Biltmore Estate Tours are the only way to truly experience the sumptuous life of the Vanderbilt family.
Visiting this mansion outside Asheville, North Carolina sweeps me back to my long-ago visit to the Chateau du Fontainebleau. I was shocked but curious about this past world of decadent wealth and privilege. They lived in their own private art museum. The Biltmore Estate is a must-see detour off the Blue Ridge Parkway and Artsy Asheville.
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America’s Largest Home
The 250-room Biltmore House—known famously as “America’s Largest Home®”—spans 135,280 square feet. Started in 1889, it took six years to build and opened on Christmas Eve 1895.
It was conceived by George Washington Vanderbilt II, grandson of famed industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who visited Asheville with his mother in 1887 and then privately began buying land. Vanderbilt hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to build his French Renaissance chateau.
At first glance, it seems an odd decision for me to visit the Biltmore Estate during COVID-19 given the requirement for masks and social distancing. But the opulent Biltmore House hosted multitudes of guests in masks and costumes for its famous Halloween balls hosted by owner George and his wife Edith during its heyday.
I will seek the solace of its mysterious “New Forest,” rolling grounds, cultivated gardens and baronial castle.
Biltmore Estate Tours
For someone who loves to visit the mountains, roam the forests and meditate in gardens, it seems odd to me now that I procrastinated on this expedition.
But the pandemic presents a new normal for a solo trek—staying in the United States and visiting a national park. I added a visit to the Biltmore Estate after diving into a much-loved edition of 1,001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die.
Frederick Law Olmstead
I come to see the Biltmore Gardens which is the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted. Considered the father of American landscape, Olmsted’s lists of designs include New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Chicago’s Jackson Park and Montreal’s Mount Royal.
Moreover, closer to home, Olmsted designed the U.S. Capitol Grounds (where I walk every morning in our nation’s capital).
Now Olmsted’s overriding passion was to democratize nature. He understood that as America moved from an agrarian to industrial society in the 19th century that people must have access to the wild through public parks.
Additionally, he built cloistered parks within city boundaries. He wanted everyone to have access to “a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade . . . We want depth of wood about it not only in hot weather but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.”
But my admiration of his genius is tempered by the reality of traveling with my two feline companions—Henry & Eliot. I predict these two feline warblers will serenade me for my entire LONG 9-hour drive.
That’s right, from Washington DC via Route 66 and Interstate 81 to Saluda, North Carolina, I will listen to these felines. They will not stop meowing even when I blast John Denver’s melodic voice.
Since there are only two days available (June 29 and June 30) to visit Biltmore Estate during my 7-day vacation in North Carolina. I quickly made my reservation on June 30. I can’t risk the tickets selling out. The Biltmore Estate tours are expensive. (It costs approximately $64 to see the house and grounds plus an additional $20 to rent the guided audio house tour).
So I arrive before my 10:30 a.m. reservation in case I get lost. Apparently, most visitors see Olmstead’s signature three-mile long drive—which meanders from Biltmore Village up to Biltmore House—via a shuttle bus.
But I can drive right up to Parking Lot A, which is a quick 5-minute walk to the Biltmore House. From the moment I drive into the Biltmore entrance, I am transported to a primordial forest.
Now I can’t see ahead of me because there are no long distance views. Admittedly, I feel buried in a dark and silent world. The trees block out revealing sunlight; I am lost in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Approach Road to Biltmore
So I slow my car to 5 mph. I can creep silently along the lonely lane. Olmsted created what many consider his masterpiece—the Approach Road to Biltmore—while paying homage to all the estates and parks he had visited as a young man.
Olmsted knew that the designer must “pay respect to the genius of a place.” So while Vanderbilt gets full credit for creating the Biltmore Estate, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Olmsted designed this Paradise Lost.
Genius of A Place
What I notice first is how Olmstead “subordinates details to the whole.” I don’t notice individual species of trees. Instead, my spirit dances like a woodland sprite jumping from tall trees to lowly piles of moss.
Oh the tree’s crown declares this is royalty in nature. Olmsted’s ingenuity lay in his understand of human’s psychology. He doesn’t make the conscious mind analyze but rather absorb through osmosis the mysterious natural world.
For example, Olmsted planted hardy olives, evergreens, junipers, red cedars and yews on the edge of the drive. Always he sought native plant materials. He planted 10,000 rhododendrons as a background element. Lush plantings of mountain laurels, native and Japanese andromedas thrive in the gardens. Exotic plantings feature river cane and bamboo.
As he explained:
“…the most striking and pleasing impression of the Estate will be obtained if an approach can be made that shall have throughout a natural and comparatively wild and secluded character; its borders rich with varied forms of vegetation, with incidents growing of the vicinity of springs and streams and the remote depths of a natural forest.”
Just as I would soon stand at the large windows instead the Biltmore House where Olmsted and Vanderbilt selected the optimum view of what is now Pisgah National Forest, so Olmsted took “aim for the unconscious.” In fact, Vanderbilt adjusted the foundation of the house to maximize the sight lines.
In my opinion, Olmsted conducts a visual symphony, using the Blue Ridge Mountains as his stage.
It takes me less than 10 minutes to slowly drive the Approach Road. But 125 years earlier, the journey by carriage took 45 minutes to navigate a road. It twists like a river along the banks of the forest.
Castle in the Forest
The majesty of mountains gave way to a secluded castle by route of a road. Author Denise Kiernan describes it so artfully in The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest House.
“Painstakingly envisioned by Olmsted with its three miles of myriad turns and carefully crafted runs, the road led visitors to believe—rightly so—that a great surprise awaited at the end of their nearly forty-five-minute ride. This was the landscape architecture equivalent of delayed gratification, leaving the sight of the house for that final turn around the bend.”—Denise Kiernan
As my hands gently directs my car to glide past trees, wild flowers and bushes, so Olmsted led me through his forest primeval. I am happily lost in a world of greenery, sweeping branches and hulking trunks, with the pale blue sky flung as a tapestry.
Part II: Biltmore Estate Tours (Interior)
Olmsted assisted Vanderbilt to build his castle in western North Carolina. For decades, the family entertained America’s elite. But Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia chose to open the Biltmore House during the Great Depression to earn money toward estate maintenance. So today everyone is welcome to buy a ticket and book Biltmore Estate Tours.
This second-part of the article features photographs and commentary on the Vanderbilt castle.
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