America doesn't have a ruling class, but it does have a castle -- the
Biltmore House. The largest family home ever built in the United States, if
this place in Asheville, N.C., doesn't drop your jaw, nothing will!
A Bit Of History
The Biltmore House and surrounding estate was built by George Vanderbilt
beginning in 1889. Vanderbilts first immigrated to America in the mid-1650s,
but the wealth we associate with the name began with George Vanderbilt's
grandfather, Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt (1794-1877), and
grew under the financial acumen of George's father, William Henry Vanderbilt
(1821-1885). The name "Biltmore" came from the suffix of the family
name (the original "van der Bilt" referred to the area in Holland
from which the clan emigrated) plus an old English term for green, rolling
hills: "more." Its founder opened the home to friends and family in
1895, six years after commencing the project.
But while the Biltmore Estate (aka just "Biltmore") is rich in
history and a person can spend many hours absorbing the stories of the founder
and his ancestors and progeny, the star attraction is the house itself --
The House That George Built
The Biltmore House has 250 rooms, including family and guest bedrooms (35),
servants' quarters, living and dining areas, kitchens (3), and spaces for
entertaining, such as a bowling alley and an indoor pool. The home is 175,000
square feet and covers four acres. It has a total of 43 bathrooms and 65
fireplaces. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the French Renaissance
Chateau style. Furnishings remain much the same as they were when the original
Vanderbilts were in residence over 100 years ago. Priceless artwork and
antiques complete the atmosphere.
No one has lived in Biltmore House since the 1950s, but America's largest
"family home" remains family-owned. Bill Cecil, the great grandson of
founder George Vanderbilt, is president and CEO today. As in the beginning, the
estate is self-sustaining, although today this is manifested less in farming
and ranching and more in tourism infrastructure. Some of the estate's more
recent developments include the addition of a winery and an on-site inn.
The Estate Gardens And Grounds
The landscape architect for the Biltmore Estate was Frederick Law Olmsted.
Olmsted, who also designed New York's Central Park and the grounds of both
Stanford University and the U.S. Capitol, is often called the Father of Landscape
Architecture. Laying out the 120,000-acre Biltmore grounds was his last large
project. Although Vanderbilt wanted a formal, English-style plan, Olmsted
convinced his client to install formal gardens near the house, but to maintain
much of the acreage in a more natural-to-the-area forest. Some of the features
designed and built by Olmsted include a 9-mile arboretum and a bass pond.
Whether you are a hard-core horticulturist or you simply admire a beautiful
place to stretch your legs, the grounds of the Biltmore are heavenly. The
Italian Garden features pools and sculptures; the Shrub Garden covers 4 acres
and is perfect for strolling; the Walled Garden is a formally organized flower
garden; the Spring Garden is a riot of blooms in forsythia and fruit blossom
season; and the Azalea Garden is a 15-acre tribute to the myriad species of
azalea. To time your visit with the bloom period of your favorite flower or
shrub, visit the "Calendar of Blooms" page on the Biltmore's website:
http://biltmore.com/visit/gardens/bloom.asp. And don't miss the Conservatory,
with its palms, flowers, bedding plants, and separate Orchid House.
There are many other things to see and do on the grounds. The River Bend
Farm is a demonstration farm offering a sense of the self-sustaining farm
operations of Biltmore's early years. There are restaurants, a Creamery shop
featuring estate-made ice-cream, and the aforementioned winery. Equestrians can
bring their horses and explore one of several trails ranging from 10- to 30
miles, or Biltmore can provide horses for those who don't have a horse or are
unable to bring their own mount.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Seasonal events and specialty tours
extend the possibilities. For a more complete look at the choices, see the website
Things You Need To Know
The Biltmore Estate is open year-round, even on holidays (this year 1 p.m. - 7
p.m. on Christmas Day). Hours vary for specific buildings, but basically you
will find the Biltmore House open from about 9 a.m. until 4:30 (Jan-Mar) or
5:30 (Apr-Dec) p.m.; the gardens are open year-round from 9 a.m. until dusk.
Sally O'Neal is a Pacific Northwest native who paid a visit to North
Carolina earlier this year and was impressed with the lush beauty of the South. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.