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Aug 14

Biltmore House – an American Beauty

Biltmore HouseWe had both visited Biltmore before (at different times in our previous lives!) and realized it was more than 30 years ago!  We were told there had been many “improvements” since that time but, frankly, neither one of us could remember that far back so we wouldn’t have noticed!

The lady at the Biltmore desk in Asheville’s Visitor’s Center was very helpful and did a great job of selling us on the idea of taking a “Behind the Scenes Tour” at the house as well as the general tour!  Currently there are two choices available, an Architect’s tour and a Butler’s tour. We chose the latter.  She suggested we tour the house one day and return the next morning for the guided Butler’s tour.  For one and a half hours, our private guide took a dozen of us behind the scenes were we saw how the staff – from housekeeper to servant’s maid –  ran this enormous house and catered to all the visitors that stayed here on a regular basis (more about that in a minute!)

Visiting Biltmore is not cheap!  You can’t even set foot on the grounds without a ticket, which we purchased at the Visitor’s Center at a discounted price of $59.00 each.  This allows you to take a self-guided tour of the house with the aid of a small pamphlet giving a short explanation of each of the rooms.  There is an additional cost of $10 for the audio tour which, by the way, we highly recommend.  Take some ear buds with you so you don’t have to hold the audio up to your ear like a cellphone. The entrance fee also gives you access to the beautiful gardens and greenhouses as well as the rest of the extensive grounds.

Whilst Biltmore is not the largest home in America today, it certainly was when it was built.  It is, without doubt, the most amazing and mind-blowing “little mountain escape” ever built!  Yes, that’s what George Washington Vanderbilt II called it!Biltmore Aerial

The three mile drive from the entrance of the Estate to the house itself winds through wooded areas and parkland.  It’s an easy walk from the parking lot to the mansion but there’s a shuttle if you prefer.  No matter how many times you’ve seen pictures of Biltmore or, in fact, have actually been here, you cannot help but stop and be amazed at the beauty of this building.  We stood for several minutes quietly soaking up the scene before us.  Then a nice young man visiting from China took our photo for us!  He and his friend from Texas had just completed their tour and were thrilled with their visit.

OK – for those who like statistics:  the mansion has 250 rooms in 175,000 square feet (Hearst Castle, another impressive American residence, has 136 rooms in 60,645 square feet).  But the thing that blows your mind as you walk through the house and look at the craftsmanship is that it took five years to build and was officially opened on Christmas Eve 1895!  The architect, Richard Morris Hunt,  followed George Vanderbilt’s wishes and designed the home in a “chateaux” style found in the Loire Valley.  Furniture, artwork and tapestries from the 1400s – 1800s were purchased in Europe by George Vanderbilt as well as his wife, Edith, whom he married in 1898.

Banquet HallYou stand in the Banquet Hall and feel as if you’re in a European Castle!  The beautifully set table seats 38 people.  You can visualize the guests, “dressed to the Nine’s”, being served course after delicious course by liveried servants.  Throughout the meal there’s interesting conversation and laughter.   After dinner the ladies withdraw to a Drawing Room (probably to have a cup of tea, but one would hope they’d have a sherry instead!) while the men retire to the Smoking Room for cigars and brandy.  At the end of the evening guests retire to their luxurious bedrooms where a maid, or manservant, is waiting to assist them!

Gardens

Once you’ve absorbed the opulence of the House, you must take a tour of the gardens designed by landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted,  the creator of Central Park.  Not only did he design several different gardens close to the house – walled garden, Italian garden, rose garden – to name a few, he also used his knowledge of the environment to reclaim over-farmed land and established America’s first managed forest.  Plants from all over the world thrive in the Conservatory and we caught glimpses of humming birds feasting on beautiful flowers throughout the gardens.

