I got an invitation the other day to re-visit Biltmore.  My sister and I made a pilgrimage there in the Spring, but I never got around to writing it up.  The leaves will be turning now, and I’m sure the parkland is very beautiful.  Pretty soon they’ll be decorating for Christmas.

If you’ve been to Washington, DC any time in the last couple hundred years, you’ve undoubtedly wandered by the White House and been astonished at how small it is.  How could the First Family of our country get used to living in such a confined space?  For the Texans, especially, it must have seemed a very tight squeeze.  But then they had their other homes, their ranches, Camp David and a private jet to get out of DC.

Families like the Dukes, (who made a fortune with an addictive, but entirely legal weed), built their mansions in Durham or bought townhouses in New York and lived very well, thank you.  Unfortunately, the tobacco mansions in Durham were torn down to make way for office buildings or freeways.  Durham is very big on freeways.

The one man who made up for the lack of ostentatious palatial splendor in this state was a non-native.  His name was George Vanderbilt.  He was the youngest son of Cornelius, who, according to family legend, took a $100 loan from his mother and turned it into a fortune with a shrewd investment in a ferry service across the New York Bay.  He turned that ferry service into a fleet of steamboats, then invested in railroads when they were a license to print money.  Like James Buchanan Duke, Cornelius was a born money maker.

His youngest son, George was not particularly interested in the family business, but by the time he came along the family fortune was substantial.  George was an avid traveler and collector.  And he had a real nesting instinct.

When George visited Asheville with his mother in 1888, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the mountains of North Carolina.  He promptly began buying parcels of land and hired two of the most distinguished designers of the 19th Century to create his house and grounds.  It would be called Biltmore, from Bildt, the Dutch town where his ancestors had come from, and “more,” the old English word for open, rolling land.

Richard Morris Hunt and Frederic Law Olmstead designed an estate that would become the largest private residence in America.  It remains so today despite the Silicone Valley billionaires.  Work began in 1889 on a 375 foot, four story stone house modeled on the architecture of the French Renaissance.  The interiors were inspired by English country estates.  Setting an example that William Randolph Hearst would follow, George went on extended buying trips to Europe for art and furnishings.

photo courtesy of Duncan32205

Limestone was shipped down from Indiana, marble from Italy.  A private railroad spur was laid from the town to the Estate.  A kiln churned out 32,000 bricks a day and a woodworking factory sawed oak and walnut for floors and panels. Olmstead started terraforming some of the 125,000 acres that Vanderbilt accumulated, creating a 250 acre pleasure park and a series of gardens around the house.  He had a nursery created for the millions of plants he required.

After six years of construction, Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve, 1895.  Three years later, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris.  Their daughter, Cornelia, was born and grew up at Biltmore. The  Vanderbilts  had a large staff, which is handy if one lives  in a house with 250 rooms.  There are 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and an indoor swimming pool. There is a priceless collection of furnishings and art.  All the modcons available at the turn of the century were incorporated into the house– even an elevator.

The Estate is now managed as a private, for profit, family-owned enterprise by William Cecil, Jr.  great grandson of George Vanderbilt.  There are 1700 employees, which makes it one of the largest employers in the area.  The Biltmore has its own hotel on the extensive grounds, a winery and farm.  It is a pricey place to visit, but it still has over a million visitors a year.  Unless you are very lucky, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some 3,000 fellow “guests.” It’s no longer a place where you wander around with a glass of sherry, enjoying the amenities.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside,  so if you want to see the rooms on view you will have to plan your own visit.  You could always make me an offer for my souvenir book. It’s a hard cover, and it has William Cecil’s signature.  I’ve only got the one copy, but it you make it worth my while, I’ll scribble my name, too.  The pictures are really, really nice.