THE BILTMORE ESTATE – Asheville, NC
WARREN RESEN –North American Travel Journalists member
JEANNE O’CONNOR – photographer
When George Washington Vanderbilt began planning and building his home, which today is still the largest private residence ever built in America, he was a 28 year old bachelor. It took 6 years to complete this 175,000 sq. ft. French Renaissance chateau with 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 66 servant’s bedrooms, 65 fireplaces and many more features under roof. When it officially opened 120 years ago on Christmas Eve 1895, Mr. Vanderbilt was 35 years old.
At a time in history when most homes did not have indoor plumbing and electricity was a novelty, Mr. Vanderbilt’s house was considered one of the most technologically advanced structures ever built. It is still admired today for its beauty and innovative engineering.
The house was fully electrified and used some of Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs. There was a fire alarm system, an electrical call box system for servants, 2 elevators, elaborate indoor plumbing for all 35 bedrooms, that new novelty called a telephone, walk-in refrigerators, under-cabinet chilling systems in the kitchen to hold prepared food, a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, a 2-lane bowling alley and many more innovative features.
The true cost of building the estate seems to be lost in the mists of time. No one I questioned could even venture a guess. There were so many additions and changes to the original plans that a dollar figure wasn’t available. Today this would be called a “time and material job.” An old saying about yacht ownership is that, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably cannot afford it.” This would apply to an undertaking like the Biltmore Estate.
Three years after completion of the main building, George Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. After a prolonged European honeymoon, Mr. Vanderbilt brought his bride to her new home. She had never seen it until, after a slow ride over a 3-mile approach road from the main gate, the final bend in the road was negotiated and there it was.
The estate’s landscaping was designed so that the house was hidden from view to anyone entering from the main gate. It can only be seen after rounding the final bend on the approach road.
There were many reported stories as to what Mrs. Vanderbilt said on seeing her new home for the first time. My favorite is, “George, I don’t do windows.”
I first became aware of the Biltmore Estate when watching the wonderful 1994 Award Winning movie “Being There” with Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. Much of this highly recommended picture was filmed at the Biltmore Estate both in the house and on the grounds.
Originally comprising 125,000 acres or 228 square miles, the Biltmore Estate today is a “manageable” 8,000 acres of forests, streams, lakes, buildings and gardens.
Designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, known as the Dean of American Landscape Design, Biltmore’s formal garden is considered to be one of America’s finest. It was one of his many grand projects which included New York’s Central Park. At 125,000 acres, the Biltmore Estate was to be his last and greatest accomplishment.
Visiting here is a 4-season experience. Approximately 5,000 acres of gardens and woodlands are maintained. Eighty or so varieties of roses and 50,000 tulips and many other types of plantings delight visitors at different times of the year. When in bloom, rhododendrons show bursts of color among the green of the woods.
Fall is a delight for all with the forest’s vibrant colors stretching to the horizon. December is a special time when the house and grounds are festooned with an amazing display of holiday decorations.
Because there is so much to see and do on the property, confusion can be the order of the day for first time visitors who have questions as to how best to go about seeing and experiencing everything in the time available. So let’s start with the stellar attraction the Biltmore House, which Biltmore staffers refer to simply as “The House.”
Many visitors come to Biltmore Estate thinking they will only be touring a great house with its luxurious art, antiques and furnishings without realizing there is a lot more to do and see here. The house tour can be completed in a couple of hours.
The admission fee gives visitor’s access to “The House,” Gardens and Grounds, Antler Hill Village and Winery, optional outdoor adventures and much more. There are a plethora of choices both in “The House” and throughout the 8,000 acres.
The Biltmore Estate opens to visitors at 9 AM. “The House” is least crowded then and again around noon when people break for lunch and also in early afternoon when many visitors have gone on to visit other parts of the estate. I highly recommend taking advantage of the optional audio tour as you wander through “The House.” Throughout the estate a professional, highly trained staff is available to answer any of your questions.
On arrival and after purchasing your ticket(s), you will be directed to a parking lot from which busses will take you to “The House” where your adventure begins. After leaving the mansion, busses will return you to your car at which time you can use your own transportation to roam the estate and visit Antler Hill Village & Winery, Deerpark, several restaurants or just wander the magnificent grounds at your own pace.
