Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our visit to Biltmore Estate

Biltmore house On Sunday, we spent about seven hours at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Ken had never been there, and it had been over 15 years since I had, so it was a very enjoyable stop. You can read his take on it at Bucko's World, and see his slideshow.

It is a remarkable place, designed after 16th century French châteaux...but on a very large scale. It has four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. It required six years to build, and when it opened in 1895, as the private residence of George Vanderbilt (a bachelor at that time), it was the most state-of-the-art home in the country. It is still owned and operated by the family, and George Vanderbilt's vision of a self-sustaining estate has been realized. The Estate relies on no government funding, and generates the money necessary for restoration and maintenance by profits from the winery and from tourism.

Biltmore 09Incidentally--and surprisingly--it is the most-visited winery in the country. Having been to Napa Valley, we were skeptical, but it's because so many people visit the house. While they're there, they think they might as well visit the winery, too, even if they aren't oenophiles. (I love getting to use that word!)

The two most interesting things to me about the story of George Vanderbilt and his amazing home are the library and the land. Vanderbilt was quite the scholar, with a reading knowledge of eight languages. He collected 23,000 volumes over his short lifetime, and 10,000 are on display in the home. I took the time to look at a few of the volumes, and there were biographies, art books, philosophy books...the guy was remarkably forward-thinking and intelligent, and apparently very fair to his workers and his servants. (The servants' rooms were bigger than our bedroom!)

As part of his ability to see a grander vision, he hired Frederick Law Olmsted (the guy who laid out Central Park) to do the landscaping. Both Vanderbilt and Olmsted envisioned a way to manage the forest responsibly and sustainably. Instead of the current practices of the time, clearing a forest of all timber (leaving it a barren wasteland), their plan was to harvest timber responsibly and preserve and continue the environment. In fact, the Biltmore land was the first managed forest in the country. (It originally consisted of 125,000 acres, and after George's death, his widow sold over 86,000 acres to the federal government, adding a huge tract of land to the Pisgah National Forest.)

Biltmore strikes me as almost Utopian. It put thousands of people to work--with decent wages and treatment--when it was being built, and still employs thousands to this day. I believe it is truly an American jewel, and the family's love of and dedication to meticulous and accurate restoration is amazing. When restoring four new rooms recently, they found wallpaper remnants under trimming and an inch of original upholstery under subsequent layers. They hired artisans from all over the world to replicate the original furnishings, and the results are gorgeous.

Biltmore house4 Of course, as with all historic places, my imagination was fired. Biltmore was a country estate where friends and family were welcomed with open arms. What must it have been like to wander through those rooms? Descending the grand staircase on the way to a formal dinner in the cavernous banquet hall (with three fireplaces in which I could stand upright)? To sneak down to the library when you couldn't sleep at night and find a volume to take back to your bedroom? In the Conservatory, there were many arbors with shadowy interiors and benches...did lovers meet there for a clandestine tryst? Did visiting children run and play in the gardens? Biltmore isn't a stale and stuffy museum. Despite the valuable works of art, many of the windows were open, and sheer curtains were billowing in the breeze. On the hottest days, I can imagine sitting out on the wide, covered gallery, taking in the view of the back yard and the mountains in the distance. In fact, I did take a seat there and look out for a while, imagining myself taking in the spectacular view of over a century earlier.

Man, I love stuff like that.

I made a video slideshow for you! Ken made a nice one using Picasa3, and I was able to make one that I think turned out okay, too. I'm still working on the audio, but I hope it will be done soon. Since we couldn't take pictures inside the house, I took several in the gardens. There are a couple of pictures in there that include hummingbirds--can you spot them? I was fascinated by these huge flowering shrubs. The flowers were red or white, and the blooms had to be about three times as big as my hand. I would say 6-8 inches in diameter. Ken finally saw a label saying what they were: Rose Mallow. I looked it up today, and by golly, it's a hibiscus, what we call Rose of Sharon around here! We have a few, and I can see one out the front window even as I type. Ours don't have such huge blooms, though, and I think I'm going to see if I can find a variety that has blooms like that. One of the Rose of Sharons out front is mostly dead, so it would be a good spot to put a new one. I was so excited to see what those were, and to know that I can grow them here!


  1. I love that sort of thing... but I've never been to Biltmore! Glad you guys had such a good vacay!

  2. i saw the hummingbird!

    beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.


  3. My arm, Myyy Arrrrm :o)

    Nice touch adding the sound, I have not tried that yet.

  4. That is an experience I would enjoy very much, and I adore winery visits...and for more than just the tasting ;O.
    ~ Ok, I need to break in here and say DAMN, Ken is tall....~
    I would not have expected the open windows and billowy curtains, but I did see the same many years ago when I went to the it's old location...and I was pleased but assumed it didn't suit the artwork.

    Maybe one day you'll base a short story on your imaginings of lives past lived there. Perhaps a nice little illusion of family unity piece(since I've heard many of the Vanderbilts fought like cats and dogs).

  5. I have to plan on seeing this place, I love your slideshow and could see more. I can't imagine living in a house like that. My imagination would have been running wild too. Awesome place.

  6. Thanks for sharing the pictures. I've never been there but thanks to you I got a little peak at that beautiful place.

  7. Thank you for sharing your pics. They are beautiful. It's been over 30 years since I've been there, but I didn't get to see the whole house as the family was still living in part of it at the time. I'd love to go back sometime. Glad the two of you got to go.


  8. I hope to see it in person someday too, and yours and Ken's blogs about it make me want it to be sooner than later! Thank you!

    be well...

  9. Wow that is awesome, I have never even heard of the place, until you posted here. Makes me want to go. I went to a mansion in Arizona, built back in the early 1800's. It was nice, but not as nice as the one you just posted.

    I am glad you had a great day.

  10. Hi Beth,
    Great photos (and yes, I saw at least one hummingbird!). I've never been to the Biltmore estate but now I want to go!

  11. What a fantastic place! Thanks for the slideshow and the lovely music. It really looks like a French castle. Gorgeous flowers as well. Glad you had a great outing! Ciao. A.

  12. WOW, Ken is TALL!

    love your describe things so well we all think we are there with you. Enjoy ALL of the wine.

  13. Great entry and pictures. It is really nice to be able to get a look at places like that.

  14. Wow-that is an amazing place..yet another one to add to the list of things I want to see for myself some day.

  15. dear nutwoodies,i loved your adoration of biltmore and fine photos, as i spent a part of my childhood there, because of a family connection to it.
    to me, it's heaven on earth.




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