To visit the Biltmore Estate is to be transported to another age; a Gilded Age age of unimaginable luxury where dinner parties for hundreds of guests were held in opulent splendor in the midst of priceless furnishings and decorative arts.
No one will be surprised to learn that the top attraction in Asheville is Biltmore Estate. This should be the first stop on any visit to Asheville in northwestern North Carolina. You simply cannot miss it.
Depending on your level of interest in history, specifically the Gilded Age, from about 1870 to the early 1900s, you can spend a couple of hours wandering the Biltmore house. You can also revel in everything else Biltmore Estate has to offer including the Antler Village, Biltmore Winery, gardens, grounds and more.
Read on for interesting Biltmore Estate facts and history.
Visit the Biltmore Estate: A Bit of History
The Biltmore Estate was built in the late 1800s by George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. It is still owned by descendants of the original Vanderbilt builder.
The estate measures over 8,000 acres. The grounds were designed by none other than renowned landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City among other landscaping masterpieces.
In the 1880s, George Vanderbilt visited the area and fell in love with it. His Vanderbilt relatives had built impressive mansions in New York and Rhode Island but George wanted something…different. He bought hundreds of parcels of land, cemeteries, and farms until he had enough for his dream retreat. Construction began in 1889. George named his creation “Biltmore,” derived from the word Bilt, the ancestral home of the Vanderbilts in the Netherlands, and the Anglo-Saxon word “more” meaning rolling hills.
The European Buying Spree
While Biltmore was still being constructed, Vanderbilt went on a spectacular buying spree to Europe to purchase furniture and decorations for the new mansion. What he returned with was worthy of any museum; delicate tapestries, paintings by European and American masters, sculptures and other decorative objects d’art. Most of the art was from Vanderbilt’s favorite period, between the 15th and 19th centuries.
The luxurious mansion was opened to great fanfare on Christmas Eve 1895. George Vanderbilt invited his entire family to visit the Biltmore Estate. They came from far and wide, the family as well as many of the luminaries and socialites of that sumptuous Gilded Age. The home opening was the event of the year and continues to be talked about and written about to this day. Even the uber-wealthy Vanderbilt relations, with their opulent mansions in New York, Newport and London were impressed with George’s Biltmore Estate.
Lady of the House
In 1898, three years after Biltmore’s completion, George married the old-money descendent of the original Dutch settlers in the New World, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser of Newport, Rhode Island. They had only one child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt who was born at Biltmore in 1900.
The mansion’s maintenance expenses grew and the introduction of income taxes made its upkeep untenable even for a Vanderbilt. As a result, George initiated the sale of land to the federal government. He died unexpectedly of complications from an appendectomy before he could complete the sale. His widow, Edith, completed the sale after her husband’s death. That land became the foundation of what is today the spectacular Pisgah National Forest. Edith continued to live at the Biltmore Estate for part of the year even after she remarried.
Edith’s daughter, Cornelia Vanderbilt, who had been raised in Biltmore, married John Cecil in 1924. The couple had two sons, George and William.
The First Guests to Visit the Biltmore Estate
The Great Depression of 1929 and the early 1930s was not kind to the city of Asheville. The city persuaded Cornelia and her husband, John Cecil to open the estate to the public in an effort to bring badly needed tourism dollars to the area. It was not a tough sell as the estate’s financial situation was growing increasingly dire and the depression grinded on.
Biltmore Estate was opened to the public in March 1930. The opening was a success attracting tourism from as far away as Europe coming to visit the Biltmore Estate.
Cornelia and John divorced in 1934. John continued to live in and manage the estate, but Cornelia left Biltmore, moved to Europe and never returned.
WWII and the Secret Room
Although the opening of Biltmore to the public was successful, it was short-lived as World War II forced the estate’s closing for the duration of the war.
One interesting Biltmore fact and tidbit of historical import is that during the war, priceless objects d’art were transported from the galleries of the nation’s capital to the Biltmore mansion for safekeeping until the end of the war. The transported works included masterpieces by Rembrandt, van Dyke and Raphael.
