With 250 rooms, it's the American version of
Downton Abbey, the
largest privately owned house in the United States at 16,622.8 m2 (178,926 square feet)! After the main gate, we drive through beautiful woodlands for 5 km to approach the property.
George W. Vanderbilt amassed fortunes through shipping and railroad empires, and inspired by the mountain scenery and mild weather in 1888 on his first visit to Western North Carolina, he built this
"country home" in Asheville, hiring famed architect,
Richard Morris Hunt and landscaper,
Frederick Law Olmstead. Completed Christmas Eve, 1895, three years later, he brought bride Edith Stuyvesant Dresser to Biltmore, and in 1900, their only child Cornelia was born here.
First time visitors underestimate the time it takes to tour the estate; we arrived early to see the house, gardens,
Antler Hill Village and
the winery in one day. The latter are located five miles from the house. We needed 6 busy hours to visit the major attractions and have lunch.
Self touring the house, just past the spacious Entrance Hall, inside the Winter Garden, a glass roof illuminates the centre fountain sculpture. I slip inside the Billiard Room with its custom 1895 oak tables. The nearby Banquet Hall features a seven-story high ceiling and Flemish tapestries from the mid-1500s. I stare in awe at the Organ Loft housing the massive 1916 Skinner pipe organ.
A docent explains that the largest dinner seated 38, but the family usually enjoyed a 7-to-11 course meal at a smaller table near the
triple fireplaces (there are 65 ) The setting included fine linens, family silver and china and five crystal wine glasses per person!
The Music Room displays rare porcelain and candlesticks from the 1730s made for Empress Maria Theresa Amalia of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Vanderbilt roamed Europe to outfit his castle.
The Tapestry Gallery, 90-foot-long is where guests enjoyed afternoon tea and music. In addition to Flemish tapestries from the 1530s, the art includes portraits by
John Singer Sargent and
The impressive Library houses half of Vanderbilt's 23,000-volume collection and its ceiling features The Chariot of Aurora, painted in the 1720s by Italian artist
Giovanni Pellegrini, originally in the
Pisani Palace in Venice.
I climb the Grand Staircase, in Downton Abbey, the domain of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and Lady Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and their parents. In Vanderbilt's Bedroom I imagine Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) looking out the window at his vast estate. Here, his valet assisted with outfits changed up to six times per day - for horseback riding, tea, formal dinner and such.
Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) would occupy Mrs. Vanderbilt's Bedroom with purple and gold silk fabrics and furnishings in the Louis XV style.
I meander through
more rooms - the Damask Room (silk draperies), Claude Room (prints by French painter
Claude Lorrain), Tyrolean Chimney Room (hand-painted 18th-century Swiss porcelain tile over mantel),
Louis XV Room (where Edith gave birth to her daughter), Louis XV Bath (one of the house's 43 bathrooms, a rarity in 1895 when many homes did not have indoor plumbing) Bowling Alley (servants set the pins and rolled the balls back), Swimming Pool (70,000-gallons indoor pool heated with original underwater lighting) and Gymnasium. There's a Bachelor's Wing, Smoking Room (for after-dinner cigars, pipes, and brandy) and a Gun Room.
I marvel at the foundation walls which extend 29 feet down and took two years to build. Finally, I explore the downstairs, the domain of the likes of stentorian Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and soft-hearted Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who organized the servants.
More wandering through innumerable rooms - the Vegetable Pantry, Pastry Kitchen (elaborate desserts), Rotisserie Kitchen (to keep smoke and grease out of the other kitchens), Main Kitchen, Kitchen Pantry (with dumbwaiters), Walk-in Refrigerators (with large metal cans of milk from the estate's famous dairy cows), and I imagine both Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) happily working here.
In the Servants Dining Room, I can see Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) plotting with Thomas (Rob James-Collier) where 30 servants enjoyed three meals a day, allowed two hours off daily but still on call.
Outside are the bountiful Gardens - the Library Terrace (shaded by an arbor of wisteria and trumpet creeper vines), Italian Garden (classical statuary with three formal water gardens), Shrub Garden (Olmsted's design included 500 varieties of ornamental shrubs, trees, and other plants), Spring Garden, Walled Garden (a four-acre formal garden), Rose Garden (50 varieties), Azalea Garden, Conservatory (glass-roofed with exotic orchids, ferns, and palms) and a Bass Pond (with a rustic boat house).
After Vanderbilt's sudden death at 52 in 1914 following an emergency appendectomy, Edith managed the estate. In 1924, Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil. They lived here, but like many British aristocrats burdened by costs, the Cecils opened Biltmore House to the public in 1930. The house and grounds have been used to film many movies, my favourite, Being There staring
Peter Sellers in the ultimate spoof on the issue of chance and U.S. politics.
Besides the 75 acres of formal gardens, the extensive grounds include a winery (we purchase several bottles) and the Inn on Biltmore Estate, an AAA four-diamond, 210-room hotel where we stay the night. The Village includes the Outdoor Adventure Center, Creamery, Cedric's Tavern (where we ate), and the Biltmore Legacy, a museum that highlights the time of the Vanderbilts.
The previous night in Asheville we stayed at the comfortable Renaissance Asheville Hotel with recently completed renovations and in a great location, convenient for exploring the downtown, but tonight amidst the rolling hills at dusk at the superb Inn with its valet parking, I enjoy the same panoramic view that Vanderbilt experienced, albeit from a slightly more modest abode!
The Inn, set atop a hill, photo by Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Biltmore Estate Profile
Visit the Inn on Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore Estate
is nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina. Asheville serves as the county seat of Buncombe County. The city is the largest in Western North Carolina with a population of approximately 85,000 and a metro population of 417,012.