We often imagine that grand estates and sprawling mansions belong in Europe. However, this is not necessarily the case. In North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, there is a palatial estate that rivals Europe’s most famous residences. In fact, the house on this estate is still considered to be the the largest residence in the United States. This property is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina and it was founded by George Washington Vanderbilt. At the time that Biltmore Estate was completed, the Vanderbilt family was perhaps America’s closest thing to royalty.
The Vanderbilt Family
George’s grandfather was Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. When he was 16 years old, Cornelius went to work ferrying people and goods between Staten Island and Manhattan. From these humble beginnings, Cornelius built a huge network of railroads and shipping. When Cornelius died, the Vanderbilt family was worth around 100 million dollars. George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt, took after Cornelius by becoming president of the New York Central Railroad Company. When William Henry passed away, the Vanderbilt family was worth around 200 million dollars.
George was born 1862 and he grew up with the advantages of his wealthy family. He received a well-rounded education that included literature and history as well as mathematics and science. He was fortunate to travel the world when he was young too, and he was able to visit Europe and East Asia. During his travels, he visited museums, theaters and historical sites He developed an appreciation of different cultures as he could speak eight different languages.
George Washington Vanderbilt’s Inspiration
George visited Asheville, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1888 on a trip with his mother. He was so impressed with the area that he visited the town again with a friend a few months later. The crisp air and the mountainous terrain were similar to the estates of wealthy Europeans that he had visited during his time in Europe. Not only that but this fresh clean air was much healthier than the polluted air of Manhattan. George thought that this cleaner air would help to heal his ailing mother while also keeping him from getting tuberculosis. Just one year later, in 1889, work began on the Biltmore Estate.
Building the Biltmore
George Biltmore hired two well known architects to design his estate: Richard Morris Hunt as the building architect and Frederick Law Olmstead as the landscape architect. All three men agreed that the main influence for the estate would be French Renaissance architecture. They were specifically inspired by Waddesdon Manor in England and the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley in France. Cronstruction on the 250 room mansion and on the estate lasted from 1889 all the way through Christmas Eve of 1895, when Vanderbilt opened the mansion and estate to family and friends.
All told, the Biltmore Mansion was a building of 11 million bricks that featured four floors and a downstairs living area for the house staff. The fourth floor made up the maids’ living area and the Observatory with amazing views of the surrounding mountainside.The second and third floors were comprised of opulent bedrooms and leisure rooms where guests played games and enjoyed afternoon tea.
When it was finally finished, the Biltmore Mansion was thought of as being rather technologically advanced. It was fully electric and had central heating. It even used some of Edison’s first light bulbs and had newfangled machine called a telephone.
Among his many interests, George Vanderbilt was fascinated with horticulture, or the study of plants. When they designed and built the landscape surrounding the house, Vanderbilt and Olmstead completed a landscape that enhanced the beauty of the Biltmore House as well as the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The area around the Biltmore house includes a four-acre Walled Garden. This garden features 50,000 tulips each spring, summer annuals in the warm months and chrysanthemums in the autum. Of course there is also an all-American Rose Garden too.
The Biltmore in Recent Times
The Biltmore Estate is still owned by the Vanderbilt family. However it was not until recently that the Vanderbilts opened parts of the house and the landscape to tourists, which made Asheville an attractive tourist destination for modern travelers. Currently the value of the 135,000 square foot Biltmore House is around $37 million. The value of the area of the estate that is open to the public and includes hotels, restaurants and the house itself exceeds $300 million.
Biltmore Estate Fun Facts
- Biltmore Estate was named after the family’s ancestral home in Bildt, Holland
- George Vanderbilt originally wanted the estate to be self-sufficient, meaning it would supply its own income
- The estate originally included a main house along with its own town that had a church, schoolhouse and farms
- The Biltmore Estate is known as the “legacy of the land” by the people of Asheville