The Biltmore House: Our Summer Getaway
Preface: I want to remind everyone reading this, the Biltmore was built in the 1890’s with little electricity or many inventions that we know as common. George Vanderbilt began his massive project at the age of 26 as a bachelor. But what I find fascinating is the thoughts and detail put into every part of Biltmore. Everything had a purpose or reason. Many call him a visionary in his construction, doing things that had never been done before, such as central heating and indoor plumbing. He had the help of the best minds for their time.
The wealthy grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vandebilt (another great story), traveled to Europe over 60 times. His idea was to create a French Chateau type structure but one that is supported by a working village (castle). Towns, dairies, schools for servants and more were created to support Biltmore.
Many mansions can be remembered for their eccentricities. And this one is no different. But the thought processes and colossal undertaking in building Biltmore is what I think make it a true landmark.
I would like to keep this post short but it would not due justice to this work of art. Knowing built more inspires creativity and great projects. So first an Intro, then some pictures and our brief experience. Then if you are interested in knowing more details I will end with the Wikipedia story of the Biltmore.
The clear and bright pictures come from Wikipedia. The dimly lit and blurry pictures come from me. But with either photographer I would ask you to pan the photo for all the details that can be seen in the shot.
Intro To Biltmore: (from the Fine and Decorative Art at the Biltmore website)
In the late 1880s, George Washington Vanderbilt, then a young man of 25, came upon the perfect spot in the North Carolina Blue Ridge for a 250-room French Renaissance château to be built by his friend, architect Richard Morris Hunt. The great château would be called “Biltmore.”
The youngest of three children, Vanderbilt watched as his older siblings build mansions in New York and Rhode Island. Then, at the ripe old age of 26, he thought he would try to outdo his siblings with Biltmore.
Vanderbilt, grandson of industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, was an intellectual, fluent in several languages, well-traveled and knowledgeable about art, architecture, music, agriculture, horticulture and literature.
Vanderbilt’s diverse and cultured tastes influenced his travels with architect Hunt while Biltmore House was being built. The two men journeyed throughout Europe and the Orient, crossing the Atlantic 60 times by ship, purchasing paintings, porcelains, bronzes, carpets, statues and furniture. All of it would eventually become part of the collection of 70,000 objects still in Biltmore today.
Vanderbilt’s decision to locate his mountain mansion near Asheville, North Carolina, led to his purchase of a total of 125,000 acres surrounding the site. Today, Biltmore Estate encompasses approximately 8,000 acres, including formal and informal gardens designed by the father of landscape architecture in America, Frederick Law Olmsted.
While the incomparable beauty of Biltmore Estate is the result of the combined creative talents and vision of all three men – Vanderbilt, Hunt and Olmsted – it is Biltmore House which continues to be the centerpiece of Vanderbilt’s legacy. This great house remains the largest private residence in the United States, a National Historic Landmark. It is toured by over a million visitors each year.
Begun in 1890, Biltmore House is constructed of tons of Indiana limestone transported by a special railway spur built specifically to bring the massive amounts of material and supplies to the site. It took hundreds of workers five years to complete the house.
On Christmas Eve in 1895, George Vanderbilt formally opened the doors for the first time to friends and family.
Welcome To Biltmore
On my first approach to this estate, my first impression was it is quite ‘Gothic’ looking. Oh and it is! It is complete with Gargoyles and Grotesques. And it is huge. Yes 250 rooms. America’s version of a castle.
After we bought our tickets we opted for the hand held audio device to get the story of each room. If you visit this estate, do this. There is so much more info than the booklet you get with admission. And while this description and accompanying pictures are far from complete they are my highlights of the tour. If you are into art you will love it more.
Shall we go in and look around?
The first room inside is a large sun room called the Winter Garden. It has tropical plants for warm thoughts in the cold winters in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the summer the glass panels of the ceiling open to let breezes circulate the house.
If you can make it out, there is an attractive sculpture in the middle of the room entitled Boy Stealing Geese by American Sculptor Karl Bitter. It is the centerpiece of this sitting room.
The next room is the showcase of the estate, the 7 story high Banquet Hall.
Did I say eccentric?
Among the many attractions of this grand banquet room, but not limited to, is a 1916 pipe organ…
and Flemish Tapestries on the walls from the mid 1500’s,
The Hall seats 75 but I understand it never held more than 38 for any one seating. The Vanderbilt’s and family members often enjoyed a 7-10 coarse meal at the triple fireplace table.
