Those who know me know I have a penchant for Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville, NC. I have two short stories set in a house inspired by the location. I went there often on school field trips through Middle School and High School. I once held a season pass when in High School. I quit counting my visits when it was over 30. It’s no surprise moving close and with new rooms and new tour available I wanted to go back. So we took a long weekend in early November to go to Asheville. Mike patiently went with me to my kind of Disneyland. The place is one that the more I learn about it the more interesting it becomes.
The home was built by George W. Vanderbilt II the youngest of William H Vanderbilt and Mary Kissam Vanderbilt. He comissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design a home for his 130,000 acres of land in North Carolina. Hunt came back with plans for an American Colonial home that would have fit in well in Williamsburg, Virginia. George who was about 25 then and America’s most desirable bachelor basically said ‘That’s nice Rich but it’s not quite what I’m thinking about. Let’s go to Europe for a year and tour. I’ll show you what I like and what I don’t like. I’ll show you some things I’ve purchase for it in the warehouse of my father and we’ll get the idea going. Oh and bring your wife with you she’s such a pleasant lady.’ (Suddenly I feel like an episode of Drunk History). So the were gone and Hunt worked while George shopped and talked. I have no idea what Mrs. Hunt did other than enjoy an all expense paid in the very best of places vacation in Europe for a year. Once back in New York. George went back to his job, which was to keep his mum company and look for a suitable mate. Hunt got busy and eventually made a model of the proposed home for George based on their travels. The model drew attention New York City when loaded onto a cart to bring it to the Vanderbuilt house that took up a block of 5th Avenue and just down the street from Huguette’s childhood home. Everyone wanted to know who was going to build such a house and when told the baby Vandy they said ‘That figures in Newport, Rhode Island right?” “Nope North Carolina mountains.” “Well that don’t figure.” Any way George like the model so much he commissioned a room in the house be built next to his personal Observatory (to observe his estate not the stars) to house it. That’s were it sits today on the special cabinet built in there to hold the house plans (which I do hope are published in a book one day). Oh and that cabinet can’t be moved out of that room, it won’t fit through any of those doors so that room is ever dedicated to the house in which it sits.
Construction was started in 1889. Train tracks were put in to bring in materials, workmen, artisans, furnishings, etc. It is a brick and steel construction with limestone veneer of many inches thick. It has 6 fire-walled off sections. The steel was made especially for the home and each piece numbered before shipping as to where it would go in the home. In what is now the front law cabins were built with work areas for the stone masons, slate cutters, brick layers etc. Though all that was removed upon completion and turned over to Fredrick Law Olmstead to landscape for the opening day in 1895.
The house was an innovation at the time. It had indoor plumbed hot and cold water. Each guest room had its own private bath. Each house servant had their own private furnished room. It had electricity and used Edison light bulbs all 15 watt. They have returned the home to that wattage to give guests the feel of what it was like. It had refrigerators and phones to call any building on the estate or room in the family and guest areas. Later those were expanded in the 1910s to be able to call out. It had two elevators – one for family/guests and one for servants. They both work and the servants one was getting a workout carting holiday decorations when we did the upstairs/downstairs tour.
It was opened for Christmas 1895. George was still single so his mother acted as hostess. When we were there they were in the weeks long process of decorating for Christmas. The front stoop lions (one pictured at top of post) I climbed on in my middle school days got their wreath collars while we there. The house was to be a get-away home but George loved it and made it his main residence going to his inherited house in New York or his home in Washington DC when business required.
In 1898 while on a shopping tour for the house with his best buddy George met Edith Stuyvesant on board a ship as they were going to Europe. She was an American heiress who lived in Paris. George courted her and the were married in Paris the first of June that year. She came to Biltmore at the age of 25 to be its mistress. They had a daughter Cornelia (more about her Friday, yes Freaky Friday) who was born in the Louis XV room of the estate. Then sadly George died in 1914 in Washington DC from an infection after an emergency appendectomy. Cornelia inherited his estate with Edith as caretaker. The two moved into the Bachelor wing of the house and built a sleeping porch that remains to this day. Sadly that wing is not YET open for tours. I do hope that some day all rooms and all servant quarters over the stables are restored and open for viewing. I’ll hobble through with my cane to see them all.
