Back in Time at Biltmore: Visiting America’s Castle is Thought-Provoking Voyage
Intent on catching my first glimpse of the most ambitious home built in America, the anticipation builds as we enter the bustling outskirts of Ashville, North Carolina, surrounded by a smorgasbord of chain hotels and eateries. I can tell we are getting closer as the commercial district transitions to antique shops and quaint cafés. However, the setting of Biltmore village is still a world away from the transcendent estate nearby once occupied by George Vanderbilt at the end of the 19th century.
Today the property encompasses 8,000 acres, only a small portion of the 125,000 acres George Vanderbilt originally acquired for his epic engineering and agricultural marvel. To put that into perspective, that’s more than six times the acreage of the British Royal Family’s country estate, Sandringham, in Norfolk, England.
Rather than wax on about the extraordinary house with 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces and priceless collections, I’m more inclined to describe why visiting this aristocratic artifact is more of a thought-provoking voyage back in time than a tourist attraction.
Certainly, the Biltmore is one of North Carolina’s more popular tourist spots (next to its beaches) touting more than a million visitors yearly and a staff of nearly 2,000. It’s managed by the Biltmore Company which is a family-owned, for-profit enterprise that’s branded everything from Biltmore Home bed linens to Biltmore wine. Normally commercialism on such an overdone level is repelling; however, the business model is as genius as Biltmore’s original designers themselves.
Today’s Vanderbilt descendants use good old fashion capitalism, not reserved for their ever-wealthy ancestors, to keep the Biltmore from being the family-owned white elephant. They should be applauded for this. What a shame it would be to see the Biltmore house fall into ruin as some of its smaller predecessors, like those along Long Island’s Gold Coast where only crumbling grand balustrades and photographs are proof of their existence. To read about “the lady on the hill” rather than see it would be a loss of true living history.
Little imagination is required on the part of visitors as the house looks much like it did when the Vanderbilts and their guests roamed the premises. The team of conservators and family overseers has insured that thousands of original objects are on display in more than 50 rooms. In rooms like Mrs. Vanderbilt’s personal bedroom, reproduction pieces were shipped in as well as French woven fabrics to restore it to its earlier state. The result is more detail and finery than the eye can process in one visit.
It would be cliché to say it feels like you are stepping back in time, but it’s more than that. Biltmore is a window into a world and lifestyle that no longer exist. I found Biltmore less awe-inspiring and more thought provoking. To explain, I found myself pondering more about American ingenuity and European influence and wondering if that kind of wealth could ever be attained again. Sure there will always be the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world, but will there ever be family dynasties like the Rockefellers, Carnegies or Vanderbilts again? That remains to be seen.
I found myself contemplating the rise and fall of a society where affluence was synonymous with refinement as characterized in Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel Age of Innocence. As a side note, it is interesting to learn she was a frequent guest at the grand estate and I wondered how much inspiration she drew from the Vanderbilts in her writing.
Like the book, Biltmore is a glimpse into how upper society lived and received guests. Daily life during that time seems so foreign to modern ways, no matter what social status. It was a time when libraries, art collections and gardens were the status symbols of the day and the mistress of the house might change her clothes up to 10 times daily.
In some respects I suspect seeing Biltmore feeds a fascination with the rich and famous. More so, it’s an education in engineering, horticulture, and culture and not just from one caste, but also that of the servants. Tourists learn how an estate of such enormity was built and maintained as well as how the laborers and servants were an integral part of its demanding operation.
Believe it or not, I found the basement one of the most intriguing aspects of the house. It was where all the work was done in a well orchestrated fashion. It put into perspective how daunting the needs of such an establishment would be when viewing the commercial-like laundry complex, kitchen and food storage areas that were state-of-the-art back in the day.
Ironically, the more I learned about the Biltmore estate and life there, the more questions it posed. My thought process went from speculating about George Vanderbilt’s true motivation for building something so extraordinary to whether or not he really believed it could be sustained long term?
I find I wasn’t alone. Various aspects of the Biltmore house and its operation equally intrigued my family. Our questions and speculations were the topic of much conversation for the duration of the weekend trip. It seems each of us walked away with an observation unnoticed by the rest of the family.
Though I’d heard Biltmore was a must-see, it wasn’t a must-see for the reasons preconceived. Biltmore isn’t just a famed landmark of the Vanderbilt family. It’s a product of this country’s industrial revolution. In many ways, outside of ownership, it truly is “America’s Castle.”
If You Go:
1 Lodge Street, Asheville, N.C.