House? That’s Not A House…

When we left off, we left with promises of a mystery mansion.

Pffffttt! Mansions are for wannabes.  A short stroll around a modern subdivision reveals house after house with 2000 square foot plus floor plans. They’re so common they’ve invited the term “McMansions“.

The place we’re talking about is no mere mansion.

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Perhaps castle, or palace would be a more accurate term. Built between 1889 and 1895, it’s still the largest privately owned house in the United States.

And who, in our current gilded age of billionaires ala Gates, Bezos, Walton, or Musk owns this edifice to ego?

None of the above.  Nor has it been swiped up by some Saudi prince, Russian oligarch,  or Chinese tycoon. It still belongs to a family offshoot of the original builder.

But before we get into that, let’s get into the house proper.  If you think the grounds and exoskeleton are impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I should give you a heads up though.  This post contains twice as many pictures as usual. The interior is so vast it takes that many photos to give a sense of scale.

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The Atrium

How vast?

How long do you suppose it would take to clean 250 rooms?  Or 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet of living area).

You’d need a really efficient maid.

And that doesn’t even include the stable complex and rooms associated with it, farms, outbuildings, etc.

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A house castle like this needs a really tall grand staircase.

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And if this isn’t enough, scale-wise, consider that the original purchase included 125,000 acres of land. That’s equivalent to 195 square miles (312 square kilometers), or roughly 2/3rds the size of New York City (including the 5 boroughs.)

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You could have quite the dinner party.

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But who was behind all this? And where is it?

Deep in the heart of North Carolina, just outside of Ashville, lies a grand estate called the Biltmore. It was created by one of the great families of the 19th century.

Ever hear of the Vanderbilts?

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The Vanderbilts were once the wealthiest family in America. Cornelius Vanderbilt built the empire from shipping and railroad investments and was the richest American until his death in 1877.  After that, his son William acquired his father’s fortune, doubled it, and was the richest American until his death in 1885. These were the folks who put the gild in the gilded age.

Neither of those guys built Biltmore.

It was George Washington Vanderbilt II, the 3rd and youngest son of William that made his mark by building the biggest house.  He had little to do with the business, his strength was blowing his inheritance on trips and the estate.

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The library

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The tour took us through this room and that.  My wife and I shared an electronic gizmo that would speak factoids about the various rooms, but soon those factoids all dissolved into an amorphous blob of “this guy was silly rich.”

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Most of the rooms we saw were big and impressive.  We did, however, walk down hallways with rows of closed doors that no doubt provided housing for servants, or minor visitors, or servants of other high mucky-mucks that came by to experience life in America’s biggest house. No telling what they looked like.

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Occasionally we’d encounter something unexpected – like Christmas trees.  (This was last October.)  I vaguely remember the gizmo saying something about 60-70 trees decorated for the season.  I guess they needed to get an early start.

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And what fancy house would be complete without a swimming pool?

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The thing is, back in the day, they hadn’t figured out the chemistry to keep swimming pools nice and clear.  Often, visitors didn’t know how to swim.  (Especially those city slickers.)  Ergo, ropes to hang onto, a platform to climb to rest or dive, and the prospect of having to periodically replace all the water with something a tad more sanitary and less green.

These days, the pool leaks, so they don’t fill it anymore.

And just in case swimming wasn’t your thing…

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Doesn’t everyone have a bowling alley in their basement?

Rumor has it the cook’s bedroom was next to the bowling alley, and guests who bowled too late in the evening encountered a less than savory breakfast in the morning.

 For the more typical old boy network…

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This didn’t all happen in a vacuum.  Like Downton Abbey, there was a downstairs.

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Foundation blocks, squeezed by the pressure of holding up tons of stone and brick.
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One of the kitchens

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Servant’s dining vs upstairs dining.

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Chances are you’re already suffering from “too many pictures” fatigue. Lucky for you – many additional shots didn’t make the cut.  There were more rooms, more stories.  Many pictures got edited out because of poor quality.  There wasn’t a great deal of light inside. Flash was not allowed, and due to the crowds tripods would have been impractical even if allowed.  Exposures were typically 1/15th of a second or longer, and I only got away with what I did due to a steady hand, a doorframe or wall to lean against, and a wide-angle lens. Sometimes even that didn’t cut it.

We barely explored the grounds.  There are no longer 125,000 acres; even back in George’s later days 87,000 acres were sold to the US Forest Service. Since then bits and pieces have been sold off: the estate is now a mere 8,000 acres, valued at around 160 million dollars.