On April 29, 1924 Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil at the church built for the Village that supported Biltmore. (Oh do open the link it’s about preserving the 90 yr old slice of cake from their wedding). They had two sons William and George. Cornelia divorced Cecil in 1934 at that time she signed over everything to her sons in the care of their father. John lived on in their Bachelor apartment until his death in 1954. William lived on there until he moved out to Edith’s house on the grounds in 1958. (Edith had built a house for herself in 1924 to give the couple some room in their home.) In 1976 Cornelia died and the brothers divided the estate. George took the diary and about 35,000 acres less the bit given for the Interstate 40 with the understanding the payment would be to minimize the disruption to the house and estate. (Under Edith’s management 87,000 acres were sold to make Mt. Pisgah national forest where Judy Smith’s body was found) . William (He prefers Bill) took 8,000 acres and house with all its contents. Bill owns it to this day and lives in Edith’s house on the grounds. He married Mary Lee Ryan whose first cousin is the famous Jakie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. They had Billy (William, Jr.). It was Bill’s idea to fully restore the home over time with funds from the showing of the home. His mother had opened the home during the depression at the request of Asheville who hoped it would help keep the tourist dollar afloat. It was closed again in WWII when the music room was used to secretly store national treasures from the National Archive without charge. While at Biltmore I purchased the book Lady On The Hill (by Howard E Covington, Jr. and The Biltmore Company) about how Bill did this all on his own with private funds. I look forward to reading it after I finish the one of the three books going right now.
The restoration of his bedroom and his gun room are stunning. The walls were covered with 22k gold. Not gold leaf but gold thicker than leaf hammered into burlap fabric. The effect in the new Edison lighting are lovely. I’ve seen both rooms many times but now the glow, the warmth, I understood why George enjoyed such an extravagance I would too if I could have afforded it in that lighting.
It is expensive to maintain a house like this. Recently they had to repair the roof which was custom slate with custom copper topping with gold inlay. We took the roof tour and this pictures show the new one getting a patina and the original ones. Also at the top of the stairs you can see the water damage to the limestone interior. Another thing the great chandelier is suspended by one bolt to a large spring steel cage encased in copper on the top, plaster on the bottom. Here you can see the shift over the last 100 yrs from the original setting. Oh and there is only one gargoyle on Biltmore without a tail. His back is viewable only from George’s observatory balcony. I got shot of his bum just for you. (Photos are mine, you can click or wave your mouse over them for my comments.)
However on the 100th anniversary he turned over management to his son Billy (great guy with a Carolina accent and a fishing truck with a European education). Now Billy’s daughter and son help run the day to day business of the home. There was a HUGE celebration in the house and everyone stayed there. The grand dining hall was used with commissioned china for the event (only used once). The indoor pool was filled and they swam (Back in original George’s day the indoor pool was filled from mountain streams and emptied every three days to be cleaned then refilled- there were no pool chemicals). Sadly they learned on the morning following the 100th celebration that the pool had a leak as all the water was in the sub-basement.
A few words about the Vanderbilts and their Biltmore staff. Beyond giving each their own furnished room instead of having the lower staff share rooms as was customary, the servant baths were supplied with hot and cold running water just as the guest were. They were paid New York City wages which were a fortune by local standards. Many were from the local area. In their house the Housekeeper overruled the butler per George’s instruction. As to why, who knows he was the boss and that’s how it was. There was a footman’s coat of man who only served for a short time before he contracted TB. Edith kept writing him assuring his job was there should he return. She paid for his medical care and continued to pay his wages. Sadly he was never able to resume his post. Edith as mistress of the estate started with her first Christmas there giving custom selected presents to everyone who worked for the estate and their children. She kept a ledger of people, their likes and dislikes (favorite color, favorite toys, etc.) and began shopping in August selecting gifts for each person. George was hosting a large formal dinner in the dining room. A maid servicing the table tripped dropping all she carried. The marvelous acoustics in the room carried the noise everywhere silencing conversation at the table. She fell to all fours and began weeping. George excused himself from the table, joined her in the floor and said “May I offer my assistance.” He helped her and other staff pick up and clean up calling her reassuringly by her name and even sent a handwritten personal note to her that evening reassuring her of her continued employment, no hard feelings, and that mistakes do happen. After that she said he always stopped to inquire of her and her family by name having a pleasant 10-15 minute conversation with her.
I’ve been going to Biltmore since I was small and went with my mother and grandmother. I have to say the staff has grown and house is now lively and vibrant with people. The winery didn’t work out (went from 150 to 50 acres of grapes just not the weather, but now they buy grapes and make their own blends). I long now to take a horse back tour of the estate. I think George Sr. would approve. He longed for his home to help the community be a source of agrobusiness knowledge, forestry research, textiles, and so much more. Now maybe it’s not those industries it’s supporting but it is providing jobs, education, and enjoyment. All in a large 360 room privately owned home. Not a bad legacy I’d say.
Here are few more photos from my visit you can enjoy more at my Flickr page.