Asheville’s Biltmore Mansion: More than a century of American opulence
The Biltmore Estate is an enormous private estate (and tourist destination) tucked away in Asheville, North Carolina.
The crown jewel of the property is Biltmore House, a French Renaissance chateau-style mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II from the years 1889 through 1895.
Why did the construction take six years? That was how much time was needed to achieve an unparalleled level of luxury — in fact, Biltmore remains the largest privately-owned house in the country. There are 250 rooms spread over four acres of floor area — 178,926 square feet — and includes 43 bathrooms and 35 bedrooms.
The Biltmore: A look when it was still new in 1900
Whoever has enjoyed the privilege of viewing the beautiful chains of the Blue Ridge — the Great Smoky Mountains spreading for fifty miles or more to the west of Asheville, and to a more limited extent the Black Mountains, with the monarch Mt. Mitchell to the east, and the Balsam Mountains to the southwest; the many who have benefited by the dryness and general salubrity of the climate; the lovers of rippling waters and nature’s mystic moods.
All these will readily understand why a scion of the great railway magnates, and a world-wide traveler, has chosen these southern woods to build his Biltmore manor and to surround it with one of the greatest private parks in existence.
First visiting Asheville about ten years ago, Mr Geo. W. Vanderbilt found great benefit in his health, and in a later year, while sitting one day on the veranda of the Battery Park Hotel, he asked one of the native mountain guides to take him to the summit of a distant ridge that seemed to command all the great mountain vistas.
Today, Biltmore House marks the site. The top of the peak was leveled — carted away to fill up a gap nearby, and the extensive plateau was created, now occupied by the gothic-renaissance mansion, the stables, the esplanade and tennis court.
The buildings measure 700 feet in length, 192 feet at greatest width; from basement to turret 190 feet.
The materials used are chiefly sandstone, marble, steel and mahogany. There is a banquet hall or music room, with a grand organ and orchestra loft, the art gallery, the library, the tapestry room, the winter garden, the parlors, dining rooms, ordinaries and the marble halls.
There are some twenty-five guest chambers, each with a private bath. In the basement is a Turkish bath, with a marble plunge, 50×50 feet, and electric illumination from beneath as well as above.
The house is furnished with valuable paintings, tapestries, rugs and bric-a-brac, with many artistic pieces that once belonged to kings and nobles. Jr. Vanderbilt’s bedstead is an old heirloom, with carved posts and a throne-like canopy. His natural gifts and fondness led him to make renewed excursions to Europe in search of more treasures of art and antiquity.
Biltmore estate comprises 120,000 acres, including the hunting reserve on Mt Pisgah and the Rat. The several departments of horticulture, forestry, agriculture, dairy, piggery, poultry, farm, etc.. are in the hands of experts.
Under the direction of Frederick Law Olmstead, the veteran landscape architect, 10,000 acres have been converted into a magnificent park, bordered for five miles by the romantic French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers.
Here abound ideal drives over mountain and plain, rivulets and lakes, picturesque retreats Every spot in sight of the visitor is cultivated with flowers, shrubs, vines, trees and plants, to grow in time into a unique model of a park. The public is admitted to the park on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons upon individual passes that can be procured at the estate’s office at Biltmore Station.
Biltmore, as seen in the New York Tribune (1902)
The famous Biltmore Estate (1910)
Biltmore in the 1950s
The Biltmore mansion and estate, Ashville (1938)
A castle in the clouds (from 1895)
Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska) May 19, 1895
Lavish expenditure of money: A thirty-thousand acre farm improved at an expense of $6,000,000
The Vanderbilt Mansion on a North Carolina mountain
High up among the pine and oak-clad mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge in western North Carolina is the greatest country seat in all America. It is named “Biltmore,” and the vast domain of 30,000 acres comprises the Biltmore Estate.
The owner of this immense estate is George W Vanderbilt, who has made the place his pride, his hobby and his ambition.
It is four or five years since Mr Vanderbilt’s agent began buying tract after tract of wastes and forests in this “Land of the Sky,” as the region around Asheville has long been known.
Quietly but quickly, this and that farm were bought, and, before the sellers and the natives knew the name of the real purchaser, between 6,000 and 7,000 acres had been acquired at reasonable figures. When Mr Vanderbilt’s name became associated with the purchases, the prices advanced at least 100 percent. Mountain land that previously went begging for a few dollars an acre jumped up to $250, and some of it could not be bought for $500 an acre.
Improvements vast as the estate
The mountain site and thousands of acres having been acquired, the most elaborate plans and preparations were made for the transformation of the rough and ragged hills into a scene of great grandeur and beauty, and for the building of one of the most splendid and sumptuous piles of architecture to be found the United States.
The work of improving and beautifying the estate was put into the hands of the most and experienced men. The architect, the landscape gardener, and the forrester were particularly given “free swing” to carry out their ideas and plans on a larger scale than ever before attempted in this country.
