Asheville, North Carolina has little trouble attracting visitors from across the country and abroad on its own. Literally smack-dab in the middle of America’s Great Smoky Mountains, this crunchy enclave is a Mecca for outdoorsmen (and women), beer-lovers, weekend warriors, and hippies from all over. Indeed, this little Appalachian gem has become a destination in its own rite… but it’s still veiled in a level of obscurity. So people are usually surprised to learn that Asheville ALSO happens to be the location of the largest private home in America.
Did you know that? This whole experience was sort of a shock to me!
Today, let me introduce you to the famous Biltmore Estate.
The Biltmore Estate In 5 Minutes
The story of the Biltmore Estate begins with George Washington Vanderbilt II, who I will be calling “George”. Born in 1862, George was the grandson of famed industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. You may have heard the name Vanderbilt before—though distinctly Dutch in its origin, it’s one of those names you hear thrown around a lot in the U.S., usually to imply the existence of large amounts of money. Have you ever heard of Vanderbilt University? Yup, same family. The Vanderbilts have been one of America’s most prominent families for hundreds of years now, right up to the present day.
At this point you may be wondering who the modern-day Vanderbilts are. Who is the heir to this legendary fortune?!
Well, one of them is actually Anderson Cooper.
Cheah, that’s right—the silver fox himself. I felt kind of exasperated when I found this out. Anderson fucking Cooper…
ANYWAY, in the 1880s, at the height of the Gilead Age, George began making regular visits to Asheville with his mother. Recall that Asheville was entering into a period of intense prosperity that would last until the start of the Great Depression. As a result of the economic policies implemented following the Great Depression, Downtown Asheville remains, more or less, frozen in time to this very day! The city still looks like something out of the 1920s, and has more Art Deco architecture per block than almost any other city in America. During these early visits to Asheville, George fell in love with the city and with the Blue Ridge Mountains region. His two older brothers had both used the family fortune to build themselves their own summer homes (in Newport, RI and Hyde Park, NY), so when it came time for George to construct his own summer estate, he chose Asheville, calling it his “little mountain escape.” But little isn’t quite the word I would use…
The estate was to be designed by Richard Morris Hunt, in the French Châteauesque style. In preparation for the construction of this home, George purchased roughly 125,000 acres, composed of 700 individual parcels of land, including at least 50 farms and 5 cemeteries. Construction of the house began in 1889, and would require the construction of a designated, massive brick-making kiln, as well as a small railroad to haul supplies on and off of the property. During the ensuing years of construction, George would travel the world, buying loads of historical pieces and artisanal furniture to ship back to Asheville. Let’s fast-forward…
Although construction did not officially cease until 1896, George held a housewarming party on Christmas Eve, 1895. By this point, the Biltmore was already a behemoth, so before we go any further, let’s look at this place solely by the numbers. The Biltmore Estate had / has:
5 floors (including the basement)
4 total acres of floor space
3 big kitchens (each run by separate teams of servants)
Another interesting dimension of this house was that it heavily utilized what was, at the time, cutting-edge technology. Here are a few features of the house that you might not have known existed yet in the late 1800s:
Centrally controlled clocks
Heated swimming pool (with underwater lighting)
George was 34 when the estate was completed. A few years later (1898), he would marry a French woman named Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. The wedding was in Paris, and after a prolonged honeymoon in Italy, the couple came back to U.S. to live at the Biltmore. Here they would raise their daughter together, until George’s early death at the age of 51 (in 1914). He passed away due to complications from an emergency appendectomy. (If you don’t know what that is, it’s emergency surgery to remove the appendix.)
In an effort to bolster tourism to the area during the Great Depression, the house was partially opened to the public in 1930. As time went on, more and more of the estate would be opened to the public, with numerous restorations made over the years. However, the Vanderbilts still own it, just like they always have. And that brings us to today!
I came to the Biltmore in early September, 2018. It was one of the last really hot days of the summer, and it was the clear that this place was going to be packed. We had originally attempted to get tickets for Saturday, but it was sold out, so we were pushed to Sunday.
The drive onto the vast estate is not a short one. After you drive through a giant brick gate, it will be a ~10 min drive to get to the main parking lots. During these 10 minutes, you’ll pass through a lot of forest, with occasional old-looking structures visible in the distance.
From the parking lots, there are shuttles and hiking trails that will bring you over to the actual house. You should count on sharing all the following with substantial crowds of people. Here are a few pictures from the drive in…
America's Largest Private Home
Once you are actually looking at the house, it’s easy to forget where you are. If you had showed me a picture of the Biltmore a year ago, North Carolina would have been the LAST place I would have guessed it would be located.
So now that you know a good bit about the Biltmore, let’s get straight to the pictures! This place is no joke.
