Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Launch of Walkabout Wednesday!

Welcome to the first installment of Walkabout Wednesday, my chance to share some of my travels with the Playground's visitors. Today's featured tourist spot, the Biltmore Estate, is located in my native state of North Carolina and is situated about fifty miles from where I attended college.

The lives of wealthy Victorian era Americans were filled with parties, travel and leisure. One notable name of this Gilded Era was Vanderbilt, a family that made its fortune in the railroad industry.

In 1888, George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, visited the mountains of western North Carolina with his mother and fell victim to the lure of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.

Not yet married, George had a dream of building a vast country estate and he found the ideal location in Asheville, North Carolina. The area boasts breathtaking scenery and a climate that’s relatively mild for a mountainous area.

With a bankroll rivaling the gross national product of a small country, George purchased 125,000 acres of pristine wilderness area and set about to create a self-sustaining estate such as those he’d seen in his European travels.

He named his holdings Biltmore Estate from his ancestral Dutch town of Bildt and the English word Moor, which is an open, rolling landscape.

His next decisions were critical ones: who would design not only the house itself, but the gardens that would surround it?

Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to study at the prestigious Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris and one of the founders of the American Institute of Architecture, was selected to design the house. Hunt is also know for his design of The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, the pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty and the Tribune Building in New York City, one of the first buildings with an elevator. Together, Hunt and Vanderbilt decided on a French Renaissance chateau design with a limestone fa├žade and a steeply pitched roof.

Vanderbilt and Hunt not only created an architectural wonder, but a technological one as well. Biltmore House had all of the latest technology of its time. Central heating, indoor plumbing for all thirty-four bedrooms, electricity, mechanical refrigeration and two elevators are but a few of the amenities afforded Biltmore’s residents and guests. Some of Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs illuminated Biltmore’s passageways and the house contained an electric calling system for servants in addition to a newfangled gadget called the telephone.

A two-lane bowling alley with equipment by Brunswick and an indoor swimming pool with underwater lights provided indoor recreation for the Vanderbilts and their guests.

Hundreds of local workers and skilled European artisans were hired. Tons of Indiana limestone was brought in as well as imported Italian marble. To facilitate the transportation of these raw materials, Vanderbilt had a private three-mile-long rail spur built from the estate to a neighboring village. A woodworking factory was built on the estate to produce the ornate trim seen throughout the house and a kiln was erected that would produce 32,000 bricks per day.

Construction of Biltmore Estate took six years and while still incomplete, the house was formally opened on Christmas Eve, 1895. The finished product is a mansion that contains 250 rooms encompassing 175,000 square feet. Biltmore’s size earned it the title of “America’s Castle” and to date it remains the United States’ largest privately owned home.

The design and construction of Biltmore’s gardens were entrusted to Frederick Law Olmstead, considered by many to be the father of American landscape architecture. He is credited with designing the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. and the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. But his most notable design is New York City’s Central Park.

The various gardens cover sixty-five acres and include a shrub garden, walled garden, rose garden and conservatory and Italian garden. Each features various trees, shrubs and flowers, which provide an array of color and texture throughout the seasons.

When Biltmore Estate was completed in late December of 1895, George realized that he had a dream home, but no one to share it with. In 1898 he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser and their only child Cornelia was born in 1900. Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924 and their children share ownership of the Biltmore properties today.

Not content to simply sit back and enjoy his home, George and Edith Vanderbilt dedicated their lives to helping others. They purchased a nearby town where most of the estate’s employees lived and renamed it Biltmore Village. The town, with buildings and a church designed by Richard Morris Hunt, grew and is today designated as a historic district.

The Vanderbilts also founded the Biltmore Forest School, the first school for scientific forestry in America as well as Biltmore Estate Industries, an apprenticeship program to teach traditional crafts like woodworking and weaving. Edith founded the School for Domestic Science where young women were trained in housekeeping skills, which would give them a distinct advantage in the job market.

Biltmore House is filled with priceless artwork and custom made furnishings and was the scene of many social galas. But despite its grandeur, George strove to make Biltmore a warm, inviting home for his family.

In March 1914, Vanderbilt was rushed to a hospital in Washington, D.C. with appendicitis. An emergency appendectomy was performed. The surgery, however, was not successful and George Washington Vanderbilt died on March 6. He was buried in the family mausoleum on Staten Island. His wife remained at Biltmore until 1925 when she remarried. She left the management of Biltmore Estate to her daughter and son-in-law.

