Biltmore Estate events occur year-round. Many families return to Biltmore Estate each year for its Christmas Celebration. Similarly, Biltmore Blooms attracts the gardeners. Special programming, such as the Downtown Abbey Exhibition, inspired fans of the long-running BBC show in 2020.
Biltmore Estate Events
But I did not have special Biltmore estate events that brought me to visit. I just wanted to see the sumptuous house and the gardens on my tour.
Because as long as I can remember, people have told me that I should visit the Biltmore Estate. They emphasized the estate as wildly romantic and absurdly rich. It is an art museum-cum-baronial manor built on American soil.
But it is also a scientific experiment. Many people don’t know that George Vanderbilt purchased 200,000 acres of land near Asheville and initiated experimental programs of agriculture and forestry on the grounds of the Biltmore.
Finally, on June 30, the day arrived for me to tour this American castle nestled in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I was more than a little worried to be around so many people during a pandemic. In fact, I avoided eating inside restaurants or shopping anywhere except a grocery store since March 13.
Nevertheless, the Biltmore requires all visitors and staff to wear masks and keep six feet distance. It also limits the number of guests permitted inside individual rooms in the mansion.
So I decided to take a chance. I took the earliest available timed-entry appointment—10:30 a.m.
On my entry to the Grand Hall, I feel like the guests who preceded me in the late 19th century. Awe. In front of me looms the Park Room (also referred to as the Winter Garden).
Now if there had been a bench, I would have sat here for an hour, quietly reflecting on how I feel peace enshrined here. I marvel how architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted brought the forest inside.
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.”—Herman Hesse
After a long visit, I move to the next room. The spare room shimmers with its glass conservatory roof. Potted plants, small trees and the occasional flower turn their faces to the sun.
Moreover, the center fountain sculpture features “Boy Stealing Geese,” which is the work of Karl Bitter.
Nevertheless, I can’t loiter as there is no bench nearby. Social distancing requires that I move along with the line. Guests must have enjoyed betting on games in the Billards Room. It is very cozy and congenial. I would love to lounge in a nearby leather recliner.
Next I reach the Banquet Hall. It may be one of the loveliest rooms in this baronial estate. High ceiling make the room feel so airy. There is a triple fireplace.
Flemish tapestries dating from the 1500s hang from the paneled walls. The figurative weft-faced textile woven by hand on a loom are room-size paintings rendered in thread.
Near a painting I see a hidden door that allows servants to easily appear and disappear with platters and bowls of steaming food.
Because Vanderbilt was a titan of industry, he welcomed many guests to his home. I can easily imagine the writers sitting at this table, sharing in a feast. Luminaries, such as novelist Henry James and biographer Paul Leicester Ford, stayed at Biltmore. And author Edith Wharton enthused:
“Yesterday we had a big Xmas fete for the 350 people on the estate – a tree 30 ft. high, Punch & Judy, conjuror, presents & “refreshments.” It would have interested you, it was done so well & sympathetically, each person’s wants being thought of, from mother to last baby.”—Letters of Edith Wharton
The intimate Breakfast Room honors Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt and his father William Henry Vanderbilt. Their portraits hang on the walls. The fireplace features blue Delft tile as a border. I could meditate for hours on the two Renoir paintings (Young Algerian Girl and Child with an Orange) .
Now Vanderbilt was a young man in his 20s when he began his project to build his castle in the Blue Ridge mountains. He sought out two men at the height of their respective careers to be his mentors and craft his vision: Frederick Law Olmsted (landscape designer) and Richard Morris Hunt (architect).
Vanderbilt enshrined their respective roles by hiring John Singer Sargent to paint life-size portraits. Hunt’s painting hangs on left wall, while Olmsted’s painting appears on the right wall.
In addition, the arts dominate in the next room I visit. The Music Room was completed in 1976. Sea foam draperies allow the light to filter through the full-length windows. I see a bouquet of pale pink, ivory and coral roses sitting on the piano.