At the Biltmore House many optional guided tours are offered that take visitors to parts of “The House” not included with general admission tickets. There are many from which to choose. We took the Butler’s Tour of the Biltmore.
It was like being behind the scenes of our favorite TV series, Downton Abby. A one hour guided tour took us up and down back staircases, kitchens, prep rooms, staff dining room and staff bedrooms. We learned that in the grand mansions during this country’s Golden Age (1880’s – early 1900’s, it was the Head Housekeeper not the Head Butler who ruled the roost. Check the brochures to see which tour(s) would be of interest to you.
The available active outdoor activities would include river trips, fly fishing, equestrian center, trail rides, hiking, archery, sporting clays, Segway tours, Range Rover off-road driving, bicycle riding on 22 miles of trails and much more. For those interested in less strenuous outdoor activities there is the new Antler Hill Village.
Opened in 2010, the Village is the center for information about Vanderbilt family history and features live entertainment, dining and shopping. There are coffee, ice cream, pastry and sandwich shops, and restaurants. It is also the location of the famous Biltmore Winery.
The most visited winery in the United States is not in California’s Napa Valley but right here in the mountains of North Carolina at the Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore Winery hosts approximately 600,000 visitors a year who stop by for a free tour and samples of the Biltmore vineyard’s offerings.
Until 2001, visitors had no way of staying overnight on the Biltmore Estate property. That year, the 210 room Inn on Biltmore Estate opened and guests were able to enjoy, “…something in keeping with the natural dramatic natural beauty of the property and the original intent of Vanderbilt for his estate as a place of retreat and relaxation,” stated Bill Cecil Jr, CEO of the Biltmore Company and great-grandson of George Vanderbilt. “The Inn is not another Biltmore House but is in keeping with all of the elements of hospitality, excellence, design and thoughtful appointments synonymous with Vanderbilt’s home,”he added.
The Inn features generous size rooms, beautiful furnishings and windows opening to mountain views. A 150-seat restaurant is open for all meals. There is a spa, library, lobby bar, exterior swimming pool and fitness center for guests.
A special shuttle bus service, exclusive to guests at the Inn, makes frequent trips to almost every part of the Estate. Guests park their cars in the Inn’s private lot and never have to use them again while on the Biltmore Estate’s grounds.
George and Edith Vanderbilt had one child, Cornelia, born in 1900. The Vanderbilt’s were married for only 16 years when George died from complications of surgery in 1914. He was 52 years old. Edith remained at the Biltmore house and ran the estate.
In 1930, during the Great Depression, the Biltmore Estate was opened to the public for the first time. It was hoped this would increase tourism in the Asheville area and that visitor admissions would help defray costs of running the Estate. Both things came to pass. Today, more than a million visitors pass through the Biltmore Estate gates every year. The Biltmore Estate is privately owned and supported entirely by admission fees. There is neither government funding nor grants.
Our visit to the Biltmore Estate took place during the Christmas Holiday Season. We took the popular evening Candlelight Tour and were delighted at the vast array of glowing holiday lights and decorations festooning the rooms especially the great rooms. At night fireplaces delight visitors with their dancing flames. Taking the evening
Candlelight Tour requires advance reservations and a separate ticket from the daytime tours. A ticket for the evening Candlelight Tour will permit entry to the estate the following day with access to everything but the Biltmore House.
A question frequently asked is why the property is called Biltmore?
The Vanderbilt family originally came from Holland. George Vanderbilt called his estate Biltmore – from “Bildt,” the Dutch town where his ancestors originated, and “more” an old English word for open, rolling land.
We spent two leisurely days touring this wonderful property and still did not experience all it had to offer. If you have only one day to spend at the Biltmore Estate, do your home work. Go to their website (http://www.biltmore.com/) and check out what you want to do there. The Biltmore House will of course be #1, but then go to the other venues and make a list in order of interest, of the other things you would like to experience.
If you can’t do everything during a one day visit, you might want to plan on coming back during another season and continue the tour. We plan to do so when the gardens are in bloom.