I have just returned from a restorative vacation week with my family (human and canine) in rural North Carolina. Along with relaxing by the lake and in the mountains, I checked off another item from my personal "getting to know America" list: We visited Biltmore in Asheville.
No-one could fail to be impressed by the 250-room mansion on 125,000 acres decked out with the finest furnishings from all over the world, Europe in particular. George Vanderbilt, who commissioned the mansion and grounds in the late 1880s, was inspired by his extensive travels through the continent — especially England, France and Italy. I did find familiarity in some aspects of Biltmore which was based on, among other places, England’s 17th century Hatfield House which is only 20 miles from where I lived in London and which I have visited many times.
The beautiful rolling green fields and climate near Asheville is a little closer to the United Kingdom than the Lowcountry of Savannah, and that also made me nostalgic for the land of my birth.
It is stunning what huge wealth can achieve and for its era (it was completed in 1895) Biltmore was at the forefront of modern conveniences and design. It has 43 bathrooms, five walk-in refrigerators, central heating, elevators, an indoor bowling alley and a gym. It also has a huge heated swimming pool, although without modern chemicals and filtration, it needed to be drained every three days to avoid becoming what is described to visitors as a "biology experiment."
Regular readers of my column and those that know me personally will recognize that I admire hard work, making your own destiny and enjoying the fruits of one’s own labor — in short, living the American dream. I certainly admire George Vanderbilt’s grandfather — Cornelius Vanderbilt, who created the family fortune beginning at age 16 in 1810 with a $100 loan from his mother in New York. Strong willed and self-educated, this budding entrepreneur launched a ferry service across New York Bay which he developed into a profitable steamship company that became known as the Commodore.
He earned his second fortune investing in railroads and began the Vanderbilt tradition of philanthropy which was continued by his son, William Henry who notably founded the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 while doubling the value of the family business during the same period.
George Vanderbilt was the youngest of William Henry’s eight children. George had no interest in business but was very interested in traveling to Asia, Europe and Africa, and also in the arts and collecting books, paintings, and furniture.
George inherited his parents’ lavish home on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue with their vast and valuable art collections upon his mother’s death, and it was during a visit to Asheville in 1888 that he decided to build Biltmore as a showcase for Vanderbilt’s cherished collections and a retreat for entertaining.
His vision was based on some of the great country estates in Europe that George visited during his extensive travels. Biltmore took six years to build under the direction of the finest architects and engineers of the day and it is clear that no expense was spared.
Biltmore was named after Bildt — the Dutch town from where his "van der bilt" ancestors had come to the United States in the1650s and "more" which is an old English word for open, rolling land. Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve 1895 with the first of the extravagant galas it became famous for (visit www.biltmore.com for more information).
I did enjoy my visit to Biltmore, which is a great example of the Gilded Age. George did not live to see old age, but died in his early 50s in 1914 from complications from an emergency appendectomy. In spite of his wealth, the medicine of the day could only do so much.
His only child, Cornelia, first opened Biltmore to the public during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and her children and grandchildren run the estate today. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963. They have adopted a more businesslike approach to their inheritance than George had, and today Biltmore welcomes more than 1.4 million guests each year.
While the mansion itself is largely unchanged, the wider estate now includes a winery, inns, restaurants, lots of retail space and an outdoor center.
As impressive as Biltmore is, it brings to mind this great quote from one of America’s Founding Fathers and a personal hero of mine, Thomas Jefferson: "It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness."
God bless America.
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