Big House Up Close: The Biltmore Estate

Big House, Up Close: Magnificent Abodes Around the World, #1: The Biltmore Estate

There is majesty and allure in the artistry of grand abodes, castles, and estates that glow with architectural and aesthetic greatness. Simple living, affordable housing initiatives, and waste reduction are important cultural movements in an age of pollution, economic disparity, and overpopulation, and there is also still a wonder to be experienced in exploring great and ambitious buildings, historic structures, and grand, creatively designed homes. This is the first in a series of articles exploring “Big Houses, Up Close”—a view of homes, estates, palaces, and castles around the world that are amazing and grand. The aim is to look at their history, life story, socio-economic imprint and identity, and in what incarnation they exist today. These magnificent abodes have violent, mundane, beautiful, and/or tragic stories, depending on your point of view. Some currently can and do retain multiple residents, house political machinery, or serve to entertain or educate the public about history, architecture, and art. First up in the “Big House, Up Close” series is The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

This mammoth home and estate was built between 1889-1895, with later additions added as well, and with a history of both old school American glamour and environmental stewardship. This elaborate summer home of the Vanderbilt family was built during what was labelled the Gilded Age by 1920’s historians, a term taken from the 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, co-written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The term was used to describe the late 19th century in the US as a time that wrestled with industrialization, immigration, poverty, and social and civil struggle after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and that was gilded or thinly coated with gold by the veneer of economic expansion and inequitable wealth.

The Vanderbilt Family and Their Country Home

The Vanderbilts were a Dutch Staten Island family, whose ancestors were farmers who had immigrated.  In Dutch, Vanderbilt means “from the low hill.” Natalie Robehmed of Forbes shares that the fourth of nine children, Cornelius ‘Commodore’ Vanderbilt,

“started the family business by borrowing $100 from his mother and piloting a passenger boat on Staten Island in 1810.”

He then went on to build a shipping and railroad empire that spanned generations and made his family one of America’s wealthiest. Vanderbilt took on his business rival Robert Fulton who held a shipping monopoly and won an early landmark case in US interstate commerce law.

As well as leading the shipping industry and building mansions in New York, the family was known for philanthropic works such as giving millions to the YMCA and Columbia University, among other recipients. The Vanderbilt era of extreme wealth slowed as the family sold shares and as freight declined with the increased use of trucks and planes after WWII. Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, and it was his grandson, George Vanderbilt, who had the Biltmore Estate erected.

The Biltmore House, Grounds, and Winery

Construction of the main house of the estate began in 1889 and it took six years for this châteauesque mansion to be completed by George’s friend, architect Richard Morris Hunt. Châteauesque style harked back to the French renaissance, and is described by the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation as typically having an “imposing vertical appearance and characteristic complex roof line with abundant detailing.” At 178,926 square feet, it is the largest privately owned home in the U.S. It has 250 rooms, 64 fireplaces, a bowling alley, and hidden rooms as well. The hidden rooms were used for graceful servant entrances and exits and also social uses. As the Biltmore site explains, the one below was for “gentlemen who wanted to retire to the Smoking Room after a game of billiards.”

In 1898 George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. Their daughter Cornelia was born in 1900 in the Louis XV Room. In this year the dairy and horse barn construction began as well.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt died and the same year Edith sold about 87,000 acres of the estate to the United States Forest Service. In 1924 their daughter Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil and they had two sons, William and George. In 1930 the Biltmore House opened to the public, and local leaders hoped this would boost tourism during the Depression. During WWII artworks from the National Gallery were stored at the Biltmore House. In 1960 William Cecil Biltmore left a banking career to return to the Biltmore and began a winery. In 2001 The Inn on Biltmore opened. The Biltmore is still family owned. You can learn more about the Vanderbilt family on the Biltmore Blog and view their genealogy here.

A self-guided tour of the Biltmore offers a visit to three floors and the basement and an opportunity to view art, furniture, clothing, and other artifacts of the family and the Gilded Age.

The Biltmore House is home to works by John Singer Sargent and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I would certainly like to see those as well as the library with over 10,000 volumes, shown below.

The American architect Frederick Law Olmsted was responsible for designing the grounds at Biltmore, of which you can still visit 8,000 acres today. Highlights include miles of hiking paths through meadows, forests, and along the French Broad River, and a Rose Garden with over 250 varieties. The Biltmore is a landmark for forest conservation and in 2012 won the Asheville GreenWorks Hall of Fame Award for its solar array and tree protection initiatives.

William Cecil hired sixth-generation winemaster Philippe Jourdain from France in the 70’s and in 1983 the Biltmore Estate Wine Company was established. The winery opened to guests in 1985 and is now America’s most visited winery. The winery is a converted dairy that offers tastings and a wine bar in which to enjoy reds, whites, rosés, reserves, sparkling wines, cheeses, and locally produced truffles. Tours of the vineyards are also available.

In recent history, along with winning environmental stewardship recognition, the Biltmore Estate has expanded to include Antler Hill Village which offers dining, shopping, and outdoor activities. The Village Hotel for shorter stays also opened in 2015. Asheville is a lovely city in the Blue Ridge Mountains and being home to the Biltmore House makes it all the more alluring.

Julia Travers

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