Happy birthday, Biltmore. The venerable home of George Washington Vanderbilt turns 100 this year, and the estate has been readied for celebrations, both small and grand.
The festivities include an exhibit titled "George Washington Vanderbilt: The Man and His Treasure," on display through December. It includes nearly 100 never-before-seen objects from the millionaire's collection, including paintings by Monet and Whistler, rare books and prints and an assortment of archival photographs and documents chronicling Vanderbilt's life, as well as the building of his illustrious Asheville estate.And more important, the estate has opened four tower rooms to the public. The third-floor chambers were originally guest rooms. Extensive research, restoration and conservation have returned the rooms to their original late-1800s splendor.
Now, you say you've "done" Biltmore? That you don't need to make the trek back up there to see more of the same?
The centennial alone makes this year special, and there's simply too much to absorb about this spendid estate in any single visit.
Even the sheer massiveness of the home is overwhelming. This monster of a house boasts four acres of floor space. The 250-room mansion features 34 master bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, a bowling alley and an indoor swimming pool. And all these rooms hold treasures, from the priceless portraits of various Vanderbilts to simple antique kitchen utensils.
Let's take a look.
In 1895, George Washington Vanderbilt celebrated his first Christmas in his new home. It had taken six years for an army of artisans to create this country estate, one he hoped would rival the finest castles and manors of Europe . . . one that would embody the finest in architecture, modern technology and landscape planning. Of course, for 1895 America - and even by today's standards - the results were extraordinary.
George was the grandson of the first wealthy Vanderbilt - Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, in the early 1800s, turned a $100 investment from his mother into millions. George's father, William Henry Vanderbilt, doubled his father's fortune and instilled in young George an appreciation for art, books and other cultural pursuits.
George traveled often in his youth. On an 1888 trip with his mother, he fell in love with the area surrounding Asheville and began to buy up property in vast amounts - eventually amassing 125,000 acres, including the 100,000-acre Pisgah Forest (which today is a national forest).
To re-create the country estates he had so admired in Europe, quiet, intelligent George hired architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had worked often with the Vanderbilts on other estates (and also designed the base for the Statue of Liberty), and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (most famous for designing New York City's Central Park).
Hunt and Olmsted designed a masterpiece. The house is modeled on the richly ornamented style of the French Renaissance, while its interiors combine an eclectic assorment of European, American and Oriental furniture and art from a range of periods.
But lots of rich people had houses modeled on those European estates. What set Biltmore apart - other than its magnitude - was all the modern conveniences it held. In addition to central heating, electricity and a plumbing system, the mansion was equipped with fire alarms, mechanical refrigeration and elevators, most of which where unheard of in 19th-century homes.
While Hunt and his craftsmen worked on the house, Olmsted was busy on the grounds. He installed a 250-acre "pleasure park" and a series of gardens around the house; he established farms along the French Broad River bottoms and planted the rest of the property as commercial-timber forest.
Sure, it looked great. Beyond that, Olmsted's plans paid off handsomely in the long run: The farms soon yielded fruits, vegetables, grain, meat and dairy products - and made the estate self-supporting. The forest produced about 3,000 cords of firewood annually, which was sold along with lumber produced at Biltmore's own mill.
Things were picture-perfect until George died unexpectedly in 1914. His widow, Edith, found running the large estate overwhelming and began to consolidate her properties. Much of the land was sold off; she remarried in 1925 and left Biltmore to join her new husband in Rhode Island.
The cost of upkeep on an estate like Biltmroe is immense, and the house began showing signs of neglect over the next several decades.
Then, in 1960, William Cecil - George's grandson - arrived at Biltmore to manage the estate. His goal was not only to return the historic site to its former glory, but also to make it self-sustaining once more.
Under Cecil's guidance, more than 80 rooms, with about 70,000 original furnishings, have been opened to the public. The ongoing preservation program has made it possible to experience the estate as it was during George's residence. Edith Vanderbilt's bedroom, for example, was restored in 1990 using exact duplicates of the original French fabrics - woven on the same looms as the 1890s originals.
This restoration is now the most impressive thing about Biltmore. The estate has on hand its own tapestry-repair team, several full-time horticulturists and furniture and art historians - all working to ensure that the mansion looks exactly as it did in its prime.
