VENTURE: Asheville – House Calls
Visitors can take in the wonder of the Biltmore Estate any day of the year.
What has 250 rooms (including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms), 175,000 square feet and sits on 8,000 acres of some of the planet’s most picturesque real estate?
It’s not a hotel, and it isn’t occupied by royalty (although some might call it a palace).
It’s Biltmore House, the largest privately owned house in the U.S., and it’s in Asheville, N.C.
It’s the focal point of Biltmore Estate, a tourist attraction drawing a million visitors a year to the mountains of Western North Carolina that so enthralled the aristocrat whose vision the house reflects.
George Washington Vanderbilt III (1862-1914) came from one of America’s richest and most prestigious families. He had little interest in commerce, however, and was an art collector, book collector and ardent traveler (he spoke eight languages fluently) from his youthful days.
In 1888, he and his mother visited Western North Carolina. He fell in love with the area and decided to build a home there.
“Home,” of course, is an understatement. It took hundreds of craftsmen, some from Europe, six years to construct the four-story mansion, which was modeled after a 16th-century French chateau. A brick factory and woodworking shop was set up on site, and a 3-mile railway spur was set up to haul construction materials, including tons of Indiana limestone, 11 million bricks and marble and oak for flooring.
The house featured modern attributes such as central heating, electrical lighting, indoor plumbing, a fire alarm, elevators, telephones and a call box for servants.
The architect was Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the facade and great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Among his flourishes for Biltmore House was a four-story, 102-step spiral staircase made of stone.
To manicure the original 125,000 acres he purchased for the estate, Vanderbilt commissioned Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park in New York. The gardens he produced, which bloom from March to November, are as much as a highlight for the visitors as the mansions, especially the Walled Garden (50,000 tulips in the spring, summer annuals and chrysanthemums in the fall) and All-American Rose Garden.
Biltmore House opened in 1895, and Vanderbilt and his wife moved in three years later. Their daughter was born in the house in 1900.
Friends and family literally would stay for months at a time in the mansion, surrounded by luxury and with any need or want met. Meals were prepared in multiple kitchens from food kept in massive pantries and refrigeration units. There was a laundry on site and, for recreation, a swimming pool, bowling alley and gymnasium in the basement.
The house is set up in much the same opulent fashion today. Priceless antiques, artworks, furniture, pottery and tapestries fill the rooms. There’s a library with walls on two levels covered by 10,000 volumes from Vanderbilt’s book collection (less than half the total number).
Biltmore House was opened to the public during the Great Depression, in an effort to bolster the family’s finances, and it became a full-time tourist attraction in 1956. It remains entirely family owned and privately funded today, and continued development has helped keep tourists coming.
Biltmore Estate Winery opened in a former dairy barn. It produces 140,000 cases a year and is a popular stop for those who want to sample wines and learn about wine making. Nearby Antler Hill Village opened in 2009 as an entertainment, dining and shopping venue.
A 213-room hotel, the Inn on Biltmore Estate, opened in 2001, as did the Explore Biltmore program, which offers visitors a chance to walk, hike, raft, bike, fish and take carriage or horse rides on the estate. Three years later, the Land Rover Experience Driving School was launched for those wishing to brush up on off-road driving techniques.
Six restaurants — two are in the Inn — offer diners everything from pizza and burgers to locally raised trout to gourmet fare, using livestock, fruits and vegetables raised or grown on the estate.
There are special events each quarter — the Biltmore Blooms event in the spring, Summer Evenings Concerts outdoors, the Harvest Home Celebration in fall and, in winter, Christmas at Biltmore and Candlelight Christmas Evenings (the house is decked out in special decorations).
However, the estate is open 365 days a year, giving visitors plenty of chances to relive a past era and admire the result of a man’s dream.
1 Lodge St. Asheville, NC 28803 800-411-3812 www.biltmore.com Ticket prices vary by season and date