This is our 500th day RVing since we purchased our first motorhome in late October, 2009! After all we’ve seen across forty-nine states and eight provinces and 40,000 miles, today’s visit to the Biltmore in Asheville NC has to rank with San Simeon (Hearst Castle) as the most spectacular of the many estates we’ve toured.
In the 1880s, at the height of the Gilded Age, George Washington Vanderbilt,
youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt … and grandson of Cornelius (the Commodore) Vanderbilt, an American industrialist and philanthropist who built his wealth in shipping and railroads and patriarch of the Vanderbilt family and one of the richest Americans in history … began to make regular visits with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt to the Asheville, North Carolina area. He loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to create his own summer estate in the area, which he called his “little mountain escape” a rural escape from the pressures of business and the media in New York for his family and friends.
Vanderbilt’s idea was to replicate the working estates of Europe. He commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Châteauesque style, using several Lorie Valley French Renaissance architecture chateaux, including the Chateau de Blois, as models.
To complement his new home, he engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American Landscape architecture and the designer of New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds and dozens of other famous parks.
The result of their collaboration was the 250 room (2.4 million cubic foot), including 43 bathrooms, Biltmore House
set on 8,000 acres along the French Broad River just south of Asheville, North Carolina … the largest privately-owned house in the United States.
Construction was begun in 1889 and complete in time for George Vanderbilt, a bachelor at the time, to host a grand-opening party on Christmas Eve in 1895. Interestingly, the house was built using steel and masonry for all structural members … avoid the use of wood other than for doors, flooring and interior wall décor.
Three years later, he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser and in 1900,
they welcomed their only child, Cornelia in 1900.
George would die just 14 years later of complications from an appendectomy but his wife and daughter would continue to manage the estate. In an attempt to bolster the estate’s financial situation during the Depression, Vanderbilt’s only child, Cornelia, and her husband, John Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore House to the public in March 1930. Family members continued to live there until 1956, when it was permanently opened to the public as a house museum.
The entrance to the property
is three miles from the house via a gorgeous, winding road.
The first views you catch of the home are breathtaking.
To the rear of the home
especially from the huge veranda
Entering into a huge front hall, the Winter Garden with its glass roof illuminating a center fountain is constantly restocked with fresh flowers and plantings.
The tour continues into the Billiard Room with its pocket and carom tables. From there you enter the Banquet Hall with its seven-story high ceiling and Flemish tapestries from the mid-1500s.
The Breakfast Room, which was used for lunches rather than breakfasts, have portraits on both George’s father and grandfather on display.
The Music Room is interesting as it was not completed until 1976, although during World War II it was used by the federal government to store nearly 100 of the most valuable paintings and sculptures which were moved from Washington DC.
You then walk through the 90 foot long Tapestry Room with its three huge Flemish tapestries from the 1530s as well as portraits of George Vanderbilt, his mother Maria and wife Edith.
The Library provides evidence of George Vanderbilt’s passion for books. It houses 10,000 of his 23,000 volume library containing books in eight languages, all of which he spoke, and covered subjects ranging from American and English fiction, international history, religion, philosophy, art and architecture.. He is believed to have actually read 1,359 (he purportedly started counting at age 12). The ceiling has a painting (The Chariot of Aurora) by the Italian artist, Giovanni Pellegrini in the 1720s and brought from Venice to Ashville in seven sections. There is also a 3’ diameter globe dating to 1899.
Returning to the Entrance Hall we next climbed the grand staircase.
Inspired by the staircase at the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley, Biltmore’s grand staircase is a marvel of physics built using counterbalance. The weight of each of the solid limestone slab steps is offset by the weight of the wall bearing down.
In the center of the staircase is a 1,700-pound electric light fixture
suspended from the middle of the grand staircase. It hangs from a single bolt that runs through steel girders under the dome roof. The bolt has been replaced only once since the house was built. Wisely designed, the copper dome opens for easier access to the fixture.
