In 1888, George Vanderbilt visited the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother and was captivated by the scenic vistas and location. A man with an immense inheritance, keen interest in art and philanthropy, bachelor, and lover of nature the spot was an immediate capture. In 1889, after hiring Richard Morris Hunt as architect, the construction began.
If ever something "took a village" Biltmore did. The project was huge, as the foundations of the chateau were projected to be a cost of $400,000 alone because of how the site was a sloping mountainside. The foundations were laid, at about 18 feet thick, and forty feet high. Everything George did from there was done by the best architects, the most experienced craftsman and designers, and he even hired Frederick Law Olmstead (the guy who designed Central Park in NYC) to lay out and sculpt his gardens. George was involved in the little details, while giving the masters a free reign to work according to their expertise. It showed.
From all aspects the house and grounds are beautifully laid out to enjoy the Blue Ridge mountains. I always used to think of these mountains in a simple wood cabin sort of way, but G. Vanderbilt had something more grand in mind to enjoy the views.
It's difficult without being there to fully appreciate how beautiful the house and grounds are, and how European. One might have thought it was an endeavor of a grand Duke or Prince. Really, what is this doing in North Carolina?! Rachel and I were sufficiently in awe, and we hadn't even toured the house, er, chateau yet.
It is expensive to tour the house, but I assure you it is well worth it! Biltmore has four acres of floor space and a total of 250 rooms in the house, this includes 33 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and an intercom system. There is an audio tour which is highly to be recommended to get the feel of how things were and why. Personally, I'm not sure I'd ever want the management of such a great estate; it would be overwhelming. But George and his bride, Edith, seemed to be well up to the task, and everything ran with clockwork punctuality. George liked everything to be done on time, and the number of clocks in the house that were centrally controlled displayed that factor; he expected things to run precisely.
The reason we choose this particular weekend to go (other than the fact that it was unexpectedly free) was because Biltmore was displaying a historic collection of wedding dresses from Jacqueline Kennedy's to the dress Elizabeth Bennett wore in the 1996 BBC Pride and Prejudice. I'm a die hard 1996 BBC Pride and Prejudice fan all the way, so you'd better believe I stopped and swooned over this particular one.
I must say, the clothes looked so different up close than through a screen. It sounds like a "duh" moment to say they were much less grand than they were in my memory of the films. It made me see a bit how my perception of a story or people color my perception of the details that surround the story.
``Oh! my dear,'' continued Mrs. Bennet, ``I am quite delighted with him. He is so excessively handsome! and his sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw any thing more elegant than their dresses. I dare say the lace upon Mrs. Hurst's gown --''
(Mrs. Hurst's gown is the middle one down below)
Also featured were dresses from films I've never seen, as well as some dresses from Gwyneth Paltrow's "Emma" and clothes from the Emma Thompson "Sense and Sensibility."
The rooms themselves were so very grand, with tapestries and art dating back centuries and being worth much more than most of us are ever likely to make in a lifetime.
G. Vanderbilt's library is considered one of the finest rooms in the house, with the main room on the lower level and a balcony around in which guests could gain access without having to come down into the lower level. George designed so much of the house around hospitality that one felt to be a guest there would be the stay of a lifetime.
This indoor poor had icy water pumped in from miles away, and as the pool had no filtration system, the pool was used and then emptied again to clean it down. This wasn't done every day, however, as it usually took several days to heat the water to make it comfortable for swimming. The pool was lined with underwater electric lights (a feat for those times) and ropes for people to grab on to if they got too tired to swim. Sadly, they can't use the pool anymore. The owners tried over a Christmas house party recently and woke up the next morning to a wet basement and no water in the pool. Tsk tsk.
We toured multiple kitchens, pantries, freezer rooms, servants dining hall, laundry rooms, drying rooms, scullery maids quarters (they had to be close to the kitchens and therefore didn't sleep waayy upstairs with the uppity servants) and one room in particular I liked: the Halloween room. Ghastly name? Yes, but listen to the story of how it came about. The Vanderbilts hosted a party one year and allowed their guests to go down and paint up this enormous basement room however they liked. The result must be because the guests had some talent, because it is full of murals and scenes that actually interest one to stand and study. Also, the Name of the Room was nothing dark or sinister, it was merely named that because of the bats that made their way onto the walls.
The light in the basement was quite dim, so I only got a few shots of that area of the house and they turned out badly. It was the most interesting by far, in my opinion, because it seemed as if people there actually did something other than change six times a day, and I would be lying to say the copper kettles did not make me just a little envious.
As we reached the grounds itself before dark (someone please tell me you caught this reference) you'll forgive an extra onslaught of photos? Thank you.
I'm an outdoor person so the grounds and gardens were something I anticipated more than the interior of the house, beautiful as that was. I probably would've made a good gardeners daughter back in the day, because the inside of the house quickly felt claustrophobic to me. It looked like corsets to me.
This rose had the headiest scent I have ever smelled in gardens. It had a spicy, tangerine scent that made one almost feel like it was too good to be true and while it was strong, it did not seem to be as overwhelming as something like, say, honeysuckle.
I'm completely nuts over roses. And all living green plants. Have I turned into my mother? My flat says yes, but when one sees the conservatory at Biltmore, one is inclined to think that both oneself and ones mother are quite conservative about plants.
Do yourself a kindness. Come to this still, green, vast, mysterious, beautiful and dignified chateau in North Carolina. The tradition of hospitality that George and Edith started will enfold you in its warmth and kindness, and when you are tired of grand houses there are quiet gardens. Once you have explored all of these, you have yet to begin on the old dairy, the winery, the village, and the vast acreage that is filled with bike, hiking and horse-riding beauty. It could truly be your vacation worthy of European taste in North Carolina. No, this is not a sponsored post. It is the true admiration of someone who appreciates the fine taste and history that goes into the tradition of Biltmore: a legacy.
The Blue Ridge mountains that captured George Vanderbilt's heart await to welcome you.