Historic Biltmore Village is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside Asheville, North Carolina. This small English town is nestled outside the gates of the Biltmore Estate. Nicknamed “A Millionaire’s Village,” it was where George Vanderbilt’s employees lived.
Today, Biltmore Village is a Disneyesque-style village featuring original century-old homes which have been converted into retail shops and restaurants. Wander down its tree-lined streets. Admire Tudor cottages. Gaze in awe at the cathedral’s stained glass windows.
“Biltmore Village was conceived by a visionary millionaire, designed by world-renowned architects and home to humble estate workers.”HistoricBiltmoreVillage.com
Before Vanderbilt bought all the land to build his manor, it was a small town named after William J. Best (the owner of the Western North Carolina Railroad.) Prior to its settlement, this land standing in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains was the home of the Cherokee.
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Biltmore Village History
Don’t visit Biltmore Village if you expect a history lesson on what life was like back in 1900. Although original village houses remain in Biltmore Village, there are no historic markers providing information.
Truthfully, I would have loved to see a sign in front of a cottage on all All Soul’s Crescent—“Designed architect Richard Sharp Smith. Constructed 1900. Typical residence for valet, cook, or chauffeur.”
But I can highly recommend HistoricBiltmoreVillage.com to see the late 1890s/early 1900s photographs of the village cathedral and cottages, village school, and post office.
The Last Castle
Before visiting historic Biltmore Village, I highly recommend reading The Late Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home.
Author Denise Kiernan brings to life the stories of the people responsible for building the mansion and the village.
“The book’s vitality lies in the details [Kiernan] reveals about the architects, writers and peers of the Vanderbilts who spent time at Biltmore.”The New York Times Book Review
I highly recommend booking a walking tour to discover the history of Biltmore Village. Historian Sharon Fahrer is the owner of History @ Hand. Sharon’s mission is to make history accessible through interpretive history panels in public spaces, walking tours, lectures, and exhibits.
The 70-minute Biltmore Village walking tour covers several blocks with stops at historic buildings, such as The Cathedral of All Souls, the hospital, the post office, and the former train depot.
Sharon explained that Biltmore Village was conceived as “the grand entrance” to Vanderbilt’s estate. “He was lord of the manor for the village,” said Sharon.
Vanderbilt practiced his philanthropy through the church. “There was a school and a hospital. There were boys and girls clubs, which morphed into Biltmore Industries. This is where it all started. Vanderbilt owned the whole town.”
“In my interpretation of it, Biltmore Village was the Disney World of the time. Everything had to be perfect.”Sharon Fahrer
Workers’ homes had water and electricity. “People say ‘he [Vanderbilt] built these temporary houses’ where the workers lived. But once their jobs were over, they were taken away. These were all permanent accommodations. For instance, there were retail stores with apartments over them. It wasn’t just little houses,” added Sharon.
She urged me to go inside The Cantina at Historic Biltmore Village to see their photo exhibit. Running along a side wall, the photo exhibit showed old-time photos of Biltmore Estate and Biltmore Village.
Frederick Law Olmsted
Biltmore Village was conceived by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. His vision was to create a grand entrance to the home of George W. Vanderbilt. Today, The Biltmore Estate is the most visited house in America.
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. He also designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
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.
The Cathedral of All Souls
Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside The Cathedral of All Souls. The doors remain locked to visitors during the pandemic except when services are held. But Sharon did provide me with its history.
All Souls Episcopal Church was consecrated on November 8, 1896. Vanderbilt missed the ceremony as he had to rush to New York City. His mother had died. “Vanderbilt brought his minister down from St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York to consecrate this place. And when he got here, he got a telegram that his mother had died. So he had to turn right around and go back to New York. He never even came for the consecration,” said Sharon.
Both the name and geography have shaped All Souls Episcopal Church for over 126 years.
“Built by George Vanderbilt as the parish church for the village adjacent to the Biltmore House, it was seen by Vanderbilt as the connecting piece for the daily life of all persons, all souls, in the region.”The Cathedral of All Souls
Olmsted designed the village in a fan shape. Since the church was the village’s most important building, it is located at the pivot.
Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia and the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil were married at the Cathedral of All Souls on April 27, 1924. “The village children of all the people who worked at the estate were dressed in white and they made a flower arch for the bride and groom,” said Sharon. “A couple of years ago, a present wrapped in ribbon. It turns out it was a piece of the groom’s cake. They must have been giving each employee a piece of this wedding cake. It was fruitcake. They said it looked like swiss cheese.”
Richard Morris Hunt
The Cathedral of All Souls is the only one remaining of the six churches that architect Richard Morris Hunt designed in the U.S. The other churches have burned or been demolished.
“The church draws architectural aficionados as the last surviving sanctuary designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the father of American architecture.”Citizen-Times
The Romanesque Revival-style building is a daunting presence. The signature pebble dash is used. The terracotta roof is red tile. There is a central tower that reaches skyward. It is set in a flared-wave pyramidal roof. The mix of eaves, ridges, and gables creates is picturesque.
I could see the stately trees reflected in the three long windows on the right side of the cathedral.
According to Architects & Builders, The Cathedral of All Souls is considered one of Hunt’s least known but finest churches. The design of the four wings of the narthex, apse, and transepts is intended to maximize parishioners’ participation.
Biltmore Village was an early model of the self-sufficient village. It included all the critical services which residents required, including church, school, train depot, and retail stores. The Biltmore Parish School opened in 1898.
According to the Biltmore village website, its inaugural class had 28 students. It employed two teachers when it opened. Cornelia Vanderbilt attended the Biltmore Parish School.
The school was part of the Episcopal church’s mission. “In its early days, it sponsored a school for mountain children and, in later decades, was the home for Asheville’s first school designed for children with special needs. It also supported the establishment of a nearby hospital, and in recent years has established a therapeutic counseling center for non-insured and underinsured persons,” according to the church’s website.
Today there is a playground at the Cathedral of All Souls where children can scamper and play. The original schoolhouse was torn down.
Thanks to Kiernan’s book as well as Sharon’s tour, I learned about the “famous folks,” who came to Vanderbilt’s home for his fetes. The Who’s Who included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Teddy Roosevelt, John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
At the turn of the century, these guests would typically arrive by train from New York City, Washington DC, or other environs.
Biltmore Village’s historic train station—Southern Railway Passenger Depot—was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt.
Opened in 1896, the one-story depot features a low-hipped roof, overhanging eaves, half-timbering, brick foundation, and pebbledash finish. There is the central porte coche where a horse-drawn carriage would pass through to disembark passengers.
Hunt died before the Biltmore Estate was finished. He only built three other village buildings—the Biltmore Estate Office, The Cathedral of All Souls, and the Parish Hall.
Biltmore Village Hospital
The Biltmore Hospital Extension and Memorial Mission Hospital is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Architect Douglas Ellington designed the Tudor Revival hospital, which is located at 14 All Souls Crescent. The original structure opened in 1929-1930.
The hospital is a 4-story building with a flat roof. It features brick and stone.
I would love to spend a night inside one of the cottages designed by Richard Sharp Smith. The British architect built these quaint homes as well as residences in Montford, Chestnut Hill, and Grove Park. (He worked in Richard Morris Hunt’s company and served as supervising architect for the Biltmore Estate.)
Smith stayed in Asheville after his tenure at Biltmore. My guide told me that he designed over 700 buildings before his death in 1924.
“In the period from 1900 to 1920, Smith was responsible for virtually every major structure in downtown Asheville. He helped to define the character of the city in his time, and he designed many houses in suburban Asheville neighborhoods such as Montford, Chestnut Hill, and Grove Park.”NC State University Libraries
I can picture myself heating a tea kettle on the stove for my mid-morning break. There is a scone purchased at a local bakery. My copy of the Asheville newspaper lies on my table.
But I can’t pay attention because I am looking outside my window. Is that dapper man dressed in his tailored tweed suit and English walking cap, and tapping his cane possibly Richard Sharp Smith? Or is it just his ghost surveying his building projects?
If only I could time travel to the late 1800s to meet these legendary men who built Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate and Village.
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