Our visit to Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House really amazes me. It is like a French chateau or maybe a manor house. My name for it is the Amazing Biltmore Palace.
With plenty of money to spend and after traveling as a socialite among the rich in Europe, George Vanderbilt started construction on the Biltmore Estate, finishing it in 1895. The fashion of the Biltmore Estate is like that of European royalty. It was built as a country estate and vacation home and included a full working farm. You cannot see the farm from the house. The views towards the house or from the house are reserved only for things of beauty.
George Vanderbilt got most of his money the old-fashioned way. He inherited it. The Vanderbilt Empire once controlled all rail and most of the shipboard transportation in the country. They were enormously rich. The estate in Asheville is huge at more than 8000 acres. More than 100,000 acres of land were sold to the U.S. Government after his death and is now a national forest.
I am very happy to have seen and also a little in shock by the amazing size and beauty of the estate. Such a place isn’t built only by one person. Vanderbilt employed thousands of craftsmen. Unlike European estate homes, this one was built with modern features including electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and even heating. In an era that most homes didn’t have bathrooms, the Biltmore had 42 baths. I think that one of the points that Vanderbilt was trying to make was that old, drafty European mansions were not equal to his standards. The palace didn’t have air conditioning which we found out while upstairs.
Our Tour of the Amazing Biltmore Palace
Our tour was the first one of the day on Monday, June 7th. The upstairs was already getting very warm by 10 am.
On arrival, you first approach the palace and get the grand view far enough to see the entire mansion but close enough to see details. The intent was the same for the first guests. The parking lots are positioned in a location that was hidden from the house.
Translated gentle slope, this was a structure between the front lawn and the upper slope. The final descent to the front lawn was down a ramp from the upper slope. Down the middle of the path are shallow steps made for horses. Next to the steps was a smooth grade for the carriage wheels. I imagine that the ramp was used as part of a carriage ride around the property for entertainment. Looking at the house across the front lawn from the ramp douce is spectacular.
The main gate is right next to the ramp douce. After entering you go for nearly a quarter-mile past the front lawn before you approached the front door. As you are looking at the front of the house across the front lawn (about five acres), the carriage house is to the right of the main house. Guests were dropped off right at the front steps. Then the employees would take the carriage to the stables. Even though the carriage house was right next to the house they were behind a gate and not seen from the front lawn.
The Carriage House
The hitching area in front of the carriage house is now a nice courtyard with food vending. The “garage” is now turned into boutique shops with high-end merchandise. Of course, the carriage house wasn’t the place for all the horses. Except for a few horses that were at the carriage house ready for use, and entertainment, most of the horses were at the stables at the Lioncrest (main) stables or at the farm stables. While the carriages would stay at the main house, most of the horses were at the other stables.
Coordination between the carriage house and the stables would have been a real challenge.
Formal Gardens and other features
To the left of the front lawn are the formal Italian garden, the walled garden, and the rose garden. Beyond the formal gardens is the arboretum/greenhouse. This greenhouse is called the conservatory. After going through the azalea garden, a half-mile beyond the conservatory, you’ll find the private bass pond. The bridge over the dam has a waterfall. Even further down the creek is another small pond, used as a water supply for the farm. The trail eventually leads to the farm and livestock. Overall I counted more than six lakes on the property… not including water features at the Biltmore Country Club / Golf Course.
The house and formal gardens sit near the top of the hill. The entire area was carved from the natural hillside. The house site is surrounded by moderate slopes. It is downhill in every direction, except for the lawn in front of the house. The effort to terrace the hilltop must have been massive.
The steepest and most dramatic slope with the best view is on the west side of the house. The main patio faced west with views of the distant mountains. The view closer was Vanderbilt’s private deer meadow. The family and guests could watch the deer from any of the rooms on the west side of the house.
From most angles, except distant mountains, the main house was not within view of the surrounding area. To get a good view of the house you needed to be on the property. One good view of the main house was from the bass pond. The view of the house is even more secluded now that all the trees on the property are mature.
The house side of the river (which cuts through the estate grounds) is in a bend of the river, which blocks the approach from three sides. Between the house and the river is an unbroken forest. All this would be typical of a European castle with a natural defense. The manor house is in the middle of the property today. In any direction you would have to go at least a mile before you exited the property.
The entire property was sculpted from the hillside and designed by the same landscape architect that designed New York City Central Park, Fredrick Law Olmstead. In every way, views of the house and views from the house were created to be very beautiful.
Like a European manor, there is the gatehouse, then the private driveway winds through the forest leading now to the parking lots. Guests would be picked up at the train station by one of the Vanderbilt’s many carriages. Guests would then travel through the gatehouse down the several-mile-long driveway.