Among the rooms we toured on the second floor are George Vanderbilt’s Bedroom,
Edith Vanderbilt’s Bedroom,
The Sitting and Breakfast Room between George’s and Edith’s rooms. The reason for separate bedrooms among the rich and famous of the era had nothing to do with sex … but rather as the masters and mistresses of the house were tended by an army of servants and it would have been inappropriate for a valet of maid to walk in to a “master” bedroom and catch a person of the opposite sex in the buff or otherwise in a compromising position, and the Louis XV Room which features liberal doses of gold and silk, making this room literally shine on a sunny morning. Edith Vanderbilt chose this room in which to deliver her daughter, Cornelia, in 1900.
Years later, when Cornelia was a young wife, this is where she gave birth to her two sons, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil.
Although we saw and toured another two dozen rooms, with a total of 250 altogether, we clearly just scratched the surface.
Vanderbilt went on extensive buying-trips overseas as construction on the house was in progress. He returned to North Carolina with thousands of furnishings for his newly-built home. These included furniture, tapestries, hundreds of carpets, prints, linens, and decorative objects, all dating between the 1400s and the late 1800s, and all coming from various eastern and western countries and continents around the world. Among the few American-made items were the more practical oak drop-front desk, rocking chairs, a walnut grand piano, bronze candlesticks and a wicker wastebasket.
Wanting the best, Vanderbilt also employed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds, with the immediate gardens in the Garden à la française style, beyond those in the English Landscape garden style. Beyond these were the natural woodlands and agricultural lands with the intentionally rustic three-mile (5 km) approach road passing through. Intending that the estate could be self-supporting, Vanderbilt set up scientific forestry programs, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms and a dairy. His wife, Edith, also enthusiastically supported agricultural reform and promoted the establishment of a state agricultural fair. In 1901, to help provide local employment, the Vanderbilts started Biltmore Industries, which made furniture modeled after the furnishings of the estate.
Today, the estates covers over 8,000 acres of the 125,000 acres initially purchased by George Vanderbilt; 85,000 acres being sold to the US Government in 1914.
Of the remaining acreage, there are 75 acres of formal gardens where we spent much of our remaining time at the Biltmore.
The grounds and buildings of Biltmore Estate have appeared in a number of major motion pictures: The Clearing, Hannibal, Return to the Secret Garden, Patch Adams,My Fellow Americans, Richie Rich, Forrest Gump, Mr. Destiny, A Breed Apart, The Private Eyes, Being There, The Swan, Tap Rootsand The Last of the Mohicans a favorite of mine in which one of the bridges appeared with a coach crossing it near the beginning of the film.
Lastly, what would any estate worth its salt be without some statues.
From the Biltmore, we visited the striking Basilica of Saint Lawrence
which features the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America, with a clear span of 58 feet by 82 feet.
While there, we were interested in how a church qualifies to be labeled a Basilica;
· It must have a long history with the people in the area.
· Architecturally, it must afford the possibility of more than one liturgy being celebrated simultaneously.
· All of the rites should be executed in an exemplary way with fidelity to liturgical norms.
The building, itself, is remarkable, as there are no beams of wood or steel in the entire structure. All the walls, floors, ceilings and pillars are of tile or other similar materials. The roof it made of tile with a copper covering.
The Spanish Renaissance style church was designed and built by architects Raphael Guastavino and Richard Sharp Smith, who were both drawn to Western North Carolina to work on the Biltmore Estate. Guastavino’s signature construction method, a revival of an ancient building system of layered tile and mortar that had been used in Catalonia and other parts of Spain for centuries, allowed the creation of freestanding curved surfaces. His work is found in over a thousand buildings in this country, including Grant’s Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, and the chapel at West Point.
Construction on Basilica of St. Lawrence began in 1905 and was completed in 1909 by Raphael Guastavino, Jr. after his father died in 1908. The senior Guastavino is interred in a crypt within the church.
The Lunette over the main door is made of polychrome terra cotta and represents Christ giving the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter and appointing him head of the Church.
Above the main alter stands a tableau depicting the Crucifixion. From the 17th century, it is hand carved walnut showing Mary and John.
To the left and right of the main Sanctuary are two smaller chapels