The new Biltmore Castle in 1895
Some idea of the extent of these operations may be had from the fact that, during the past three years, 200 men have been steadily engaged in bringing the grounds to the perfection exacted by the landscape gardener, Frederick Law Olmstead, who laid out most of Central Park and the grounds of the World’s Fair at Chicago, and that from 100 to 150 stonecutters, masons and carpenters have been at work raising the stately structure according to the plans of the architect, Richard M Hunt.
Then, there have been the forestry operations under the directions of Gifford Pinchot, the brick and tile factory and other industries, which have given employment to more than 100 men.
Already cost $4,000,000
It is easy to see how the expenditures have run into the millions. No accurate figures can be obtained, but it is estimated that the Biltmore estate has already cost its owner $4,000,000. It will take perhaps $2,000,000 more to carry out the plans of the landscape gardener, of the architect, and of the owner. As near as can be calculated, the work at Biltmore has been going on about four years at a cost of at least $1,000 a day, or at the rate of $313,000 a year, not counting the fifty-two Sundays.
The imposing mansion is rapidly approaching completion, although it will not be ready for occupancy before next year, I was told, though, that Mr Vanderbilt expected to spend the next Christmas holidays here.
A score of carvers and stone-cutters are still at work on the outside of the building, while the cabinet makers and interior decorators are beautifying the rooms inside. But with the house finished, there will still remain much to do to render the place finished and complete.
The house is constructed mainly of Indiana granite, but of course, immense quantities of brick were used, and near Biltmore station, brickworks were established.
There was plenty of good, red clay at hand, suitable for first-class brick and tile. These will be used mostly for the surrounding buildings, stables, etc. Three brick and tile kilns were erected, each with a capacity of 50,000 a day.
The brick machine turned out bricks at the rate of 60,000 a day. Besides these, about 2,000 or 3,000 flower pots were made a day, as the manufactory made more than was used, the surplus was sold to outside parties. When the writer visited the place, the works were running on half time, and few men were employed.
A special railroad to the place
To carry the material for the different buildings, a railroad from Biltmore station to the site of the mansion, a distance of three miles, was built. This cost about $50,000. The workmen went back and forth every day on the cars. When the buildings are completed, the railroad will be torn up, the track and bridges removed and the grounds put in proper order.
The foundations of Biltmore were laid broad and deep. This was particularly necessary, since the site was a sloping mountainside. The walls will last as long as the mountain itself. They are the same as the tennis wall, about eighteen feet thick and forty feet high.
And how much do you think the foundations cost? You might guess three times and then not come within $100,000 of the real figures. The contract price for the foundation was let for $400,000. No such sum of money was ever before expended simply for the foundation of a private house.
The state apartments are in the principal front, at each end of which rise the towers five stories high. There are, perhaps, 200 rooms in the house. If you start at one end of the building and try to reach the other end you will get lost. At any rate, that was my experience.
It is not easy to describe the principal rooms in detail, as they are in an unfinished state. I suppose the great hall or ballroom is one of the finest in the United States. It must be sixty feet high and eighty feet in length. There are three immense open fireplaces at one end. The ceiling is now being decorated, all around the sides are the most elaborate carvings and the finest marbles and onyx. An organ costing $30,000 will be placed in a suitable place made for it.
Vast gardens and nurseries
All about the house, in the grounds, there is ample proof of costly and tasteful work. The flower gardens are especially fine. Many of these are sunk below the general level, and, when the sun is out bright and strong, the blaze of color is like reflections from many-hued mirrors.
The total area covered by the gardens, greenhouses and nurseries cannot be far from seventy-five acres. They are not at all finished, and the owner intends to keep enlarging them as his collection of plants and trees and shrubs grows larger and larger. Already the conservatories are filled with rare and beautiful plants, including especially rare roses and orchids.
The nursery is said to contain more kinds of trees and shrubs than there are in the botanical gardens at Kew, near London. North Carolina is rich in the number of native trees, and the climate is as well suited to the growth of a large variety of trees and shrubs as that of any state in the union.
In order to have fine gardens and grounds, it was necessary to have the strongest and beat soil. Immense quantities of rich soil were brought from the valleys and river bottoms miles away. Carload after carload was dumped on the ground and made into garden spots. One man employed on the estate told me that the amount of dirt brought over the railroad would make another mountain.
The stables, roads and forests
The stables are now about finished and are as fine as any in the country. Mr Vanderbilt is fond of blooded [horse] stock, and no doubt the stalls and barns will delight the lover of long pedigrees and blue blood. Then, there are the deer park of 3,000 acres and the well-stocked trout streams. The forest will afford shelter for game, and the partridge shooting, now good, will be better as the years go by.
Modern-day scenes of the Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina
The Biltmore Mansion (between 1980 and 2006)
Photo by Carol M Highsmith