By Paris Wolfe
Contrasting the near-Bohemian vibe of downtown Asheville, North Carolina, the legendary Biltmore Estate stands as an anomaly, a temple to the decadent Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century.
It is the American equivalent of a castle.
Then again, maybe their proximity makes sense. Asheville requires some funds to indulge in the entertainment scene.
That may be a bit hyperbole, but there’s no dispute that Asheville, like the Biltmore, is packed with art and surrounded by mountain beauty. Both destinations share a reputation as places to dine, drink and play.
At the turn of the 19th century, American industrialists raced to see who would build biggest, best, most impressive country estate. On Christmas Eve 1895, George Vanderbilt won. The grandson of the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt opened the doors to Biltmore in rural Asheville.
The 250-room French Renaissance chateau covers about 175,000 square feet. It includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. Add that to a banquet hall, living rooms, billiards room, library, gym, pool, conservatory and so much more.
For scale, compare that to the 65 rooms over 64,000 square feet in Akron’s Stan Hywet Hall. Or the 18-room, 30,000-square-foot Bath, Ohio, mansion of NBA star LeBron James.
Biltmore is so big it maintains its status today as the largest private residence built in the United States. Really, it wasn’t so much built as it was brought to life. Using Gilded Age to describe its era is apropos. The walls in George’s bedroom, for example, are papered in gold leaf. When you think of Biltmore, think Great Gatsby — only greater.
Before you get excited or disgusted — depending on your politics — consider the Palace of Versailles, just outside Paris, has 350 living units. It’s nearly beyond comprehension and significantly dwarfs Biltmore.
So, in 2016, what’s the relevance of this American castle? It’s a national treasure filled with rare art, furnishings and the spirit of another era. It’s a museum where the public can fantasize about the impossible-to-sustain opulence that George enjoyed for just 19 years.
When the Great Depression hit the city of Asheville, leaving it with the highest per capita debt of any municipality in the United States, Cornelia and John Cecil opened Biltmore House to the public to encourage tourism.
In March 1930, the first paying guests entered Biltmore House. Cornelia Cecil spoke the following words at the opening ceremony: “Mr. Cecil and I hope that, through the opening of Biltmore House to the public, Asheville and Western North Carolina will derive all the benefit they deserve and the people who go through the house will get as much pleasure and enjoyment out of it as Mr. Cecil and I do in making it possible. I also want to say that we both feel that in doing this, it is a fitting memorial to my father. After all, it was his life’s creation.”
Thus, a mere 16 years after his death from appendicitis, the public was able to tour George’s legacy for $2 admission.
If you’ve always wondered how the richest of the rich live, Vanderbilt’s descendants will show you. The Biltmore tour is a highlight in a feast of highlights for travelers to Asheville. Those driving eight or so hours from Northeast Ohio will find themselves entertained by a vibrant food scene, shopping, arts, nature and more. The Biltmore and city make it worth the trip south.
Visitors should start in the morning at the Biltmore and plan to spend the day. A printed guide suggests a 90-minute audio tour, with additional time for the garden visits and custom tours. The audio-tour, however, requires at least two hours at a fast pace. Those eager to savor art, architecture and history will amble more slowly.
Through the front door visitors find themselves drawn to a glass-roofed winter garden. Its brightness is a contrast to the low lights throughout the house. That’s because in the name of authenticity, curators recognize that lightbulb technology of the day was limited to 15-watts.
The route weaves through the billiards room, 38-seat banquet hall, breakfast room, salon, music room, tapestry gallery and library. Pay attention and you’ll see Renoir paintings, Flemish tapestries from the 1530s and Vanderbilt portraits by John Singer Sargent. The art collection includes engravings by 15th-century artist Albrecht Durer and lesser-recognized but important artists.
You’ll learn about the lifestyles of the wealthy, as well. Every morning, Mrs. Vanderbilt would sit at a designated desk to plan the day at Biltmore with the head housekeeper. Then, she might visit her daughter Cornelia in the nursery. Lunch would be taken at the dining room in the family quarters. A dresser would assist a change of clothes for a garden stroll.
Then, back to her elegant bedroom, where the personal assistant would help her dress for dinner with frequent guests. Yet another room was designated for chatting before dinner.
Then, the great banquet room. Then, while the men retired to the library or smoking room, women would gather in yet another room.
It seems every activity required a separate outfit and a different room.
Hunger will drag you back to the 21st century and insist on lunch. The break from constant visual and informational stimulation, not to mention an opportunity to refuel, will be welcome. The site has seven restaurants, offering everything from ice cream to fine dining.
Sated, two to three additional hours can be lost touring the winery and strolling the 2.5 miles of paths in manicured gardens designed by American landscape pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park.
Interestingly, the Biltmore is still a fourth- and fifth-generation family business. The Cecils (daughter Cornelia’s family) employ more than 2,000 employees to preserve and share this monument to an enviable era. No one lives at Biltmore now although Vanderbilt descendants still live in the area.