John Cecil died in 1954. His eldest son, George lived in the mansion until 1956 at which point Biltmore ceased to be a family residence. The estate continued to be a operated as a historic house and museum and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963.
The Cecil brothers returned to Biltmore in the late 1950s and worked to make it profitable and self-sustaining. William inherited Biltmore upon the death of his mother, Cornelia, in 1976 while his brother, George, inherited the dairy farm which was more profitable.
During the Biltmore Estate’s no-holds barred 100th Anniversary celebration in 1995, the estate passed from William Cecil to his son, William Cecil, Jr. It remains privately held to this day.
Cool Things to Do on Your Visit to the Biltmore Estate
Visit the Biltmore Mansion
At 178,926 square feet (four acres of floor space) and with 250 rooms, the Biltmore mansion is the largest privately owned house in the United States. The mansion’s architectural design is Châteauesque, a style made popular by the home’s architect, Richard Morris Hunt using the Blois chateaux in France’s Loire Valley as a model.
Hunt was the preferred architect of the glitterati of the Gilded Age including the Vanderbilt family and millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Among Hunt’s creations are many of the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, the entrance of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.
Another famous architect of the day, Spaniard Rafael Gustavino, was recruited to build the ceiling of the main hall. Gustavino was the inventor of the vaulted tile process which he patented in the United States. Some of the architect’s other works include the City Hall subway station in New York City, The Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, NC and the Great Hall at Ellis Island. He also designed the Oyster Bar in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, one of the famous places to eat in New York City without spending a fortune.
The Magnificent Rooms
The touring options for visiting the interior of the Biltmore mansion include a private tour, which you can book online, an audio tour or a self-guided tour. I booked the audio tour along with Biltmore tickets and found it thorough and entertaining. In fact, to get the full Biltmore experience with the family backstories, the audio tour is essential.
Depending on your level of interest, the mansion visit can take from about 90 minutes to over three hours. The visits are timed so you won’t feel rushed or crowded.
All the rooms on the visit are impressive in their own way. Highlights include the Entrance Hall with its glass roof and the massive Banquet Room with its four-story high ceiling.
The Library was Vanderbilt’s favorite room and he made sure to stock it with a 22,000 volume collection.
The furniture and artefacts are as impressive as the rooms. The Tapestry Gallery, for example, displays Flemish tapestries from the 1530s, and paintings by John Singer Sargent and Rembrandt grace the mansion walls.
People interested in the lifestyles of the rich (I mean REALLY rich) and famous will appreciate the bedrooms, some the size of a small apartment.
To keep such a mansion running smoothly legions of servants were needed, each with his or her own highly structured household responsibility. Their quarters and workspaces, like the massive kitchen, offer a peek into the lives of the servant class in the Gilded Age.
Visit the Biltmore Gardens and Grounds
The Biltmore grounds contain a garden with seasonal floral displays, acres of managed forest, a pond, a conservatory with hothouse and miles of walking paths.
The Biltmore Winery
Winery tours are available for an additional fee but the wine tastings are included in the price of admission. The winery area includes a retail section with all things wine for sale.
This charming “Disneyesque” area has many restaurants and shops. There is also a petting area with farm animals.
Where to Stay at Biltmore
There are three properties on the estate with prices ranging from luxury to moderate (the word “moderate” is a relative term here).
Where to Eat at Biltmore
There is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from in Biltmore. They range from an informal cafeteria style eateries like The Kitchen Café and The Courtyard Market to mid-range local southern fare at Stable Café to a 4-Star gourmet experience at The Dining Room.
Make sure to explore all your options – and check if they are open – before you make your choice. Also, the restaurants are in different locations around the Estate so you will need time to get around.
More Things to Do in Biltmore
Cool things to do in Biltmore include tastings, rooftop tours, bike rentals, shopping and wandering around the Estate absorbing the history of the Gilded Age. Most activities are not included in the price of the entry ticket. Specialty tours include horseback riding and falconry.
And don’t forget some solid background reading before you visit the Biltmore Estate. Here are some suggestions.
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