Once upon a time…a long, long time ago, George Vanderbilt was considered the most eligible bachelor in the United States. He came from a wealthy background – ever hear of Grand Central Terminal in New York? His family built it. They also owned steamboats and railroads, as well as other businesses and they amassed a large family fortune.
In 1888, George visited Asheville, North Carolina with his mother and imagined building his own English estate among the Blue Ridge Mountains. That became a reality in 1895 when he opened his home, Biltmore House, to friends and family on Christmas Eve.
Construction on Biltmore began in 1889 and took six years to complete. Around 1,000 workers helped construct the 35 bedroom home which also includes 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a 70,000 gallon pool. The original estate had 125,000 acres of land.
During the construction, the land in front of the home was transformed into a mini-town with small factories producing the materials needed to construct the home. An on-site kiln was able to produce up to 32,000 bricks daily. A private railroad was built from the village depot to the construction site. That 3-mile route was eventually transformed into the Approach Road leading today’s guests to the Biltmore House.
The facade of the building is adorned with statues of knights and gargoyles and intricate detailing – exactly what you would expect to see on any great castle or building constructed at the time.
Just inside the entrance to the magnificent home is the Winter Garden. Underneath the glass dome is a marble and bronze fountain by Viennese artist Karl Bitter titled Boy Stealing Geese. I was enamored with all of the lovely wood work supporting the glass roof.
George wed Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in a private civil ceremony in France. The two shared a love of learning and travel. They honeymooned in Italy and returned to Biltmore. In August 1900, they welcomed their only child, Cornelia, into the world.
Tapestry Gallery – The Triumph of the Seven Virtues
The large tapestries above were woven around 1535 in Belgium and now hang in a 90 foot long hallway used as a sitting room, and occasionally ballroom, at Biltmore. Guests were able to relax there before and after meals.
Fireplace Mantel in Library
George was an avid reader and had 23,000 books in his collection. The Biltmore library houses 10,000 books written in eight different languages. The ceiling’s painting, The Chariot of Aurora, came from the Pisani Palace in Venice.
Views from the Portico
The Vanderbilts loved to entertain and dinner was quite a formal affair. George hired the best chefs and cooks, including a 38-year-old English chef assisted by a 29-year-old French cook. Records show an early inventory of 1,139 linen napkins and 111 linen tablecloths. There were 62 different patterns, all made by hand. Most were monogrammed by the famous French needleworker Madame Dufoir in Paris.
The Vanderbilt family and their guests ate breakfast and lunch in the breakfast room. The wall is covered in the original leather wallpaper. Hanging on the wall in gold frames are two original Renoir paintings, Young Algerian Girl (left) and Child with an Orange (right).
In addition to admiring the beautiful crystal, china, and Renoirs, I found the ornate ceiling in the breakfast room fascinating.
Managing a 175,000 square foot home would be quite a daunting task. However, the Vanderbilts had 30-35 domestic servants to help them.
Employee Dining Room
The house was technologically advanced for its time. In addition to having running hot water, an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley, the home had an internal calling system (pictured below). When it was being used, the little flags would go up to indicate where the “call” originated.
The home also had early refrigeration. Here is one of the smaller refrigerators:
In the basement not far from the kitchen there are two laundry rooms and a drying room.
I attended a special culinary tour of the Biltmore Estate where I was able to glimpse of what life would have been like at the turn of the century. The Biltmore Estate showcases George Vanderbilt’s original collections of fine art, crystal, china, books and more. The Biltmore Estate is open daily from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm. You can purchase your tickets at the estate or online at Biltmore’s website.
How to Experience Biltmore as a Culinary Destination*
Let passion for cuisine drive your Biltmore visit. Experience this historic Vanderbilt estate with your taste buds through many foodie happenings.
- Biltmore’s Moveable Feast Series: Held several times a year, Biltmore’s Moveable Feasts are feasts for all the senses. An incredible scenic location on the estate is combined with a carefully planned multicourse menu cooked tableside.
- Biltmore House’s Butler’s Tour: If you like your food history with a side of “Downton Abbey,” then this guided tour is for you. See how this turn of the century home entertained by visiting areas off the regular Biltmore House tour. You’ll head into the Butler’s Pantry, dishwashing areas, take a peek at George Vanderbilt’s original original china, and learn how the downstairs staff made the Vanderbilt family’s entertaining appear effortless!
- Biltmore Wine and Beer Lovers Visit: Sample Biltmore’s award-winning wines with complimentary tastings in the Winery’s Tasting Room, then sign up for one of the winery’s specialty seminars. Biltmore Bubbles dives into the art of making sparkling wine, while Red Wine & Chocolate celebrates the romance between red wine and all things cocoa. The Vine to Wine Tour provides a special look at the estate’s vineyard and takes you behind-the-scenes in the winery’s production areas. Beer lovers can sample Biltmore’s brews at the Winery’s premium wine-tasting bar and at Cedric’s Tavern.
- High Tea at the Inn on Biltmore Estate: After lunch, the Library Lounge is transformed into an English delight with all the makings of a traditional British tea. Travel across “the pond” with a culinary tour of traditional English finger sandwiches, scones, fruit breads, and tea pastries.
- Picnics on the Estate: With acres of formal gardens, rolling pastures, and hidden garden trails, Biltmore offers endless picnic spots. Sit down at the Lagoon and watch wildlife, spread a blanket in the Italian Garden by the reflecting pools, or picnic on a bench in the Conservatory under giant palms. Biltmore’s Bake Shop will prepare specialty picnics for guests, and Cedric’s Tavern creates specialty picnics for concert-goers during Biltmore’s annual Summer Concert Series.
- Appease Tiny Taste Buds: Every restaurant is child-friendly with specialty menu offerings that go beyond standard kid fare. Even the winery welcomes youngsters with complimentary grape juice and with seasonal Grape Stomps. At the Creamery, the Winky bar sundae made with black cherry ice cream honors the delicious ice cream treat that made Biltmore Dairy famous in southeast circles.
Have you been to the Biltmore?
*I would like to thank the Biltmore Estate for providing me with information about the tours and home.
**Additional sources of information were Asheville Mountain Magic and Blue Ridge Smoky Mtn Highlander.