dine in any of the four restaurants, so it didn't take the 8-10 suggested hours! One other interesting note, a guide told us today that if you took all 4 of the tours offered, you would still see less than 19% of the home!
Even though I would not want the lifestyle we glimpsed today, it was very interesting to imagine, just for a moment, what it would feel like to be a part of this intriguing family. Three formal meals a day, including a 6 course lunch, promptly at 1:30 and an 8 course dinner, promptly at 8:30pm would not be my cup of tea. And yes, formal attire please! Since custom dictated correct clothing for every activity, there might be as many as 6-8 wardrobe changes a day. Of course, your personal maid/valet was there to take care of your every whim, as well as your wardrobe. Now that part I could handle! Plenty of parties to attend...No cooking, cleaning, laundry or ironing those elaborate gowns. Hmmmm, makes a girl think, lol!
In case you are not familiar with George Vanderbilt or this property, here's a bit of history for you.
In the 1880s, at the height of the Gilded Age, George Washington Vanderbilt, youngest son of industrialist William Henry Vanderbilt, began to make regular visits with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt (1821–1896), to the Asheville, NC area. He loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to create his own summer estate in the area, which he called his "little mountain escape", just as his older brothers and sisters had built opulent summer houses in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Hyde Park, New York.
His idea was to replicate the working estates of Europe. He commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Châteauesque style, using several Loire Valley French Renaissance architecture chateaux, including the Chateau de Blois, as models. Wanting the best, Vanderbilt employed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds, with gardens influenced by English & Italian designs. Olmsted was well known for designing the beautiful Central Park in New York, the U.S. Capitol grounds and many parks. He considered Biltmore his last great project. Beyond the gardens were the natural woodlands and agricultural lands with the intentionally rustic three-mile approach road passing through. Gifford Pinchot and later Carl Schenck were hired to manage the forests, with Schenck establishing the first forestry education program in the U.S., the Biltmore Forest School on the estate grounds in 1898. Intending that the estate could be self-supporting, Vanderbilt set up scientific forestry programs, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms and a dairy.
It took 1,000 workers and 6 years to build, but on Christmas Eve, 1895, George W. Vanderbilt officially opened Biltmore House. Great efforts were made to ensure all (or most!) would be ready by this special day. Mr. Vanderbilt was still a bachelor during that first Biltmore Christmas and his mother, Maria Louisa, presided as hostess. When George's mother, several of his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and assorted nieces and nephews arrived, they were greeted in the Banquet Hall by a splendidly tall tree laden with gifts for estate workers. At the foot of the tree was a table piled high with family gifts. Because of this, the Banquet Hall has always been the focal point for Christmas celebrations in Biltmore House.
The family and guests gathered around the forty-foot Banquet Hall table for elaborate dinners served both evenings. Mr. Vanderbilt's niece Gertrude kept a series of Dinner Books in which she recorded the seating arrangements of all of the parties and dinners she attended as a young woman, and she was one of the guests at the first Christmas dinner here in Biltmore House. Gertrude kept two Dinner Books in 1895, and the Christmas meal at Biltmore House was the 193rd formal dinner that she attended that year. In her diagram of the dinner, she listed 27 Vanderbilt family members. It was said to be the largest gathering of the family since the death of William Henry Vanderbilt, George's father, in 1885.
In addition to the grand meals and festive décor, stockings hung on mantles, plum puddings and mince pies were served, and George's mother read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' to the children. All in all, it must have been a grand time—one article even stated that the family exchanged gilded and jeweled Christmas cards.
Each year the Biltmore house has a new & different Christmas Theme. This year the house was completely decorated in this year's Christmas theme by November 4th, just a few days before our tour. Which made it all the more spectacular! Unfortunately, NO photos are allowed to be taken inside the home. I've 'borrowed' a few that are available online, although most are small. There is also a short video of the home being decorated for Christmas. They do give you somewhat of an idea of what we experienced and a couple of the photos, as well as the video, have decorations from past Christmas's. None as beautiful as this years I might add!
Although he was a bachelor when he opened the house, George fell in love in 1897. They were married in 1898 in Paris, and three years after opening the house, George brought his bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, to Biltmore. At age 25, she became the hostess of Biltmore and it was her responsibility to keep track of arriving guests, anticipate their needs and plan meals and social activities. She was also responsible for managing the house, visiting estate workers and their families, and bringing gifts to them when babies were born. Wow, very impressive job requirements for such a young woman. Statuesque with a tiny waist, Edith liked to dress dramatically and was known for her sense of humor. She had a passion for photography, often traveling around the estate with her box camera taking photographs. She was also very kind and giving to the estate workers and their children. See, it pays to have the audio for your tour!