After passing the gatehouse the wonder of the estate would unfold. Every part of this was constructed to impress and entertain the guests. The path wandered through the meadows and valleys with no hint of the main house which was near the hilltop. Along the path, there were water features and informal “natural” gardens. The area is host to some wild animals including deer.
On the route, the main house was completely hidden from view until they passed into the main promenade. Before that, the house was hidden by the trees and hills. Once they could see the main house they would cross the promenade which surrounded the main lawn. Then the guests would travel down the left side of the main lawn towards the house.
Guests of the Amazing Biltmore Palace
The carriages would then drop off the guests at the front door. This isn’t the kind of place where you drive your own carriage or open your own door to get out of the carriage. After climbing a few steps the doorman would open the main door and invite you in. Just inside the grand entrance is the grand stairway. It goes to the upper levels and private areas. To the right of the front door is the atrium. They called this the winter garden. Most probably, family members would greet the guests after arrival in a small sitting room next to the atrium or in the main foyer.
For the Vanderbilt’s, their arrival was probably a little less formal and instead of passing through the front gate, they just stayed on the train until they arrived at the house. Frequently the Vanderbilt’s would just get in their private luxury train car right at the house. After a number of connections they would arrive in New York, or where ever they wanted to go. The family-owned the trains and the tracks that went everywhere.
After adopting automobile transportation, and a fire in their private train car, they removed the train spur.
The railroad spur was built as part of the construction effort. The trains would bring most of the building materials that were not actually made on the property. During the build, the laborers arrived by train in the morning often riding on the building materials. In the evening, the train would make a trip to Asheville, returning the workers. During the night, new cars with more building materials were loaded ready for the return trip in the morning.
The building materials included granite stones that were dug from Vanderbilt’s private quarry on the estate. Bricks created on the property at the Vanderbilt’s private kiln again on the estate. Wood was milled in the Vanderbilt’s sawmill, largely from wood found on the property. Then the wood was dried in kilns for the Vanderbilt’s woodshop (factory). After construction, all these locations were either converted or hidden from view.
Building the Amazing Biltmore Palace
Both the landscape architect and the building architect (Hunt) lived on the property for more than five years during the build. Thomas Edison personally designed and installed the electrical system. The main house and most of the secondary structures, including the farm were constructed during the primary build, all using commercial construction techniques. The foundations go more than 20 feet below the lower floors. The lower floors included a bowling alley, gymnasium, pool, and of course the servant’s quarters and the kitchen(s). Yes, multiple kitchens. Finally, after the build, previous structures on the property were removed. There was no reason to have log cabins and outhouses scattered on the property.
The kitchen was near the service entrance and also near the stables on the lower levels. Food was prepared in a hotel-like setting. If the food didn’t come from the estate farm, then it arrived by train. The servants had their own entrance and driveway that didn’t follow the path of the guests. The staff was hired from luxury hotels and paid New York wages. Much of the labor was local, and they too were paid as if they were also in New York. Getting on staff at the Biltmore was a huge step up compared to the local economic wages.
The reputation of the Vanderbilt’s was that only the finest would do, wines were paired during the main meal with each dinner course. Dinner started at 8 pm and would last for hours. Dinner was the main entertainment of the day. Guests were not there just for dinner, a typical stay was a multi-day invitation.
Like a palace
The house was run like a palace with butlers, valet, doormen, and waiters. Afternoon outdoor activities were planned around the horses, hunting or sometimes just shooting followed by a mid afternoon refresher to get ready for the evening affairs.
Since it was the finest invitation, it was a formal affair including formal dinner attire. The house was created to host long extended parties that lasted late into the night and resumed at breakfast late the next morning. Before dinner was a social hour with drinks. After cocktails, dinner was served with wines pairings for each course. After multiple courses there was post dinner entertainment and cigars with brandy for the gentlemen in the private smoking den.
Eventually, the size of the house overwhelmed even the Vanderbilt family. The house is more than four acres of interior living space. The house includes 35 bedrooms plus sitting rooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The family ended up living in a much smaller apartment-style residence in the corner of the house.
The Biltmore estate is still owned by the descendants of the family and has gradually turned into a major tourist attraction. On the estate, there is an exclusive golf country club (with exclusive homes). Some of the farm has been converted into a winery. Next to the winery, there is an active hotel or you can stay in one of the cottages. The family members have separate houses on the property, all are modest compared to the estate house, but they are substantial in their own way. The estate employs hundreds of workers and is a major plus to the local economy.
Links to places mentioned in this article.
In the comments, friends have mentioned Hearst Castle in California. Here is the story about our visit. California Central Coast