July 16, 2018 – Asheville, NC – We are headed towards New York for my mom’s 100th birthday (!!) so we started a few days early in order to have time to spend at the Biltmore House in Asheville. At 178,926 square feet of floor space, it is the largest private residence in the United States, and took six years to build. In fact, they had to open their own brick-making factory and add a 3-mile spur to the railroad just to get the materials to their homesite. As you can see, it takes a video to get the entire house into one picture! Biltmore House was built by George Vanderbilt. He had been coming to Asheville for several years with his mother for medical treatments, and he liked the area and began buying up parcels of land – over 700 in all, including 50 farms, cemetaries, etc. To provide the gorgeous view he wanted from the house he planned to build, he replanted all these acres with forests and landscaping created by Frederick Law Olmsted, who had recently completed the landscaping of New York’s Central Park and is often called the father of landscape architecture in America. Here is a picture of us taken on the “loggia” or upstairs covered balcony. Even on a cloudy, slightly rainy day, the view is expansive … and since George Vanderbilt bought it all, nobody could build a Walmart or skyscraper and ruin his view.
The house was first opened for friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1895, and although the Vanderbilt family living there was small — only George, his wife Edith, and daughter Cornelia, who was born there — the house has 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. At least 30 permanent staff were required to keep everything running smoothly. The staff bedrooms on the lower levels are simple, but very adequate, and the workers could decorate them to their own desire.
What is amazing is that at that time — before the beginning of the 20th century — this house had running hot and cold water, electric lights (still operational), an electric dumbwaiter (in addition to one using ropes) from the kitchen to serving area, a walk-in refrigerator, and a heated indoor swimming pool with diving board, a gymnasium, billiard rooms, and even bowling alleys. The bowling alley didn’t have an electric pin resetting machine, so a servant had to stand by to reset the pins and put the ball on the return wires (down the center between the 2 lanes). I don’t know why they would need a gymnasium — with all these stairs, just walking around the house should keep anyone in shape!!
The outside is highly ornate and even the smallest details were created artistically. At left is a picture of a random bit of the outside wall – click on it to see more of the decorations – and the picture of the stone-carved “grotesque” or “gargoyle” is a close-up of the spot above the red arrow. These decorative scuptures are all over the outside walls and roof areas at Biltmore, and each is an individual design.
Winter Gardens were very fashionable in wealthy homes back then, we are told. In among the plants, this room is currently decorated with Chihuly glass creations. There are more of them outside on the grounds, and a night tour of the grounds to see them, as well. We saw an amazing Chihuly collection in Seattle, so we didn’t go on that tour.
George Vanderbilt seemed to love collecting things — there are whole cabinets in some of the rooms dedicated to displaying a certain style of vase or urn, for example, and hundreds of etchings of artwork on the walls. There are 18 etchings of prints by Albrecht Dürer- such as this one of a rhinocerus, for example. Dürer is one of Tom’s favorite artists. Here’s a sculpture made from Dürer’s etching of praying hands which goes with a beautiful and romantic story of brotherly love. Tom inherited a love of of these hands from his father 40 years ago., and has given a set of them to each of his children.
While the Biltmore house was being built, George Vanderbilt traveled around Europe and came back with lots of items dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In the library are three Ming Dynasty bowls that were used as acquariums for displaying goldfish which were a symbol of abundance and power in China. See the five-fingered dragon, a symbol for the emporer. The flaming pearls around the rim are a symbol of enlightenment.
The busts along the top of the built-in library shelves are only a few of the many busts of famous people displayed in other rooms of the house. I love the elegant staircase for reaching top shelves. On the other side of the room is a hidden arrangement of staircases such that guests on the upper floors could come down from their rooms to get a book and return without having to go through the hallways. The 10,000 or so volumes in this room were all hand-chosen by Vanderbilt himself.
Above the books and sumptuous furnishings, and built into the ceiling, is an 18th century Pelligrini painting which was once in the Pisani Palace in Venice. The canvas had to be cut into strips for shipping and then put back together. It gives a 3-D impression of looking past the ceiling actually into the sky. The painting depicts, called the “Chariot of Aurora,” depicts the dawn and the light of learning.
One of Vanderbilt’s favorite possessions in the library was the chess set given to him on his 21st birthday by his friend James McHenry, a railroad financier. It is the chess set and table which Napoleon had used in exile on the island of St. Helena. The chess set is 19th-century ivory from China. Notice the rooks (“castles”) are actually elephants. They used to sell a replica of this set at the Biltmore Gift Shop, but they no longer have them; they told us they are looking for a new chess-model maker for them. Tom spent some hours looking for a replica of this set to add to his collection, but no luck so far.
His and Her Bedrooms
George Vanderbilt’s bedroom is so huge that the large curtained bed looks small. Unseen in this picture (imagine off to the right, front) are several large elaborately carved desks, as well as various other pieces of furniture for sitting or reclining, all covered in the same red tailored material. Very masculine for all its ornateness. Those large white pictures on the upper walls are not pictures but appear to be plaster bas-relief artworks. The ceiling is very high – most pictures of the bedroom I have seen just cut off the “extra” brown wall above the bed drapery, and these artworks are then not included. BTW, ignore the man in the picture – he’s just one of the million visitors. They were everywhere!!
It was explained by our audio guide that it wasn’t that they didn’t sleep together, but rather that in those days gentlefolk changed their clothes several times a day, and needed help doing so because of the complicated style of clothing and hairdo’s. It wasn’t seemly that a lady (with her maid) be changing her dress in the same room as a gentleman (with his valet).
Notice the chamber pot discretely at the right side of her bed. Although this house did boast indoor plumbing (and lots of it), it was probably more private and convenient to use the pot at night. And after all, they had chambermaids for dealing with it the next morning.
More tapestries — even on the fireplaces!! And, again, the lighting here is the same as it was from the beginning. Notice also the fans. There is no air conditioning but fans have been installed in all rooms for the protection of the furnnishings (and guests).
Although today the music room looks like what you may expect of a music room in a mansion, in the early 1940s it had not yet been finished. Because of Hitler’s penchant for stealing artwork in Europe, and the sighting of German submarines near the US borders, Edith Vanderbilt (George’s widow) was asked to use this room to hide certain American treasures. David Finley, the new director of the National Gallery of Art, had visited Biltmore previously as a guest, and felt it was the perfect choice with its fireproof features and remote location.
The room was fitted with steel doors and other protective measures, and in 1942 became “home” to 62 paintings and 17 sculptures. They remained there, under guard, until late 1944. Although the house was open to the public, that room was closed up and nobody knew what was in there.
Below is one of the kitchens (there is a separate rotissery kitchen). Note all the shiny hanging copper potts, the huge stove (covered in copper pots) on the right and the large blue coffee grinder (looks like a wheel with a flower design in its center) on the left.
The large laundry was not used for the guests’ clothes, but for sheets and table cloths. There was a wall of basins (with running hot and cold water) for hand washing, large rods that pulled out of the walls for hanging sheets and curtains that were then slid back into heated aeas in the walls for drying, and ironing boards with heavy irons that were heated manually for ironing napkins and other linens. At left is a picture of the large washing machine similar to the one at the clandestine arms factory of Ayalon Kibbutz (we actually looked at the floor to make sure there was no hidden staircase underneath).