The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, was once the home of George Vanderbilt and his family. Now a resort and historic site, it was the main destination of my recent vacation.
The Biltmore mansion was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and was mostly completed by his death in 1895. It has an incredible 250 rooms, only a fraction of which are open to the public. The estate, which was originally 175,000 acres but is now 8,000 acres, was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and was America’s first scientific forestry project. Biltmore house opened to the public in 1930, while Vanderbilts were still living there, in order to help fund the estate’s very expensive upkeep. It is currently owned and run by George Vanderbilt’s great-grandchildren.
During my visit, Biltmore was hosting the exhibition Chihuly at Biltmore in the gardens. You can read all about the exhibition in my article for DailyArt Magazine.
Biltmore is amazing and overwhelming. I spent 3 1/2 days at the estate, and I visited the mansion five times. I used the audio guide for my first visit, and I think this is the best way to experience the house. The audio guide gives you lots of information but still allows you to enjoy the house at your own pace. The place is way too big to absorb everything the first time through, so I recommend an additional walkthrough by yourself if possible.
Here are some of my favorite rooms.
The medieval-style Banquet Hall was definitely one of my top favorites. It was the Vanderbilt’s dining room and main entertaining room. It has gorgeous wood paneling, an enormous tripartite fireplace, a pipe organ, and thrones for George and Edith. There are Flemish tapestries on the walls, banners hanging above the doors, and a massive metal chandelier. If you walk in at the right time, you can even hear the organ playing. The Banquet Hall features heavily into Biltmore’s promotional material, and for good reason. (See the top photo on this page.)
The library is gorgeous and homey at the same time. George Vanderbilt loved books, and he stored much of his collection on the library’s two stories of bookshelves connected by a spiral staircase. The ceiling displays a massive, 18th-century Italian painting depicting Aurora (the dawn), taken from a Venetian palazzo. The woodwork in the library is wonderful, and I also liked the rolling stepladder, busts of French thinkers, and large globe.
The Tapestry Gallery is home to a series of three Flemish tapestries concerning Charity, Faith, and Prudence. It also contains two paintings by John Singer Sargent and one by Giovanni Boldini alongside Renaissance furniture and other, smaller treasures. If you want to learn more about the art at Biltmore, click here.
The Winter Garden is very light and airy, with a glass-and-wood domed ceiling. It’s the first room you see on the tour, and I think it’s a lovely way to start off a visit. During my visit, one of Chihuly’s glass pieces was displayed inside the Winter Garden, and that made it even more exciting.
In the Gilded Age, it was customary for husbands and wives to have separate spaces for logistical reasons. George and Edith’s bedrooms are very different in style from each other, but both seem like they would be nice bedrooms to have. Even though they tend towards being kind of grand, they’re also quite comfortable looking. The two rooms are connected by a nice living room-type space with two more Sargent paintings.
The Halloween Room in the basement has a whole series of strange and wonderful wall paintings. They are brightly colored, naïve in style, and feature all sorts of strange witches, bats, and unusual people. Apparently, they are the result of a party that Cornelia (George and Edith’s only child) and her husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, held early in their marriage. Guests painted these scenes during the party. According to the audio tour, the scenes all come from some kind of touring Russian show that was popular at the time. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the details, but it seemed very Bloomsbury or Ballet Russe to me.
Biltmore was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I finally had the chance to visit. I have enjoyed many other historic places before, but Biltmore is definitely unlike any other. First of all, its size alone puts it in a completely different league. I’m referring to both the size of the property and the size of the house itself. When you drive through the gates, you are in a completely different world. The town of Asheville isn’t far away, but it might as well be a hundred miles. So, visiting Biltmore is much more of an immersive experience than most other sites. This is particularly true when you spend several days in one of the estate’s two hotels, as I did. The property includes gardens, a farm, a winery, restaurants and shops, and acres of beautiful landscaping.
Of course, the scale of the house dwarfs anything else I’ve ever seen before. Even the fabulous Newport homes of George’s older siblings seem ordinary by comparison. It isn’t simply that the Biltmore is more impressive just because there’s more of it, though that’s clearly true. To me, it also the fact that this massive structure’s design seems so much richer and more fully realized than other historic houses of the era, though I’m sure that the larger size helps with that.
Biltmore was modelled on the southern French chateaus that Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt saw during their preparatory trip to France before starting the house. It’s pretty clear that Hunt knew his source material very well. The building is pretty believably a French chateau, and a visitor could be forgiven for temporarily forgetting that it’s actually in the American south. The exterior is full of surprises, with towers, gables, pointed arches with crockets, and scores of decorative details including hundreds of grotesques and yards of tracery. There are lots of little corners and angles to discover when you look long and hard. I’ve heard that in order to truly appreciate a building, you have to look at it from all possible angles and points of view. As I learned here, that’s absolutely true. I think that all the little surprises and details – and in a house so big, there are loads of them – are really what make this place so different from other Gilded Age mansions.
During the Rooftop Tour, as the name suggests, I got to visit several of Biltmore’s numerous balconies and rooftops. Beside enjoying fabulous views, this tour gave me a great chance to see lots of Biltmore’s decorative details up close. Much like a real medieval structure, Biltmore has intricate decorative carvings that are way too far off the ground for most people to ever notice them. On this tour, I gained a great appreciation for the immense amount of skilled carving that went into this building, and I noticed a lot of subtle variation in the designs that I didn’t pick up on the day before. In particular, I enjoyed standing right next to some of Biltmore’s grotesques.
The tour guide spoke a lot about the architecture of the house as well. For example, I learned that Biltmore is actually made of brick and steel faced with stone and plaster. It’s not a stone building at all. On a special evening tour only offered on Chihuly Nights, I got to see several of Biltmore’s guest bedrooms that aren’t part of the regular tour. Some of them weren’t even restored yet. It was fun to walk around floors that general visitors aren’t allowed on, especially in the evening. We also went out of a few balconies. It was really magical to look out onto the grounds at night and see the Chihulys illuminated.
I had such a wonderful time at Biltmore. I would highly recommend visiting if you ever have the chance. I’m just concerned now that I won’t be impressed by any other American mansions after visiting. I’ll probably have to fly to Europe for my historic place adventures from now on.
If you want to learn more about the history of Biltmore and its family, I recommend Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, Touchstone, 2017. I read the book before visiting and found it to be excellent preparation for my trip.
As I said before, Biltmore was amazing and overwhelming. That means that it’s far too much for just one post, so stay tuned for more posts about specific aspects of Biltmore.