Uncovering The Timeless Elegance of Biltmore Estate: A Journey Through History
by Esme Addison
I recently visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Members of my family have visited many times but it was the first time I’d journeyed to the house. After watching Downton Abbey with my mother, my interest in the era known as the Gilded Age in the US was piqued and I wanted to learn more about the Vanderbilt family and their home. And I must say the visit did not disappoint.
The Biltmore Estate is one of the most magnificent examples of grandeur and luxury of its time. It’s a place where history meets elegance and is a must-visit destination, especially during the winter months when the grounds are not as crowded. And though it was February when I visited, I lucked up with a day of 60 degree weather.
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But first a little history about the man who built Biltmore and his family.
The Vanderbilt Family and Biltmore Estate
The Vanderbilt family was one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in American history, known for their business ventures and philanthropy. You may have heard of Anderson Cooper? Gloria Vanderbilt (and her designer jeans?) Just a few members of the family.
George Washington Vanderbilt II was born on December 8, 1862, in New York City. He was the youngest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was known as “Commodore Vanderbilt,” and one of the wealthiest Americans of his time.
George inherited a significant portion of his family’s wealth and used it to pursue his interests, including art, books, and travel.
Building Biltmore Estate
In the late 1880s, George purchased land in Asheville, North Carolina to build the Biltmore Estate. Some of the land was purchased from African-American landowners in a community called Shiloh. The land had previously been used for farming and timber production and was home to a small community of farmers and workers. George hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the house, which was completed in 1895.
The Biltmore Estate covered over 125,000 acres and was one of the largest private estates in the country. When you drive on to the property, the length you have to drive to get to the house is overwhelming when you consider there were no cars during the time the home was built.
In addition to the house, the estate included a dairy farm, gardens, forests, and farmland. The dairy farm was considered innovative for its time and provided fresh milk and other dairy products for the family and estate employees. The dairy was eventually sold to Pet Milk.
In 1898, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and they had one daughter, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt. Cornelia was born in 1900 and was raised at the Biltmore Estate.
George died on March 6, 1914, at the age of 51. After his death, the Biltmore Estate was inherited by his daughter, Cornelia. During this time, the house and estate were not well-maintained, and it was eventually opened to the public in 1930 to generate revenue.
In 1963, the Biltmore Company was formed to manage the estate, and it has since been operated as a tourist destination, including a winery, restaurants, and shops. Today, the Biltmore Estate is a museum and tourist destination, attracting over one million visitors annually.
This is just a few facts, and I’m I’m glossing over a lot. But this article is not about the family per se, I just want to provide some context for the house.
The Future of Biltmore Estate
The Vanderbilt family stopped living in the Biltmore Estate after George Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, but his legacy and the history of the estate continue to be celebrated and preserved. The estate remains one of the largest privately-owned estates in the country and continues to be a popular tourist destination, showcasing the Vanderbilt family’s wealth, taste, and philanthropy.
Members of the Vanderbilt family still live on the property in various houses.
Life at Biltmore Estate
The estate, located in Asheville, North Carolina, was a luxurious retreat for George, his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and their daughter Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt. Over the years, Biltmore Estate played host to many special guests, including celebrities, politicians, and other members of high society.
Guests of the Vanderbilt family at Biltmore Estate arrived by train, with a private railway station on the estate grounds. Upon arrival, guests were greeted by Vanderbilt staff and transported to the estate by horse-drawn carriage or private automobile. The estate was designed with luxury and comfort in mind, and guests were treated to the finest accommodations, dining, and entertainment.
Parties and Holidays
Biltmore Estate was known for its grand parties and holiday celebrations. The Vanderbilts hosted many events throughout the year, including Christmas parties, Fourth of July celebrations, and other special events. These parties were famous for their elegance, style, and attention to detail. The house and grounds were beautifully decorated for each occasion, and guests were entertained with music, dancing, and fine dining.
Throughout the years, Biltmore Estate played host to many notable guests, including celebrities and politicians. The Vanderbilts were known for their hospitality and were known to host guests for extended stays, providing them with the finest accommodations and amenities.
One famous guest was President William Howard Taft, who visited the estate in 1909. The Vanderbilts also hosted many other members of high society, including industrialists, artists, and intellectuals. These guests added to the vibrant and dynamic social scene at Biltmore Estate and contributed to its reputation as a destination for the wealthy and influential.
