Monday, December 28, 2015

"Biltmore"--Because "Cost More" Sounded Crass

For Christmas my grandmother treated us to a trip to "America's Largest Home," the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, North Carolina. We drove over from Charlotte the day before, staying at a hotel in town for half what it would have cost to stay in one of the three hotels on the estate. Robber-baron heir George Vanderbilt (1862-1914) bought the 125,000 acres in the Blue Mountains in the 1880s and began construction at the age of 32, when he was still a bachelor. He married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898, and their daughter, Cornelia, was born there in 1900. The French Renaissance house has been handed down in the Vanderbilt/Cecil Family ever since. Cornelia and her husband opened it to visitors in 1930 in order to increase the revenue of the estate. The grounds are “only” 8,000 acres now, 87,000 acres having been sold to the federal government as Pisgah National Forest in 1914 after George died of complications from appendicitis surgery and Edith decided she couldn't run such a large tract of land by herself.

The day of our visit dawned wet and gray. We carpooled to the estate and waited in the mist for our turn to enter. Audioguides in pressed to our ears, we followed the herds of people, some with children, strollers, or wheelchairs, winding through the rooms on four floors of the 252-room mansion. First up was the Winter Garden, a sunken glass-domed parlor filled with green plants. I asked Dear Husband if he wouldn’t like to practice in there every day, but he complained that the shiny black grand piano would go out of tune from the changes in temperature.

In the game room the Christmas tree was decked with pheasant feathers like this wreath on the conservatory--a nod to the gentlemen’s hunts I supposed. The medieval-style Great Hall banquet room held the only live tree, but it was massive, reaching above the chandeliers. There are 500 electric light bulbs on it and 200 presents in and around it. Next on the tour, both the women’s salon and the music room—completed well after the house had opened on Christmas Eve in 1895—had touches from Albrecht Dürer. DH told me he wants an original Dürer mantelpiece for Christmas next year; I told him to dream on.

Nowadays the 12-member floral department plans the next Christmas’s decorations all year. It takes them and 8 volunteers 3 and a half weeks to install all the trees, wreaths, garlands, and other touches. This year’s theme was “a Gilded-Age Christmas” and consisted of richly beribboned greens and classic, jewel-toned ornaments. My favorite display was probably the bare branches filling the alcove at the foot of the back staircase; they were covered in white lights and dripping crystal icicles. Unfortunately photos inside the house are prohibited--probably because the crowds would move even more slowly then. And of course they want you to visit yourself and purchase their merchandise!

The house is massive: there are 35 bedrooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, and 0 sinks. Apparently running water was considered a necessary luxury for running a bath and flushing the toilet, but not for washing hands, which means the germ revolution was only halfway successful, as the bathroom we saw was tiled in the latest hygienic style already.

Upstairs were bed- and sitting rooms for the family on the second floor and for guests on the third floor. DH and I compared the various well-appointed rooms to bed and breakfasts at which we have ever stayed. Downstairs in the basement you can touch the 14-foot-thick foundation walls. In the “Halloween Room” you can see black and white photographs taken during the construction phase. Actually, the amateur wall paintings don’t have anything to do with All Hallow’s Eve: the homeowners and their guests did them in advance of a New Year’s Eve party in 1925. The theme was a Russian folk tale, which accounts of the witches and black cats. Next door were a two-lane bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool that unfortunately leaks now, and a gymnasium complete with parallel bars and “needle showers” (think massage shower heads). Downstairs were also the female servants’ quarters and all the kitchens and pantries. It was all very "Downton Abbey."

Two hours and fifteen minutes later we had completed our 1.5-hour tour and repaired to a big round table in the loft of the Stable Café for an excellent rustic lunch. DH, my mother, and I walked through the gardens while the rest visited the gift shops and fetched the car. Gray skies turned to sprinkles turned to rain, hurrying us down the hill into the conservatory, which I am very glad we did not miss, as its many glass-enclosed rooms were stuffed with poinsettias, ferns, succulents, tropical flowers, and one room with a variety of beautiful orchids (the only one under video surveillance, I noted!). Above left you can see me with what must be the world's largest chia pet. With a fluffy pink flower for a nose, I think it's supposed to be a botanical Rudolph.

I don't know the name of the fluffy
pink flower in the upper left, but it
seemed to me to have come straight
out of a Dr. Seuss book!
Then we drove through the grounds to Antler Hill Village, a collection of shops, restaurants, and a few exhibits around one of the on-site hotels. We walked through the old dairy barns that now house the winery and stood in line (again!) for a free tasting. Due to the uncertain handling of checked baggage, none of us bought any bottles to bring back with us. However, because Biltmore milk and ice cream are supposed to be famous, we bought generous to-go scoops of mint chocolate chip and black cherry. The ice cream was soft and fluffy. I would have liked a stronger mint flavor, but there were real cherry pieces in the other kind, so in all quite good. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough for us to load up in the van and hit the road for what turned out to be a scenic but long drive back to Charlotte.

The grounds of the estate are reportedly gorgeous in the early spring, especially when the dogwoods are in bloom. There is also a rose garden, and they offer an hour-long upstairs/downstairs tour that I would take if we were ever back in the area. Apparently Antler Hill Village also offers a number of outdoor activities like guided horseback rides, fly-fishing classes, and Segway tours. The place was crowded for a Monday, maybe due to the holidays, so I probably wouldn’t want to return on a weekend. I’m sure the estate is doing quite well for itself now!


  1. You did not mention that you first visited the estate when you were about 10 years old. I have been there 4 times. The gardens are at their best in the spring and early summer. I might go there again to see the gardens, but I will never - I repeat never climb all those stairs again. That Christmas with so much of our family here was wonderful. Atime I will always treasure

  2. I enjoyed the pictures and the remembrances. The bad thing for us was that your grandfather barely made it up the stairs from the basement and had to be lifted up by 4 strong young men. I should never have taken him down to the basement, but that is hindsight.


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