The next room on the tour was the Breakfast Room. Here the family was served breakfast and lunch.
Portraits on the walls included that of their grandfather, ‘Commodore’ Vanderbilt, George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt along with a pair of Renoir originals, Young Algerian Girl and Child With Orange.
The Salon followed the Breakfast Room.
While visually soothing and inviting the story goes that this room was not completed during Vanderbilt’s lifetime.
In fact, when the Japanese bombed Hawaii to start our involvement in WWII Washington overnight moved much of priceless art from the Washington Art museum to be stored in this room secretly so that it would be protected in the tucked away resort.
The tour then goes to the back of the house and a wonderful view of the mountains. The story goes that not only did Vanderbilt own what the eye could see (125,000 acres), he recreated it with the help of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Going back inside you run into another impressive room, the 10,000 volume Library.
A chest set displayed was once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. There is a room-size painting on the ceiling, The Chariot of Aurora, by Italian artist Giovanni Pellegrini painted in the 1720’s(!). It has the largest fireplace of all the 65 on the estate. And the original board game Scrabble too!(kidding)
This room is a testament to George’s passion for books, literature and knowledge.
Next is the Tapestry Room. This 90 foot long room is where guests enjoyed refreshments and music. Of the several large tapestries on the wall it includes 3 Flemish collections, The Triumph Of Seven, from the 1530’s. They represent Charity, Faith and Prudence.
There are also portraits on the walls of George Vanderbilt as well as his Mother, Maria Vanderbilt done by American artist John Singer. And like almost all rooms in the estate there is much unique detail in the ceiling of the Tapestry Room.
Ready for the 2nd floor?
The second floor housed the family rooms. The second floor Living Hall displayed the life-size portraits of Frederick Law Olmsted and Richard Morris Hunt, the co creators of the 125,0000 acre estate.
Olmstead, known as the Father of American Landscape Architecture, also designed New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn Park as well as the US Capitol grounds.
Mr Vanderbilt’s Bedroom:
As mentioned in a previous post, the walls for Mr. Vanderbilt were made of 14K gold covered burlap. The mirror reflects into his bathroom to reveal the paw footed tub carved out of a single block of marble.
Furnishings in the room feature 17th century Portuguese carved furniture including his grand walnut bed. Attention was given to his closet, housing the early 1900’s version of a fashionable wardrobe.
Custom dictated correct clothing be worn for every activity. So Mr. Vanderbilt might have changed clothes 4-6 times a day, keeping his valet busy. This fact is also important when we find out there is a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom as well’.
Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom:
This room became Edith Vanderbilt’s upon her marriage at 25, 2 years after George moved into Biltmore. Purple and gold silk fabrics decorate this Louis XV style room.
Doors in the room lead to closets, bathrooms, and a lady’s maid room.
Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt did not share a bed room. Their lives were such that they had to change clothes frequently, which was made difficult with all her hand maids and his valets. It was just easier to share separate rooms.
Now, connecting these two family rooms was the beautiful Oak Sitting Room. This room, with another great view of the mountains, is where the Vanderbilt’s shared breakfast and planned their day with the head Housekeeper.
Being the hostess for Biltmore, it was, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s responsibility to keep track of arriving guests, anticipate their needs, and plan meals and social services.
In the family picture above, George, the youngest of his siblings, is seen with his brother and sister. Of particular interest to me is the showcase dresser or desk behind the painting. Sadly this photographer and his sweaty Android camera could not capture the depth of this piece of art.
Here is a video of what it might have been like for Mr. Vanderbilt as he starts his day. It is a pan of his bedroom then goes out into the Oak Sitting Room and then the balcony for a view.
Cheers for the 14k gold shiny walls, plush decor, ample space, huge Portuguese carved dresser and an Oak Sitting Room that is way better than mine!
Jeers to the dim lighting and the ghost that kept tapping the same repetitive beat on my phone while I was filming. That never happens!
Yea, that will do!
I’m about half way through, do you want to go on? Grab a snack and a beverage and put your feet up…
The Third floor was largely the guest bedrooms and retreats. I don’t have any pics here as I was trying to catch up to everyone, as I had a camera and the audio handset and they only had the audio handset.
Finally decorated rooms are named after many influences in these rooms, including the Watson Room, named after engraver James Watson. It is the only bedroom with twin beds.