In 1900, their only child Cornelia was born in the Louis XV Room. Cornelia was a welcome addition, frequently traveling with her parents to Europe or to their other homes. When at Biltmore, she studied and played with children of the estate workers. When Cornelia was old enough to accompany her mother, they would often visit with other families living on Biltmore and Cornelia had a number of favorite playmates as a result. One of them had this remembrance of a special birthday party at Biltmore, as captured in Biltmore's oral history archives:
"When I was a little girl, I was invited to a birthday party given at Biltmore House for Cornelia Vanderbilt. It was held in the Banquet Hall, where many flags were displayed. Games were played and the prizes were unbelievable, things like a bird cage with a live bird inside... At that time, birthday cakes often had metal charms, wrapped in wax paper, baked inside of them. If you got a little sewing machine it meant you were going to be a seamstress and things like that. A thimble meant you would remain a spinster. And a button for a young man meant you would remain single. There was always a dime baked into the cake and the person getting the dime was supposed to be rich when they grew up."
The oral history continues with a sweet account of how, when the dime wasn't found, Edith Vanderbilt began cutting through the remainder of the cake, afraid that someone may have swallowed it.
"She, of course, was afraid that someone had swallowed it, but when I reached home I asked my mother if Mrs. Vanderbilt was rich. I told her how Mrs. Vanderbilt had worried about the dime and, it seemed funny to me, if she was so rich, why she worried so much about not finding the dime."
Today there is a new exhibit entitled 'If These Walls Could Talk', including items such as Cornelia's baby carriage and porcelain doll, archival family photographs, and excerpts of private letters describing the joyous occasion of the birth of George and Edith Vanderbilt's only child. She was only 14 years of age when she tragically lost her father. Family photographs show a very loving relationship between father and daughter. Born in the home her father so lovingly built, Cornelia also chose to give birth to her two sons in this special space. Like their mother, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil were born in the LXV Room in 1925 and 1928, respectively.
During the early 1900's, the Vanderbilts invited family and friends from across the country to the opulent estate. As many as 350 were present at some of these gatherings and they occasionally lasted for days or even weeks. Diplomats, politicians, artists and writers often celebrated special occasions while staying on the estate. At one party in the 1920's, guests spent three weeks painting scenes of every description on the walls of a room in the basement, now known as the Halloween Room. They are still visible today. In the Billiard Room guests played dominoes and billiards and enjoyed evening refreshments.
But, Vanderbilt paid little attention to the family business or his own investments, and it is believed that the construction and upkeep of Biltmore depleted much of his inheritance. After Vanderbilt died in 1914 of complications from an emergency appendectomy, his widow, Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, completed the sale of 85,000 of the original 125,000 acres to the federal government. This was to carry out her husband's wish that the land remain unaltered, and that property became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest. She and Cornelia continued to call Biltmore home. In 1924, Cornelia married the Honorable John Amherst Cecil, and they lived and entertained in Biltmore House. In response to requests to increase area tourism during the Depression and to bring in money to preserve the estate, the Cecil's opened the house to the public in March 1930. Family members continued to live there until 1956, when it was permanently opened to the public as a house museum.
Today, Biltmore House is still the largest privately-owned home in the United States. This magnificent French Renaissance chateau contains 250 rooms complete with 65 fireplaces, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, an indoor pool, a bowling alley and more. Filling the rooms are priceless treasures including paintings by some of the world's most highly esteemed artists such as Renoir, Sargent and Whistler. In the salon, a gaming table and chess set, once owned by Napoleon, are displayed and Ming Dynasty goldfish bowls grace the 10,000 volume library. Covering the marble and oak flooring are 50 exquisite Persian and Oriental rugs, while fine 16th-century tapestries adorn the walls.
The estate covers approximately 8,000 acres and is split in half by the French Broad River. Owned by the Biltmore Company, it is controlled by Vanderbilt's grandson, William A.V. Cecil, I, and run by his son, William A.V. Cecil II, the great-grandson of George Washington Vanderbilt. In 1964, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The dairy farm was split off into Biltmore Farms, run by William Cecil's brother, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil. He converted the former dairy barn into the Biltmore Winery.
A major tourist attraction, the Biltmore Estate has almost 1,000,000 visitors each year. Visitors from all over the world continue to marvel at the 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, early 20th century exercise equipment, two-story library, and other rooms filled with artworks, furniture and 19th-century novelties such as elevators, forced-air heating, centrally-controlled clocks, fire alarms and an intercom system. My favorite room was the library, without a doubt. Well, the main library. Vanderbilt put bookshelves throughout the entire place.
In addition, the grounds include 75 acres of formal gardens, a winery that provides more than 250 tons of grapes for the Biltmore Estate Winery, as well as farmland, pastures and forests. In addition to Biltmore House, the estate operates four restaurants, eight shops, its award-winning winery and the 213-room Inn opened in the Spring of 2001. It currently employs over 1,900 locals. Amazing!
P.S. Sorry about posting so many pics again today...I'm having the hardest time cutting them down! Also, I located a short video of 'Christmas At Biltmore' which will give you an idea of the Christmas decorating we saw on our tour today. Enjoy!
Christmas At Biltmore