Okay you’ve seen the grounds. Now let’s go inside! This is where guests are asked to get in a single file line and shuffle into the house one at a time. Be forewarned, this tour is LONG. Go to the bathroom beforehand. You should also be forewarned that, while the Biltmore was one the zenith of modern amenities, one thing that it is still lacking is decent A/C. They do a decent job of keeping the place cool during the summer months, but there were definitely a few points where things got uncomfortably toasty. However, that could also be a function of the sheer volume of people crammed into the place. There are hundreds of people shuffling through here at any given moment. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they got upwards of 10,000 visitors that day alone.
The pictures below are an assortment of my favorites, from all over the house. The more extravagant beds belonged to George and Edith, who had separate rooms, as well as a shared common area as part of their shared “bedroom” area. The servant quarters were much smaller, but still not so bad! There are people paying $1,500/month in San Francisco for much worse. And the kitchen pictured below, located in the basement of the estate, was run by a team of cooks, which I found interesting. The original pots and pans are still down there.
The house is perched on the edge of a steep drop, so one of its most prominent features is the large balcony on the first floor. Here the land quickly falls away, giving way to an incredible 180 degree view out over the mountains. There must have been some incredible evenings spent out here when people still lived here. You’ll see the balcony and the view from it in the pictures below:
In the basement of the Biltmore, there is quite a bit of space devoted to recreational activities. At the time, these facilities were state-of-the-art, but today they are decidedly antiquated. There is a gymnasium and America’s first bowling alley to be installed into a private home. However, my favorite piece was the swimming pool. Equipped with heating and underwater lighting, this 70,000-gallon pool still looks like it would be fun to swim in! Here are a few snaps of this thing…
Another interesting place you’ll find in the basement of this vast establishment is the “Halloween Room.” This cavernous, brick room is an oddity in the finely polished estate, because the walls are unfinished brick with crude murals drawn all over them. Apparently the origin of these murals were a mystery for some time, until it finally came to light that they were painted on the walls by friends of the family in preparation for a New Years Eve party in 1925. It is sometimes called the Halloween Room because some of the paintings depict witches, bats, black cats, and have a generally eerie quality to them. Apparently the murals contain many parallels with the avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris (translated: “The Bat”) that had been touring America (including a stint on broadway) around the same time. This is thought to have been the inspiration. Here are a few snapshots from that room:
WHEW! You could fill thick books with fun facts about this place… and they have. But this is where we’re going to disembark from the Biltmore itself, and hop over to another piece of George’s property: Antler Village.
Antler Village & Wine Tastings
Have you ever heard the expression, “it takes a village”? Well it certainly took a village to run the Biltmore Estate. In addition to the servants who lived inside the Biltmore, there were tons of other miscellaneous grounds people that needed to live nearby. Dairy farmers, blacksmiths, woodworkers—all employed by our main man George—had their own “village” on the grounds of the Biltmore. In truth, Antler Village is mostly a new development. Historically, many of these people actually lived in the town of “Best,” which is now a Biltmore-adjacent neighborhood of Asheville called Biltmore Village. It’s actually a very cool-looking part of the city.
Best was George’s “company town,” and the model for what Antler Village is based on. However, the village of Best lasted about as long as did “business as usual” around the Biltmore. After George’s death, Edith sold off large portions of their land to the U.S. government, and would eventually move out. Decades would pass during which there wasn’t much of anything happening in this place, but as renovations continued across the property, the potential of this town’s narrative was quickly recognized. To recapture the spirit of that, construction began on Antler Village.
Today, Antler Village has craft stores, restaurants, fun kid-friendly activities with farm animals, and most importantly, a winery. Indeed, George’s estate was self-sufficient in many ways, and wine production was one of them. The Biltmore winery has been in operation for more that 100 years now, and complimentary tastings are included with every ticket into the estate. Honestly, Antler Village itself felt like a major tourist trap (hence the lack of pictures), but I’d be lying if I told you the wine tasting itself wasn’t awesome. I will show you pictures of that. Check out this tasting room!
However, what was even more awesome than the wine tasting was the mile-long strip of sunflowers that lined the road into antler village. I had to jump out of the car for a couple photoshoots along the way. I LOVE these pictures. Life is good.
That’s the Biltmore Estate! I’ll spare you my thoughts on income inequality—this place is just plain awesome. It’s a great place to spend a day if you are ever in the neighborhood.
Sometimes I worry that I’m too liberal in my comparisons of the places I visit to various dimensions of The Great Gatsby (I just really love that book), but in the case of George and The Biltmore, there’s no two ways about it: George was the Jay Gatsby of Appalachia.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t even say it that way, because there was a never a point when he wasn’t splitting his time between here and New York City. He was actually born on Staten Island.
Anyway, one other comparison (that I use less often) also springs to mind here: Wes Anderson’s Grand Hotel Budapest. Looking at a bust of George (pictured above), I realized that he looked an awful lot like Adrian Brody’s character, Dmitri. From there, the parallels between the Vanderbilts and the family of Madame D. were too tantalizing to ignore. I doubt George was quite as evil as Dmitri, but the resemblance is striking… right?
Until next time, I’ll leave you with this, straight from soundtrack of The Great Gatsby reboot.