Sunday, March 5, 2006

Springtime in the Smokies

The lives of wealthy Victorian era Americans were filled with parties, travel and leisure. One notable name of this Gilded Era was Vanderbilt, a family that made its fortune in the railroad industry.

In 1888, George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, visited the mountains of western North Carolina with his mother and fell victim to the lure of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.

Not yet married, George had a dream of building a vast country estate and he found the ideal location in Asheville, North Carolina. The area boasts breathtaking scenery and a climate that’s relatively mild for a mountainous area.

With a bankroll rivaling the gross national product of a small country, George purchased 125,000 acres of pristine wilderness area and set about to create a self-sustaining estate such as those he’d seen in his European travels.

He named his holdings Biltmore Estate from his ancestral Dutch town of Bildt and the English word Moor, which is an open, rolling landscape.

His next decisions were critical ones: who would design not only the house itself, but the gardens that would surround it?

Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to study at the prestigious Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris and one of the founders of the American Institute of Architecture, was selected to design the house. Hunt is also know for his design of The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, the pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty and the Tribune Building in New York City, one of the first buildings with an elevator. Together, Hunt and Vanderbilt decided on a French Renaissance chateau design with a limestone fa├žade and a steeply pitched roof.

Vanderbilt and Hunt not only created an architectural wonder, but a technological one as well. Biltmore House had all of the latest technology of its time. Central heating, indoor plumbing for all thirty-four bedrooms, electricity, mechanical refrigeration and two elevators are but a few of the amenities afforded Biltmore’s residents and guests. Some of Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs illuminated Biltmore’s passageways and the house contained an electric calling system for servants in addition to a newfangled gadget called the telephone.

A two-lane bowling alley with equipment by Brunswick and an indoor swimming pool with underwater lights provided indoor recreation for the Vanderbilts and their guests.

Hundreds of local workers and skilled European artisans were hired. Tons of Indiana limestone was brought in as well as imported Italian marble. To facilitate the transportation of these raw materials, Vanderbilt had a private three-mile-long rail spur built from the estate to a neighboring village. A woodworking factory was built on the estate to produce the ornate trim seen throughout the house and a kiln was erected that would produce 32,000 bricks per day.

Construction of Biltmore Estate took six years and while still incomplete, the house was formally opened on Christmas Eve, 1895. The finished product is a mansion that contains 250 room encompassing 175,000 square feet. Biltmore’s size earned it the title of “America’s Castle” and to date it remains the United States’ largest privately owned home.

The design and construction of Biltmore’s gardens were entrusted to Frederick Law Olmstead, considered by many to be the father of American landscape architecture. He is credited with designing the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. and the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. But his most notable design is New York City’s Central Park.

The various gardens cover sixty-five acres and include a shrub garden, walled garden, rose garden and conservatory and Italian garden. Each features various trees, shrubs and flowers, which provide an array of color and texture throughout the seasons.

When Biltmore Estate was completed in late December of 1895, George realized that he had a dream home, but no one to share it with. In 1898 he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser and their only child Cornelia was born in 1900. Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924 and their children share ownership of the Biltmore properties.

Not content to simply sit back and enjoy his home, George and Edith Vanderbilt dedicated their lives to helping others. They purchased a nearby town where most of the estate’s employees lived and renamed it Biltmore Village. The town, with buildings and a church designed by Richard Morris Hunt, grew and is today designated as a historic district.

The Vanderbilts also founded the Biltmore Forest School, the first school for scientific forestry in America as well as Biltmore Estate Industries, an apprenticeship program to teach traditional crafts like woodworking and weaving. Edith founded the School for Domestic Science where young women were trained in housekeeping skills, which would give them a distinct advantage in the job market.

Biltmore House is filled with priceless artwork and custom made furnishings and was the scene of many social galas. But despite its grandeur, George strove to make Biltmore a warm, inviting home for his family.

In March 1914, Vanderbilt was rushed to a hospital in Washington, D.C. with appendicitis. An emergency appendectomy was performed. The surgery, however, was not successful and George Washington Vanderbilt died on March 6. He was buried in the family mausoleum on Staten Island. His wife remained at Biltmore until 1925 when she remarried. She left the management of Biltmore Estate to her daughter and son-in-law.

Biltmore Estate operated its own dairy, which provided products for not only the estate, but eventually all of western North Carolina. In 1985 the dairy operation was sold and the dairy barn on the estate was remodeled and turned into a winery, which is the most visited winery in the United States.

William Amherst Vanderbilt, grandson of George W. Vanderbilt, owns the estate today and accepts no government funding to maintain the house or grounds. Imbued with the same “can do” attitude of his grandfather, Cecil defied those who told him that the estate could not be profitable. Cecil, who had a background in New York banking, returned to Asheville in the 1960s to find it in economic trouble. He rolled up his sleeves, wore many hats and began to market his childhood home. By the end of the decade, Biltmore was showing a profit, a trend that has continued to this day.

Biltmore Estate is open to the public every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the Christmas season, the house is decorated in authentic Victorian tradition and special candlelight Christmas evening events are planned. Springtime is especially beautiful at Biltmore.

For more information, visit or call 800-624-1575 to discover the magic that is Biltmore Estate.

Some material used from the following sources: