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BILTMORE, AMERICA'S DOWNTON ABBEY

A visit to America's largest privately-owned home

sunny 82 °F

Hi y'all;
That greeting was in North Carolina-speak.

Superlatives are inadequate in what we witnessed in our visit to Biltmore. America's Industrial Revolution of the late 1800's and early 1900's created massive wealth among a few. Namely, Andrew Carnegie (steel), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Cornelius Vanderbilt (shipping, railroads). Even today, several generations later the wealth remains among their off-spring.
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed a personal fortune of $100M (billions today) at his death. His favored son, William received the bulk of the estate, although contested by his 9 siblings. William, being an astute businessman doubled his wealth during his lifetime, primarily in railroads, creating the New York Central Railroad system, and building Grand Central Terminal in NYC. Upon his death his 8 sons & daughters each received a fortune. With their money they built fabulous mansions along 5th Avenue in NYC , called 'Vanderbilt Row'. They also built summer 'cottages' in Newport, RI, (The Breakers, Marble House), Hyde Park (on the Hudson River next door to FDR's estate), Burlington, VT (Shelburne Farms), and Asheville, NC (Biltmore).

George Vanderbilt was the youngest son of William and had 7 older siblings, as mentioned before. A 23 yr. old bachelor at the time of his father's death, he dreamed of building a 'country cottage' somewhere in the wide-open spaces of America. A visit to western North Carolina with his mother convinced him that with the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains with its unspoiled landscape that this was the place he wanted to build. Undecided on a style of building he hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt and they traveled together to Europe to visit English estates and French chateaus for design ideas. What was created at Biltmore is a blend of both. He also contracted with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to design the grounds and gardens. In the course of all this, George bought 125,000 acres including a mountain he liked 15 miles in the distance, to assure privacy in his domain. To begin construction he had to build a spur railway to the building site for transport of building materials, and a small village was built just outside the entrance gate for the workers. An Episcopal church and rectory were constructed for his pastor and family, as well. In the course of the 6 year building project it took 2 years to construct the massive stone foundation reaching 26' into the ground. On top of the foundation rose a 250 room chateau with 175,000 sq. ft. of floor space. Everything was done on a massive scale. The banquet hall, for example, seats 68 guests at the table, has a 7 story ceiling rising above, with a pipe organ at one end and 3 massive fireplaces at the other. Each hearth of each fireplace measures 6'x6'x6' deep. The library holds half of George's collection of 22,000 books. The Tapestry Room, is 90' long and displays European tapestries from the 15th century. There is the Breakfast Room, the Salon, the Music Room, the Oak Sitting Room, the Billiard Room, the Gun Room, the Smoking Room and on the lower level; the Swimming Pool, the Bowling Alley, the Gymnasium, along with the main kitchen, the pastry kitchen and rotisserie kitchen. Servants dining room and female servants bedrooms are there, also. Male servants lived above the Stable area adjacent to the main house. There were 30 full-time servants and others were called in for large parties to assist the permanent staff. Today, the Stable Restaurant is in the beautiful tiled former horse stable. We had lunch there. We were not invited to eat in the Main Dining Room, however.
In walking down through the formal gardens to the Conservatory we passed by literally thousands of mum plants which had been planted in a design preparing for the Autumn colors. In the glass-roofed conservatory building there was a model train display the size of which I had never seen. I would estimate the railroad track length to be several hundred yards long with several model trains moving through the exotic plants and foliage, over bridges, above our heads, all making for a delightful experience. There are also the Italian Garden (formal), the Shrub Garden with 500 varities of ornamental shrubs, the Spring Garden, the Walled Garden (4 acres in size), the Rose Garden (40 varities), the Azelia Garden (15 acres), and the Bass Pond & Boat House.
Frederick Law Olmstead created in his over-all plan a 2 mile entrance road from the Guard Gate building to the 'house' winding through the forest and only after turning at the last curve did the visitors see the spectacular chateau sitting in this large open area. It was designed to 'awe' the guests as they arrived for the first time.

George Vanderbilt, as I mentioned, was a bachelor at the time later marrying a debutant from Washington, DC several years after the chateau was built. Her father was a US Senator who lived in Washington so she preferred to have a home in DC, as well. The couple had , in addition to Biltmore and the DC home, other homes in NYC, Maine, and an apartment in Paris, France. It must have been a dilema for them to decide just where to sleep.

Biltmore was designed to be a self-sustaining farm providing produce and dairy products for the chateau and surplus for sale locally. A model farm was created with registered cattle producing milk and cheese for sale. A vineyard was established on the property. Today, the winery produces 150,000 cases of wine annually. George & Edith Vanderbilt had but one daughter, Cornelia. She married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924 and they lived and entertained at Biltmore. After George's death in 1914, Edith, over time, was forced to sell much of the property to keep things going, reducing the current estate to a more modest 8,000 acres. Today,William Cecil, Jr and Diana Cecil Pickering own and operate The Biltmore as a business adding 2 hotels and various restaurants on the property. They employ 2,400 people and host over 1 million guests each year. While a visit to the Biltmore properties is not inexpensive the experience is worthwhile. We are glad we went.

Dick

Posted by dixter 05:38 Archived in USA Tagged biltmore

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