The Biltmore Estate
Asheville, North Carolina
August 30, 2015
In terms of vision, there is big, then palatial, and then there’s the Biltmore Estate. Clue #1, a winding narrow one-way road to reach the Biltmore House takes ten minutes through manicured, thickly forested lands (another one-way road serves as the exit). Park the car in one of several parking lots then board a shuttle bus for a five-minute drive to the Estate grounds.
“Wow!” says I as the bus turns a corner and the Biltmore House comes into view. “Not an uncommon response,” says the driver.
The whole place is off the charts of any sense of scale I’ve ever experienced. As in my first view of the Taj Mahal, the word breath taking comes to mind. Overview of entire estate. Nearly a thousand visitors rattle around the grounds with room to spare.
The mansion’s footprint encompasses four acres. The 252 rooms include 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces on the first three floors. The place is filled with art, furniture for every room, plumbing fixtures, rugs, tapestries, books, and artifacts that George Vanderbilt chose on his trips to Europe. If photography was permitted in the house, you'd see examples.
To take a wide-angle 24 mm lens photograph of the entire estate, I needed to step back to the lovely fountain 250 yards away. The grounds of the estate cover 8000 acres (what’s left of the 87,000 acres of the estate that George Vanderbilt’s widow Elizabeth sold to the United States Forest Service for less than $5 an acre).
The whole shebang - estate, construction, landscaping - was created by three visionary men: George Vanderbilt (wealth), Frederick Law Olmsted (America’s foremost landscape architect), and Richard Morris Hunt (prominent New York architect who had previously built for the Vanderbilts). The construction and landscaping took place between 1889 and 1895. Railroad spurs were temporarily built to ferry materials to the site. Hunt had a woodworking factory and a brick kiln built on site. A work force of 1000 was hired as well as 60 stonemasons.
The finished basement is filled with a giant pool with dressing rooms, a bowling alley, laundry rooms with washing tubs and drying racks, several kitchens - including ones for baking, cooking, and preserving food - servants’ rooms, cold storage rooms, wine cellars, cutlery and china and glass storage rooms, a gymnasium, informal social gathering halls in which guests painted murals on the walls and the entire heating system. Remember, we're talking about four acres of space!
After research and travels abroad, Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Italian Garden. A sloping series of gardens with thousands of plants and flower varieties, it is anchored by a greenhouse at its base. In August, the area was a kaliedoscopic profusion of color.
Olmsted was a forerunner in the concept of forest management, clearing areas for viewing, to encourage healthy growth, or aesthetic reasons. The scale of the undertaking is mind boggling…we’re talking tens of thousands of acres when Vanderbilt first acquired the property.
No matter how jaded or inexperienced a traveler you may be, a trip to this estate will impress, inspire, and bring out a sense of awe at the scale of the undertaking and the geniuses that created it.