Biltmore Estate

Thursday, May 14, 2009
Flat Rock, NC

In the late 1880's, George W. Vanderbilt, scion of the famous Vanderbilts that accumulated incredible wealth from their interests in shipping and railroads, decided to build a house in the foothills of Western North Carolina. The youngest of 10 children he was the quiet intellectual one, able to pursue knowledge and education while his older brothers saw to the big family businesses. An inveterate reader his interest were wide-ranging, including art, forestry, philosophy, science, and zoology.

As a young man he traveled to Western North Carolina one winter and fell in love with the area. Although only in his late 20's he started a project to build a Vanderbilt house, his house, on a hilltop near Asheville in 1888, which he named "Biltmore". He bought land -- as much as 125,000 acres at one point. He hired the best architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt to design and build the house. And he hired Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of landscape architecture, to do the grounds. It was a monumental undertaking that made Vanderbilt the largest employer in Asheville at the time. It took over 1,000 people working for more than 6 years to finish the house, gardens, and surrounding forest.

From Vanderbilt's Biltmore

The house is imposing -- the largest private residence ever built in the USA. More than 250 rooms, 175,000 square feet (about 4 acres) of floor space under roof... the Winter Garden, a large indoor garden that dominates the first floor main living area... the banquet hall with it's 7 story high ceilings, three huge fireplaces, walls covered with 500 year old Flemish tapestries, and a full size pipe organ... the Library with over 10,000 volumes in 8 different languages... the expansive living spaces with art, paintings, tapestries, and historic artifacts everywhere you look. At a time when few homes in the USA had an indoor bathroom this one had 43 of them. When very few homes had electricity this one had the latest innovations including the first underwater lighting in the indoor swimming pool and a four-story high electrified chandelier for illuminating the grand staircase.

And the grounds are equally impressive. Despite being on the highest hill in the immediate area the house is well hidden from surrounding buildings and roadways. Although I-40 runs through the property just a mile or so away from the house, it's not possible to see the house from the road. The forest that immediately surrounds the house looks natural but is actually carefully planned by Olmsted and planted with thousands of trees... now mature and an incredible sight. The conservatory and gardens are among the finest in the USA. A walled formal garden, 4 acres in size, is filled with blooming things including an impressive collection of roses. The estate was also a working farm, designed to be self-sufficient. Much of the food used at the house was grown on the estate. It even had it's own dairy with as many as 500 cows at one point.

From Vanderbilt's Biltmore

This place was George W. Vanderbilt's life work. He traveled the world searching for furnishings, art, books, and historic items befitting a house of this scale and quality. During one of these trips he also found a wife, Edith, whom he married in 1898.

George was a generous and benevolent person supporting a number of charitable causes around Asheville. He paid and treated his staff of 500 people very well. One of the highlights of the year was the Christmas celebration when each of the staff, and every person in their immediate families celebrated and received a gift from the Vanderbilts. In fact, the house was officially opened and dedicated at this Christmas Party in 1895.

Despite being 115 years old, the place looks as fresh and sound as it was when built. It's aging gracefully, not deteriorating, a testament to it's design and solidness of construction.

It's a tragedy that George died only 19 years after the opening of the house -- from a heart attack after undergoing an appendectomy. Edith, his wife, kept the place going after his death and continued the traditions he began. Even during his life the estate was costing more than it was earning and it's operation was eating into his wealth. In later years Edith had to sell off parts of the estate to keep it going. In accordance with his wishes, 85,000 acres of the original 125,000 were sold to the Federal Government and became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest.

George and Edith had one daughter, Cornelia, whose sons and grandchildren are the current owners and operators of the estate.

In an interesting side-note, George and Edith booked passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912. For some unknown reason they changed their plans at the last moment. Unfortunately, George's valet, Fred Wheeler, their luggage, and other goods they were shipping back were lost at sea.

And another interesting side-note: We happened to be at Biltmore the same day CBS was shooting some scenes for this coming Sunday's "Sunday Morning" television program. The host of the show is Charles Osgood whose voice I've heard on radio for years and who has hosted "Sunday Morning" since Charles Kuralt died some years ago. Just before going into the Biltmore House we saw him sitting in the shade between shoots and asked if he'd be so kind as to have his picture taken with us. "Sure", he said. And then chatted with us for probably 15 minutes. What a nice guy and what a neat experience.

From Vanderbilt's Biltmore

If you have the opportunity the Biltmore Estate is a "must see" as far as we're concerned.


(clicking on any photos in this blog will take you to a larger version in our photo gallery)


Anonymous said…
George and Edith did not cancel their Titanic plans at the last moment at all, they arrived in NYC aboard Olympic before Titanic sank, now if 7 days before an accident is last minute then Im wrong but what you read about this little nugget of history is wrong and the facts are that he and his family arrived in NYV before Titanic ever sank.
Thom Hoch said…
Anon... I'll defer to your expertise in the matter. And when I get a chance I'll check it out myself. But if I may say so... considering the much slower life people led at that time, 7 days may be considered "last minute" but some.
Thanks for the comment.

Slightly Better than Most