As we mentioned, we returned to Biltmore for the Butler’s Tour with our private guide.  It was worth the $17 per person.  We toured areas not open to the public … the kitchens, the pantries and the Housekeeper’s suite which consisted of a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom.  The Housekeeper ruled the roost here and ran the house even when the Vanderbilts were out of the country.  She was more important than the Butler!  On display was the equipment the maids used to keep the house clean … a foxtail duster (PETA would have something to say about that today!), toilet bowl cleaner and a turn of the century vacuum cleaner (not exactly a Dyson but quite an innovation for the times!)Dynamo

George Vanderbilt was ahead of his time when it came to modern technology and, thanks to his fortune, was able to equip the house with the latest amenities and labor saving devices.  In the 1890’s electric power was only just replacing oil and gas for lighting and on our tour of the basement we saw the original electric control panel – made out of marble, no less! – with switches indicating the various areas of the house they controlled.  The system was set up for AC and DC currents.  Bill was most impressed with this area of the basement!

From the basement an elevator transported food items to refrigerated rooms and other objects to the appropriate floors.  Dumb waiters carried cooked food from the kitchens to the dining rooms.  A bell system summoned household staff to specific rooms.  We’re sure this underground world hummed with activity – from early morning until late at night! It was not an easy life but the staff were well paid and well looked after by the Vanderbilts.

Mrs VanderbiltApart from the kitchen areas, one of the busiest rooms in the house must have been the Sewing Room.   Mrs. Vanderbilt was known to change clothes at least 5 times a day and each outfit would have to be carefully checked, repaired if necessary, and returned to her wardrobe!  All of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s guests would require the same service.

A couple of little gems in our Behind the Scenes Tour:  we saw some of the luggage that the Vanderbilts used on their lengthy overseas journeys and also some of the beautiful hand painted china services that were used for dinner parties at Biltmore.  A word of caution regarding the Butler’s Tour: there are a lot of steps to climb. The pace is slow but if you have a problem with stairs you might want to reconsider.

So the question is:  What happened to turn Biltmore from a private residence into a public museum?  Well, after George’s death in 1914 his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, continued to live there and Edith ran the estate.  In 1924 Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil and they all lived at Biltmore until the Depression in 1930 when, in an effort to increase tourism to the area and also to bring in money to preserve the estate, Biltmore was opened to the public.

Even today Biltmore continues to be a family business.  The Biltmore Company is controlled by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil.  His son serves as CEO and his daughter is president of the Family Office.  1800 employees work on the property which today covers 8,000 acres.  In 1964 Biltmore was designated a National Historical Landmark. 1913 Stevens-Duryea C-Six

On our way out, we stopped by the Biltmore Winery for some wine tasting.  Biltmore’s wines contain grapes grown on the property as well as those brought in from California.  The main reason for stopping at the winery was to see George Vanderbilt’s 1913 Stevens-Duryea C-Six automobile which was housed next door.  We looked at the car then bought a bottle of wine (still unopened!) and returned to “normal” life!

P1050760On our way ‘home’ we decided to stop by Little Pigs Bar-B-Q for some take-out (we were too tired to think about cooking a meal!)  As we walked in, a gentleman was standing at the order counter and kindly helped us make up our minds.  He told us we needed to order one pound of pulled pork, hush puppies, coleslaw and a bottle of sauce!  He said he had been coming to Little Pigs for over 30 years and that it was the best BBQ place in town!  He did such a great selling job that we did exactly what he suggested and had an excellent dinner.

The next day we said farewell to Asheville and took off for Tennessee, promising ourselves not to cram so much sightseeing into a couple of days again!  A slower pace and more time to relax was our motto from now on. We’ll see how successful we are in sticking to this!

Photo Links below:

Biltmore House:  http://goo.gl/6tyW2Y

Biltmore Winery:  http://goo.gl/32PAcW

Grove Park Inn:  http://goo.gl/kBbT4N

P1050757

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1 comment

  1. Marsha

    I love the Biltmore House. Which is my favorite room – the dining room or the library? Hard to say. I’m blown away at the beauty of it all. Glad you enjoyed your visit.
    Hugs,
    Marsha

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