In addition, a fact few know, but the Biltmore served as the safe house during World War II. The National Gallery of Art in Washington stored priceless paintings and sculptures at the Biltmore Estate, including Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
Leaving this cloistered space, I pause in front of the large windows that look out at Mount Pisgah. I feel such a mountaintop experience, looking out at the blue-tinged mountains, the rugged evergreen forest and the sweeping emerald lawn.
Moreover, guests raved about the natural beauty of the Biltmore Estate.
“The air is soft and warm, the hills change color continually, there is no noise, no friction, no jar.”—Pauline Merrill (1905)
As mentioned earlier, Vanderbilt collected paintings, furniture, sculptures and . . . rugs. The 90-foot Tapestry Room may be the most sumptuous room in the Biltmore House. I can picture George and Edith reading Aesops Fables to their daughter Cornelia on a winter night.
Moreover, I feel wrapped in a woolen blanket just standing in this cozy room. In fact, the 16th century Flemish tapestries provided insulation as well as inspiration from the complex allegorical stories. The hand-stitched tapestry features costumed men and women of the court. They hang next to the immense fireplace.
In addition, I see paintings of family members, including John Singer Sargent’s portraits of George Vanderbilt and his mother. Moreover, Giovanni Boldini’s portrait of Edith Vanderbilt (painted 12 years after her marriage to Vanderbilt) hangs nearby.
As a bibliophile, I feel a range of emotions—amazement, joy and, yes, envy—as I pass through Vanderbilt’s Library. Books were his passion.
He read an average of 81 books per year, or one and a half books every week. Biltmore collected 24,000 books (in eight different languages), part of which are displayed in the library.
Moreover, the library features a secret passageway that leads to guests’ bedrooms. I also learned (but didn’t see) that there are two doors leading to a hidden hall and the secret “Den.”
“The easily missed door is obscured by a carving of St. Peter the Martyr. It leads to a mysterious room that may have been used as a quiet place to read and write, a special little oasis within the giant home.”—Atlas Obscura
Interestingly, the private bedrooms of the owners and their shared sitting room reside on the second story. They contrast significantly.
For example, George Vanderbilt’s bedroom features a red canopy bed, gilded wallpaper, framed art and masculine accents, such as lock sets. It feels like a cave.
In contrast to her husband’s dark bedroom, Edith Vanderbilt’s bedroom is light and airy. The walls and curtains are gold. Moreover, the comforter is woven in skeins of dark purple, lavender and gold threads.
I can picture Edith seated at her delicate writing desk writing letters to friends. Cornelia probably loved to play at her mother’s skirted vanity. (My image photographing the room is captured in the mirror that stands on the left side of Edith’s brocade-attired bed.)
Oak Sitting Room
The walls of the Oak Sitting Room are paneled in wood. Family members ate their breakfast at a small dining room table. Sargent’s paintings of Mr. Vanderbilt’s aunt (Mrs. Benjamin Kissam) and his cousin (Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon) hang in the room.
Next up the tour wound through multiple guest rooms. I could also peek into guest bathrooms (which were a huge innovation in the 19th century). We did not gain access to the observatory, which offered Vanderbilt’s guests sweeping views of his estate.
Finally, I can stop at the bottom to photograph the massive cast iron chandelier when I walk back down the grand staircase. The 1,700-pound electric light fixture hangs from the middle of the staircase by a single point.
The Biltmore Chandelier is an engineering as well as artistic feat that defies categorization. Yet this 19th century modern marvel was rendered an antiquity one century later.
This is also how I felt after seeing the Biltmore House for the first time.
And I am immensely grateful that I could see Sargent’s painting of Frederick Law Olmsted hanging in Biltmore’s castle. I can just imagine the old man wandering the grounds, pondering how to “merge stately architectural work with natural or naturalistic landscape work.” Biltmore would be Olmsted’s last project.
Here is my video tour documenting this one-of-a-kind castle in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains.
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