Biltmore Estate operated its own dairy, which provided products for not only the estate, but eventually all of western North Carolina. In 1985 the dairy operation was sold and the dairy barn on the estate was remodeled and turned into a winery, which is the most visited winery in the United States with over a million visitors each year.

William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, grandson of George W. Vanderbilt, owns the estate today and accepts no government funding to maintain the house or grounds. Imbued with the same “can do” attitude of his grandfather, he defied those who told him that the estate could not be profitable. Cecil, who had a background in New York banking, returned to Asheville in the 1960s to find it in economic trouble. He rolled up his sleeves, wore many hats and began to market his childhood home. By the end of the decade, Biltmore was showing a profit, a trend that has continued to this day.

Biltmore Estate is open to the public every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the Christmas season, the house is decorated in authentic Victorian tradition and special candlelight Christmas evening events are planned.

For more information, visit to discover the magic of Biltmore Estate.

Have you ever visited Biltmore? Another castle?

P.S. The Playfriends would like to extend birthday greetings to Barbara Vey, a very special friend of the Playground.


Jane said...

I've never visited Biltmore or any castles. I do hope to visit some in Scotland and England one day.

Jean said...

I've never been to the Biltmore but I've been to more castles than I can count in England, Ireland, and Scotland. I prefer a ruin to a restored one. Have never made the Wales tour.

My favorite is Linlithgow Palace. It felt like a home.

Smarty Pants said...

I went to the Biltmore in 2001, I think. It was very cool. I've always wanted to go back at Christmas when its all decorated.

I love castles. We went to several in Scotland and its always just so cool to see.

Problem Child said...

I've never been to Biltmore. Maybe a Playground field trip soon?

And I have a vulgar word verification. Seriously. I won't even share it, but it's vulgar..

PM's Mother said...

Do you remember your first visit to Biltmore? It was a birthday trip for you in April of 1963 or 1964. We had a picnic for lunch.

We got complimentary admission for free PR in our newspaper. I wrote the article for our Sunday Magazine section. This was my first published effort at writing. I still have a copy of that section in my "nostalgia trunk". Your great blog parallels my newspaper story.

For those of you who can visit Biltmore at Christmas it is really worth the trip.

Instigator said...

I'm all for a Playground trip! I think I need to visit Charlotte too. :-)


Playground Monitor said...

I am just all about a field trip. And Charlotte is just 20 miles from where I grew up. North Carolina bills itself as a vacation paradise -- mountains on one end and beach on the other with lots in between. As the only state with a direct connection to Elizabethan England (Sir Walter Raleigh and the Lost Colony) and one of the original 13 colonies, it's just jammed full of history -- and fun too!

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I've never been to Biltmore, but have been to *many* castles. :) My favorite is probably Burg Eltz in Germany, but I've been to Neuschwanstein too -- that's the fairy tale castle that Disney supposedly based his upon. But that castle is a more modern one, dating from the late 1800s.

Burg Eltz was begun in the 1100s and is still owned by the same family. And it's never been destroyed, as so many castles in Germany were.

I would love to get to Biltmore someday.

Angel said...

I've always wanted to go to Biltmore, so I highly approve a playground trip!!! I wish we had more places like this to visit nearby.

I've only seen castles in Scotland, but my favorite there was Kilchurn. The restored castles were beautiful, but there was just something about the atmosphere at Kilchurn...


Kathy said...

Oh, castles! I wanna go too. Biltmore surely is stunning in size and charm.

I've been to many, many castles. I especially love old, medieval ones and have been to many ruins. The Aschaffenburg castle is splendid, but sustained damage during WWII. The Linderhof, in Bavaria is the gold King's wonder. The Tower of London, Heidelberg, Munich, Neuschwanstein, Oberammergau, Salzburg, the list goes on. I've even been to castles in Italy in the mountains and along the Mediterrean. Ah, magestic!

I've always wanted to go to castles in Scotland and Ireland though. There was a castle in England I remember well, which had a statue of Hercules on top of a tower of some kind. Can't remember the name of it. :)

I love it when Ghost Hunters goes to castles, especially down to the dungeons. The torture chambers are extremely scary.

gigi said...

i would love to go to visit the Biltmore estate. I figure it is the closest thing to a real castle that I will ever be able to see.
Where I live we have some large Plantation houses that are open to the public.

Today is my birthday. I spent the day with my husband shopping out of town.

Problem Child said...

And a happy birthday to gigi!! Hope you got great stuff on your shopping trip!

ken nix said...

A must see !!!