The Biltmore Estate

We had a chance to travel to this vaunted estate and it was well worth the time. It is located in Asheville, N.C. and is the largest privately owned house in the U.S at north of 178,000 square feet!

It is called a Gilded Age mansion and is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants. It is a remarkable spectacle and worth a visit.

George Washington Vanderbilt began making regular trips to the Asheville area in the 1880’s, where he is said to have loved the scenery and climate. He built himself a summer house there which he called his little mountain escape. Over time he wound up buying hundreds of surrounding parcels of land, including about 50 farms and a half dozen cemeteries. I was told by a spokesperson there that the archives show that the area was poor and much of the land was in bad shape, so most landowners were glad to sell at the time.

In order to build the house, rather than try to ship in all the materials, a woodworking factory and a brick kiln were constructed right on the property. Also a railroad access spur was constructed to more easily get materials to the site. There were about 1000 laborers working on the main house and George made many trips overseas to bring back artifacts he wanted placed in the house.

The main house, which opened in 1895, features 250 rooms including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool. It was completed in the span of 6 years. It was fully electric at the time of its construction, which was notable at the time. It had central heat and was one of the first homes to use Thomas Edisons light bulbs. It has a fire alarm system, indoor plumbing, two elevators, a call box system, and even a telephone. There is a massive chandelier hanging from the middle of the grand staircase weighing about 1700 pounds. It it attached by a single bolt that runs into the steel girders above. We were told the bold has been replaced only once since the house was built.

There is far too much to cover inside the home but we took some pictures and got some thoughts from friends. The picture below is of one of the dens. It had the square footage of a small house and was loaded with books, art, gorgeous furniture, and spectacular oriental rugs.

Everything was immaculate, which made me wonder how the cleaning was done in a structure of this size. We learned that it takes several weeks of training just to learn how to handle all the special objects in the house. The service they use, called Biltmore Company, employs a seven person team to clean the house. It takes the whole team about four days just to clean the books and shelves in the library, which holds over 10,000 books. They could not tell us how long it takes to clean the whole house, but they evidently start in the basement and work their way up to the fourth floor.

When I returned to Richmond, I was showing a friend some of the pictures of the stunning carpets and asking him questions. He works for a Glen Allen based carpet cleaning service. He told me in order to do this quality of carpet they tend to use citrus-based cleaners that have no chemicals, sprayed on and buffed into the carpets and vacuumed out using very high efficiency particulate air filter vacuums. This relatively dry style of cleaning insures the carpets dry quickly before any type of mildew or mold gets into the fibers. The picture below is an example of the size of these rugs. Everything must be moved off, then the rug cleaned and allowed to dry, then everything placed back where it was prior. It is inconceivable how long this must take.

The picture to the left is of a main dining area around Christmastime. I’m told Christmas is by far the most beautiful time to be there, but we chose to go in the summer when the weather was warmer and we could appreciate the grounds as well.

There is a lot of history here that I will skip over to bring us to the current. The estate occupies about 8000 acres which is bisected by the French Broad River. It is overseen by the Biltmore company, a trust set up by the family. There is a winery, a 200+ room luxury hotel, and villages of gift shops and restaurants all on the property.

While the buildings are jaw-dropping, one of the more remarkable aspects of the estate is the grounds. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful they are. The picture above is a case in point. This site has a lot of information about them.

I visited Biltmore with a couple friends, both of whom are in the landscaping or irrigation businesses.

One friend was Rachael, who is a landscape designer by trade and owns a landscape design and planting company. She has been in the business for decades and said she has never seen any landscaping as beautiful as this. Not even close. The variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees all carefully selected to compliment each other is nothing short of miraculous, according to Rachael.

The other friend was Daniel. Daniel is in the irrigation business and partners with Rachael quite often to bid on Richmond area projects. Daniel owns an irrigation company called Old Dominion Irrigation. Daniel, like Rachael, was awestruck by the intricate flora and complex irrigation techniques employed by the Biltmore staff.

If you ever get a chance to see this, you will not be disappointed. Plus Asheville is just a wonderful little town to explore.