Asheville, North Carolina
“I don’t see the house.”
“Of course you don’t see it,” I say to my husband. “Vanderbilt built a 250 room house atop the 125,000 acres of land he had purchased. Do you honestly think he was going to build something adjacent to the street and all the lowly masses?”
“Well, no. I just want to make sure we’re going in the right direction.”
When it comes to traveling, my husband never ceases worrying about things. In fact, his worrying at times is so bad that it rubs off on my nerves. But knowing a thing or two about the robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the ways in which they built their palaces, I knew we were headed straight to the estate (or at least to the parking lot where we’d leave our car).
As we continued to drive along the miles of lush, landscaped grounds, I thought how similar the setting was to where I attended college. Two destinations located in the midst of a city, yet far removed from the chaotic frenzy that so often surrounds such a place.
After parking the car and walking in the direction the signs had indicated was towards the house, I stopped for a moment. Through the break of some of the trees, I saw the house off in the distance.
“What are you stopping for?”
Wanting to tell him to look through the trees but preferring him to be completely awe-struck by the sight of the house, I say nothing.
“Nothing. Just fixing my sandal.”
As we take a few more steps, we leave behind the vast covering of trees and have a perfect image of the house and the sweeping front entranceway. The magnificent estate was posed against the backdrop of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. I could see why George Washington Vanderbilt II chose to build his Chateauesque gran palazzo here.
“Wow” my husband says.
“Wow indeed.” I never fail to be mesmerized by the sight of something I had always seen in pictures but was now seeing in person.
When we finally arrive at the entrance of the house, I’m immediately struck by how much this particular area reminds me of a scene in the 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle happen upon Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy. They are completely fazed by the size and opulence of the house. I felt much as they did.
Although it’s hard to visualize an era from a different time, especially when contending with rowdy groups of school age children and hordes of other visitors, I try to imagine the Vanderbilt family returning home from an outing in the nearby mountains. Mr. Vanderbilt emerging from the car in a riding coat and goggles, Mrs. Vanderbilt elegantly attired in a matching coat for a lady, a hat, and veil that was all the custom for women of her station at that time, immediately greeted by the butler and half a dozen other attendants. I stepped inside amongst other visitors and workers. They stepped inside when it was literally just home.
Each room is more spellbinding than the last, each more richly decorated than the previous one (if it’s even possible). I am in love with the Winter Garden room. Sunken from the main floor and featuring a roof made of wood and glass, it is a stunning indoor garden, as elaborate as those that I have seen at botanical gardens. A striking hallway extends the full perimeter of the room, allowing visitors visibility to the garden from any direction. I am enchanted by it all-the feeling of openness while still inside, the natural lighting, the lovely flowers that would thrive in such a setting.
Although I have toured my share of historic mansions, never before has there been anything that remotely resembles that of the Banquet Hall at Biltmore. Featuring a table that when extended seats 64 and a ceiling that arched 72 feet into the air, I felt as if I had been transported to medieval Europe (the five magnificent sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries lining the walls only added to the ambience too). I become enamored of Mr. Vanderbilt when I find out that the elaborate wood and stone work on both sides of the room depict scenes from his favorite Wagner opera. As a history aficionada, I am in awe when I see the flags of the original 13 colonies hanging.
While the rest of the tour of the house resembles the mega mansions of J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick in terms of the prized pieces of art, the opulent bedrooms, the turn of the 20th century kitchens that make you wonder how such elaborate meals were ever prepared with the limited cooking resources available at the time, there is no house in the history of houses that can top such a naturally stunning setting. When Vanderbilt started to make regular visits to the Asheville, North Carolina area in the 1880s, it was said that the scenery and the climate were the prime reasons why he decided to create his summer estate there. In fact, what would start at his “little mountain escape” would become his permanent home with his wife and then their daughter. Although there is nothing little about Biltmore, whether it be the house, the grounds, or the sweeping views, it is indeed an escape of sorts, right in the heart of the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.