Life at Biltmore for George, Edith, and Cornelia
Life at Biltmore Estate was filled with luxury and comfort for George, Edith, and Cornelia. The family lived in grand style, with a staff of over 100 people to attend to their needs. George and Edith were known for their love of art and books, and the house was filled with paintings, sculptures, and rare books from their personal collections.
Cornelia was raised at Biltmore Estate and was educated at home by private tutors. She grew up surrounded by luxury and elegance and was well-prepared for her future role as a member of high society. There’s a lot more to her life. I’ll just say she eventually divorced, moved abroad and left her ex-husband to manage the house.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the estate itself. It’s kind of amazing.
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Biltmore Estate’s Architectural Wonders
The Biltmore Estate boasts stunning architecture and design, and here are some interesting facts about it:
- Chateau-style architecture: The Biltmore Estate is designed in the style of a French chateau, featuring steep roofs, towers, and elaborate gables. It was intended to evoke the grandeur of the great European estates, and it certainly accomplishes that goal.
- Indo-Saracenic influence: One unique feature of the Biltmore Estate’s architecture is the incorporation of Indo-Saracenic design elements, such as the use of onion domes, pointed arches, and intricate carvings. This was a nod to Vanderbilt’s love of Eastern art and architecture.
- Grand Entrance: The grand entrance of the Biltmore Estate is a work of art in itself. The massive, carved wooden doors lead into a soaring atrium, complete with a stained glass skylight and intricate plasterwork.
- Innovative heating system: The Biltmore Estate was built with a cutting-edge heating system that included radiators, hot water heating, and an extensive system of pipes and ducts. This allowed for even and efficient heating of the massive house.
- Expansive terraces: The Biltmore Estate features expansive terraces that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. The terraces are an extension of the indoor living spaces and were used for outdoor entertaining during the warmer months.
The Biltmore Estate is not just a beautiful house, it’s also a stunning garden paradise. The grounds are designed in the style of an English garden and feature a variety of floral displays, fountains, and sculptures. One of the most notable features is the Italian Garden, which is filled with geometric beds, classical sculptures, and a central fountain.
One of the most unusual features of the Biltmore Estate is its indoor pool. The pool was built for Vanderbilt’s wife, Edith, who was an avid swimmer. The pool is surrounded by elegant columns, intricate tilework, and stained glass windows that let in plenty of natural light.
These are just a few examples of the incredible details and design elements that make the Biltmore Estate such a unique and fascinating place to visit.
The indoor gym at Biltmore Estate is a unique and historic feature that sets it apart from other estates of its time. Built in the late 19th century, the indoor gym was an innovative addition to the estate and was ahead of its time in terms of offering guests a place for physical activity and exercise. The gym is equipped with a range of equipment, including a stationary bicycle, a rowing machine, a weightlifting bench, and various other exercise machines. The gym is housed in a beautiful room with tall windows and exposed wooden beams, giving it a classic, old-world feel that is in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the estate. Visitors to the Biltmore Estate can explore the indoor gym as part of their tour of the property and can appreciate the history and elegance of this special space.
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Being a writer and avid reader, I was most impressed by the library. So beautiful! I wanted to spend time there alone, rubbing my fingers over the books, turning the pages, smelling the scent of old books and discovering exactly what type of books and stories and information was housed there.
But of course, that was not possible. So I was content with simply touring the library which is home to an impressive collection of books and manuscripts. The library contains over 10,000 volumes, including works on history, literature, art, and science. Many of the books are rare and valuable, and they are housed in elegant wooden bookcases that reach from floor to ceiling.
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The Biltmore Estate was ahead of its time in many ways, including its use of electricity. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was quite uncommon for private homes to have electricity, but the Biltmore Estate was one of the first to embrace this new technology. In 1895, George Vanderbilt collaborated with several leading technology companies of the day, including the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, to bring electricity to Biltmore.
The result was a fully electrified home, complete with electric lights, heating, and cooling systems, as well as appliances like refrigerators and washing machines. The installation of electricity was a major milestone in the history of the Biltmore Estate, and it helped to establish the Vanderbilt family as leaders in the field of modern technology and innovation.
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The Biltmore Estate is not just a beautiful place to visit, it’s also a piece of American history that tells the story of one of the country’s wealthiest families. Whether you’re a history buff or just looking for a picturesque winter getaway, the Biltmore Estate is definitely worth a visit.
If you’d like to learn more about the Vanderbilt family and the house, The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan is a great book to read for additional information.
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