The Van Dyke Room named after 17th century artist Anthony van Dyke whose paintings adorn the room.
The Moorland Room, named after English painter George Moorland, featuring exotic Indian fabrics. The bed draperies are hand painted exact duplicates of the linens in the Italian villa where Mr. and Mrs Vanderbilt spent their honeymoon (ahhh,,).
The Madonna Room, named not for our century’s Material Girl but Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child.
And also a guest bathroom. This is one of 43 bathrooms in the estate, which was a rarity in 1895 when many homes in America did not have a single indoor bathroom. Yes no pictures of this either. The sign on the door read “out of order”.
Ok now the fun stuff..
The Stone Hallways, because of Biltmore’s immense size it took two years to build the stone foundation, that extend down some 29 feet.
We passed through the Halloween Room, not named for any kind of theme but for a party they threw one year when all the guests painted murals on the walls.
Then there was the indoor bowling alley.
That’s right, they did not have AMF pin setters back then. Servants crouched down in the corners to reset the pins and return the bowling balls.
We made a few turns then following the bowling alley, past some changing rooms and ran into….
The indoor swimming pool.
…in the basement.
Good people think about this for a second. They did not have indoor swimming pools back then.What do you think were some of the things they might have been lacking? Filtration systems? Chlorine?
This was a 70,000 gallon pool. It was filled with running water from a nearby stream. Accordingly it (should have been) cold. However Vanderbilt had a steam pipe installed from the nearby boiler to heat the pool.
Yes no filtration system. Our audio tour guide says that after about 3 days the pool became a biology experiment… so it had to be drained…. 70,000 gallons.
Also, people back then were not good swimmers. There were no swimming pools. If they went to the ocean they waded in. And so that is the reason for the ropes on the side of the pool, for swimmers to grab hold of to catch their breath.
Another miraculous idea was underwater lighting. First, if there are no indoor swimming pools where does this idea come from? And it is still powered by the same DC current that lit the lights back in the 1890’s. ~
Can you imagine the private parties in this house? ~ This is just one of dozens if not hundreds of innovative ideas that went into building this estate and the surrounding grounds.
George Vanderbilt must have clearly out distanced himself from his sibling’s houses with the neat amenity
Other rooms we viewed were for the Servants.
I’m sorry, servants.
The house needed a running household of over 20 servants to manage the estate from laundry, kitchen, maids, valets, and so on.
In a day when most families shared 4-6 people in one bedroom this gig looks pretty nice. You get your own room, a job, a communal bathroom and meals.
While confined to your rooms or a servant living room, for the times it must have been a pretty attractive job to have.
Oh, and George Vanderbilt was a bachelor when he first built the estate. Accordingly, he had a bachelor pad here. It was on the first floor behind the walls of the large Banquet Hall. There was a Gun Room, a Smoking Room, and a Billiards Room.
The Billiards Room impressed me. It had two large billiards tables. One with pockets and one without.
The tables were said to weigh over a ton and hand carved out of a single block of Mahogany. Rumor is that there are three hidden doors in the Billiard room. The name of the room did not deter guests, both male and female, from also playing dominoes or chess however.
But you had to be on guard! You never knew if your opponent was a politician, poet, painter or family member.
One final note. If you made it this far into the post you have to be amazed at the detail and depths they went to in building this house. It was an architectural marvel, built to model a French Château. Unimaginable detail went into the lighting, the detail in the walls, ceiling and fixtures. Truly an architectural masterpiece!
But the detail was not limited to the inside. The many gardens and even the mountain sides were finely detailed too (more on that later) The thoughts and craftsmanship also went in the numerous details in the architecture of the outside.
Does anyone know the difference between a Gargoyle and a Grotesque? George Vanderbilt did. And he brought numerous ones back with him from his visits to Europe.
So I will leave you with some pictures from the outside. I really didn’t list a whole lot of facts, ideas, and details that actually went into the building of the Biltmore. If you find this estate, time period or history interesting you could read up on more of it at its Wikipedia page. It does a far better, accurate and succinct way of telling you these things then I do.
The Biltmore front yard during construction.. note the railroad ties leading right to the front door to deliver supplies..
Also, note the trees and the condition of the forests surrounding the newly purchased estate.
And what the view from the front door looks like today
Welcome to Biltmore!
Bob Vilas’ Brief Architectural Tour