So when you walk through the house, you expect to hear the tinkling laughter of a few elegant ladies in a sitting room, or the crack of pool cues in the billiards room. It's easy to iamgine ballgowns waltzing across the marbled floors of the tapestry room, a hundred lords and ladies sitting down for an eight-course meal in the main dining room.
Biltmore is a great place for an imagination, because it most certainly was a place of fantasy. It costs $24.95 per person ($18.75 for ages 10-15, and free for 9 and younger when accompanied by an adult) to tour the house. That's a lot of money, but it's worth it.
Your self-guided house tour takes you to the entrance hall, which is filled with antiques and a huge oak dining table. Check out the winter garden, with its glass ceiling and fountain (the sculpture on top of the fountain was done by noted Viennese sculptor Karl Bitter). The billiard room is manly kind of place, with its leather armchairs, somber oak paneling and dark colors. The plasterwork ceiling is a work of art.
The biggest room in the house is the banquet hall, which looks like something straight out of "Camelot." The room measures 72 by 42 feet, with a 70-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling. The huge oak table and its 64 throne-like scarlet chairs were designed especially for the room by Hunt. The room also boasts priceless Flemish tapestries and three fireplaces. You pass through other amazing rooms, such as the music room (never completed in George Vanderbilt's lifetime, it was recently refinished and refurbished) and the long, impressive tapestry room, which also doubled as the ballroom.
A personal favorite of mine is the library, with its 10,000 books and immense Italian marble fireplace (which is bigger than my first apartment (really). The most striking aspect of the room, though, is the 64-by-32-foot Pelligrini painting on the ceiling. It was originally located in the Pisani Palace in Venice, Italy, but George bought it and had the room designed to accommodate it.
On the second floor, you'll find another elaborate sitting room, and George and Edith Vanderbilt's private quarters, which have been lovingly restored to their original beauty. Note the well-equipped bathrooms - a marvel in their day - as well as the maid's room that adjoins Edith's bedroom. A few beautifully restored guest bedrooms await, as well as a sewing room.
How was this immense place kept going?
See the kitchens, laundry rooms, pantries and refrigeration rooms, which are mostly found in the basement. There are sitting rooms for servants down there, as well as the swimming pool, recreation room and bowling alley.
These recreation areas also are accompanied by several dressing rooms, so that an esteemed guest wouldn't have to make the long trek back to the main bedrooms immodestly dressed.
But for a deeper appreciation of how the house was run, spring for another $10 and go for the behind-the-scenes guided tour. It takes you to 25 rooms that are not on the regular circuit, including guest bedrooms and the servants' quarters. It also includes the sub-basement, where the original heating and power equipment still stand. In addition to the boilers it holds the gas-powered dynamo that generated some of the electricity for the house. Nearby are the 300-pound mechanized ice maker and the refrigeration plant.
Don't feel like staying indoors? Tour several of the gardens that surround the house.
Three symmetrical pools mark the Italian garden. The garden, enclosed by a hemlock hedge and stone walls, was intended as a separate "outdoor" room and is decorated with statues and benches. This was intended for croquet and tennis; after the games, guests could slip through a basement door to the dressing rooms to freshen up.
There is also a walled garden, a rose garden and a shrub garden that is markedly different from the elegantly formal Italian garden: It is a picturesque landscape with hundreds of woody plants, from old-fashioned favorites like honeysuckle and lilac to exotic imports from Japan such as kousa dogwood and Yoshino cherry.
The stables that once held dozens of thoroughbreds now hold a few fancy shops and a restaurant.
Walk down to refresh yourself and buy a few trinkets, or head over to the winery - housed in the former dairy - which is now the most-toured winery in America.
Now, what's this about your having "done" Biltmore?
If you go
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GETTING THERE: From Charlotte, take I-77 North to I-40; take I-40 West to the Asheville area. Take Exit 50 off I-40; watch for signs on N.C. 25 North.
ESTATE HOURS: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission (mansion, gardens and winery): $24.95 per person ($18.75 for ages 10-15, and free for 9 and younger accompanied by a parent).
BEHIND-THE-SCENES TOUR: $10 ($7.50 for ages 10-15; free for 9 and younger accompanied by parent). Group rates available.
DETAILS: 1-800-543-2961, anytime.