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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.

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William Preston Few, who began his academic career as an English professor in 1896 and climbed the ladder to its highest rung, must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.  The cigarette king, James Buchanan Duke, had decided to give his tiny college forty million dollars.  The year was 1924.  Trinity College would soon be Duke University.

One April day in 1925, the two went for a walk in hopes of finding a suitable site for the new construction that would be possible with such an endowment.  Ambling along a plateau full of pines, gums, hickories and oaks, “Buck” Duke paused and said:  “Here’s where it ought to be.”  He had selected the site for the chapel, a gothic building that would dominate all the surrounding buildings.

Five years in the planning and two years in construction, the ecumenical Christian chapel would be the last of the original buildings to be completed on the West campus.  The cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1930.  It was first used at the commencement ceremony of 1932.  Inspired by English gothic, the designer selected for the project was Julian Abele, America’s first African-American architect of note.

The Dukes were Methodists, but Buck envisioned the chapel as the center of religion for all the students who would be attending the growing school.  He told his friend Few that “the edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.”  The “great towering church” was one of the last great collegiate gothic projects in this country.  It was completed at a cost of 2.3 million dollars.

The stats are impressive.  At 210 feet (64 meters) the Duke Chapel is still one of the tallest buildings in Durham country. It seats 1,800 people, has a fifty-bell carillon and three pipe organs. It is mainly constructed of local stone quarried from Hillsborough, not far from Durham.  Following the typical Duke fashion of vertical integration that he pioneered in the tobacco business, Duke bought the quarry in order to insure a good supply of stone at the right price.

Like many churches, the Chapel is a cruciform, with a nave that measures 291 feet (89m) 63 feet wide (19m) and 73 feet (22m) high.  There are 77 stained-glass windows designed and constructed from over a million pieces of glass, much of it imported from England, France and Belgium.  There are at least eight hundred figures represented in scenes from the Old and New Testaments.  Check out the rest of my photos by clicking any picture running alongside this text, or do your own search of Duke Memorial Chapel on Flickr.

We were fortunate enough to hear one of the organs during our visit.  William Preston Few and James Buchanan Duke are buried in the crypt, together with Washington Duke and Buck’s brother, Benjamin.  Two other Presidents of the University are interred there as well.  Terry Sanford, who was the sixth President of Duke, a US Senator and Governor of North Carolina, may be the most illustrious citizen of the pantheon.

It is a beautiful church, a stunning memorial to the Duke family and a testament of their concern for the religious education of the students.  It is too bad that it was built on the backs of farmers who worked tobacco fields and the millions of young men and women who took up smoking and ended their lives with nicotine-stained fingers.


The architecture of Melbourne is to be found in buildings which are, quite literally, all over the map.  I have mentioned before that this city is spread out, but it only sinks in when you see the suburbs light up one by one on an illuminated map which reveals them according to the dates each was founded.  The map is to be found at the ultra modern Melbourne Museum, right next door to one of the city’s architectural showpieces, the Royal Exhibition Building, 1879-1880.

Melbourne was founded in 1835 without the approval of the British administration of London or Sydney.  Free settlers from Tasmania stumbled upon the grazing lands along the Yarra River and set up a small, pastoral settlement producing wool.  The settlement grew slowly for the first sixteen years.  In 1837, the government in Sydney accepted the inevitable and sent surveyors over to establish a grid of streets.  The town was named after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne.

Brick and wood were the most common building materials, followed by the basalt that had been squeezed up to the surface by volcanic action in the area– bluestone.   In 1851, Melbourne became the capital of the new colony of Victoria.  Gold was discovered the very same month and more than half a million gold seekers poured into the city over the next ten years.  Melbourne was suddenly transformed into the biggest city in Australia.

The city’s open sewers were covered over and grand Victorian buildings were erected to line the new streets, boulevards and gardens.  The boom generated a staggering number of Victorian buildings, banks, museums, hotels, churches, theatres and mansions.  They were ornate, demonstrating ingenious use of the new products of the industrial revolution, cast iron, pressed tin, sheet glass and cheap labour.  The neo classical style was adopted for public buildings, gothic for churches.

The building boom continued until the bank crash of the 1890’s, which was followed by an economic depression. After the 1890’s there was a new enthusiasm for the picturesque.  This was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau.

Basalt (bluestone) was extracted from a quarry in Clifton Hill and used extensively in the 19th century. Because the material was difficult to carve, it was used for warehouses and the foundations of public buildings. Significant bluestone buildings include the Melbourne Gaol, Pentridge Prison, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne Grammar School, Victoria College for the Deaf, and the Goldsborough Mort warehouses.

It was also used extensively for cobblestone roads, curbs, gutters, retaining walls and bridges. It is ubiquitous throughout the city, anchoring the city to the earth with its appearance of permanence. Bluestone is not, in fact, as immortal as it appears.  It weathers, and some of it is riddled with holes made by escaping gasses  It does not posses diamond-like qualities, but to the builders of Melbourne, it was the next best thing.  It made the city what it is today.


Chugging along on a boat in Hong Kong harbour is an odd place to get intrigued by the architecture of a train station in Melbourne, but it happened. The weather was miserable. Neil, an old friend from our days in Hong Kong, had seized on the excuse of visitors to gather a few friends, drink some gin and tonics, and gab.

One of Neil’s British buddies had slipped away that afternoon from a high pressure job as managing director of a substantial HK based corporation.  His company had just purchased the business that supplied the roof of Southern Cross Station. He talked of the architecture in awe inspiring terms. “The station is the roof,” he said.

The original train station was called Batman’s Hill (after John Batman, one of founders of Melbourne). It was later changed to Spencer Street Station. In 1856 it became the Melbourne terminus of Victorian railways, linking the City to Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. The great international Exhibition of 1888 put Melbourne and Spencer Street on the map. At that time, the Railway Administrative Building was the largest office building in Melbourne.

Construction began on replacement for Spencer Street Station in October 2002. It was finished in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Not without major headaches, of course. It fell far behind schedule and went way over budget. It was branded by one politician as a “world class mess.” The construction did take place around an operational rail interchange of some magnitude, handling 60,000 commuters every single day.

The distinctive, giant wave-shaped roof was designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who has had his hand in some other interesting structures- The Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, the National Space Center, the Eden Project. Inside Spencer, now called Southern Cross, you look down at a maze of tracks. The trains are over-sized versions of the electric train sets of childhood, mechanical puppets in mesmerizing motion.

Flinders Street Station offers a homey contrast to the spectacle of Southern Cross. It is a well-loved landmark, built in glowing yellow stone, adorned with clocks indicating the departure times on each line. It was the result of a world-wide design competition held in 1899. First prize went to two railway employees, whose design included a giant dome and clock tower. Despite its mammoth size, it has a cozy appeal. Very Victorian.

It is the central railway station of the suburban rail network, right in the heart of the City. Each day, over 100,000 people thread their way through the turnstiles and descend to the platforms. Outside, friends meet up “under the clocks” to coordinate their plans for the evening. The building has a ballroom tucked away somewhere.  Unfortunately, it is no longer in use.

Needless to say, the weather and years of heavy use have taken a toll and it has recently undergone significant and costly redevelopment, cleaning and repair. Worth every penny. Despite the increasing numbers of cars on the road and increasing frustration with the overcrowded conditions on commuter lines, Melburnians love their trains.

They make extended suburban living possible, the little house with the roses in the backyard miles (kilometers) away from the centre of the city. The place to putter, the place to call home.

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