While the property still belongs to the Vanderbilt line (now the Cecil line, due to the marriage of the female heir), no family members have lived on-site since the late 1950s. The house has been open for tours since the 1930s, apart from a hiatus during World War II.  (And presumably one during the current pandemic.)

We’ll return once more to Biltmore in our next post, revisiting the gardens and conservatory – only this time in color.

 

68 thoughts on “House? That’s Not A House…

  1. Gay Julian

    Stunning! There cannot be too many beautiful pictures. You did incredibly well with the light This is a lifestyle so difficult to comprehend. I love the shelving just for vases! I want one.
    The perfect place for social distancing.
    Did the Vanderbilts build the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles?
    There will be a lot of great times revisited via photos over the coming months. Travelling via Dave’s Blog is the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There certainly wasn’t social distancing on the tour, folks were lined up 50 yards deep to get in. The grounds would likely have room.
      As far as I know, there isn’t a connection between the Vanderbilts and Los Angeles hotel. I suspect the folks who built the hotel wanted to evoke the idea of the real place and pilfered the name.
      I have 189 posts so far. That should give you a few virtual destinations…

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  2. Really staggering. I could literally just live in the library the rest of my life – you’d never exhaust all those books, the couch looks ok to sleep on, and you’ve got some kind of giant Ming vase there for baths. Just amazing.
    Here’s a random question, Dave. Amid all this staggering opulence and sheer enormousness, I see some pretty utilitarian-looking electric fans – – I guess this was built pre-air-conditioning?
    I was awed walking around the J.P. Morgan brownstone in NYC, but I’m guessing you could drop that house into the scullery maid’s waiting room at this place, with room to spare.
    You did a great job with the album, looking forward to the rest of the tour!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an impressive library, isn’t it? I didn’t get a feel for what the books were, but I think there were 20,000 or so.
      Some of the other Vanderbilts also have big swanky places in NYC, (that’s their home base), but not quite as big. I suspect the fans help dissipate all that moist tourist breath so it doesn’t affect old tapestries and such, otherwise it would just be opening windows.
      On the other hand I did hear the estate has big fans.
      Not much more to the tour, just a few more flower shots from the gardens and conservatory (color this time.)

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  3. Hi Dave! Looks like you had a great time. You certainly took some great pics! Thanks for sharing.

    I can’t even keep my own humble little abode from falling apart. I can’t imagine maintaining that behemoth. But I guess if you are a billionaire. you can have other people do all of the non-fun parts of home ownership.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even the billionaires can’t afford it. Like the castles in Europe it’s existence is supported by tourists (and the tickets aren’t cheap.) And they’re not even paying maids, footmen, butlers, etc.

      I understand back in the day they didn’t have income tax, and having that extra cash enabled them to afford the support staff to do all that non-fun stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, back in the day, castles (and houses big as castles) were basically corporations who kept a lot of people employed. All the way up until they went bankrupt.

        And you’re right about the income tax. I could fix my house up quite nicely if I didn’t have to pay income taxes! I might even be able to afford a butler. ha ha!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That staircase was pretty cool. I’m glad pictures turned out, even if I had to spin them a bit for the perspective to look right. I think the diagonal edges actually add to the effect. And behind that window pattern? That’s where the grand staircase was – the windows follow the risers (four floors.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that was what piqued my curiosity, paid off by your interior staircase photos. And those diagonal edges are really, really cool. I’m a creative director/graphic designer and you inspired some new ideas with your creative approach. Thank you for that!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand they had several fancy places in New York. I have noticed places that haven’t let me take pictures often have extensive gift shops with picture books they want you to buy. This place gouged you so much at the front gate they probably figured they didn’t need to. (Not there was a shortage of tourist traps in the village.) Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You can never have too many photos! What an amazing place. As a lover of castles, I am ashamed to say I have never visited the Biltmore – even though I live less than four hours away. I really must change that!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My family visited the Biltmore several years ago…it was amazing! Afterwards, while driving from the mansion to the winery (we know how to have fun) we came upon a horse show on the grounds and stopped to watch that for a while. It was a fun way to spend a day of vacation for sure, although I didn’t get the gorgeous photos you did.

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  6. Driven by it several times. Even biked by it on my 10,000 mile trip but never stopped. Time I did. Once I am allowed out of the house again. BTW, “his strength was blowing his inheritance on trips and the estate” sounds like a pretty good occupation to me. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very good picture tour of the place. You have good questions about maintaining the place that big. I suspect not all rooms were kept frequent routine cleaning. Only ones that are used often. Just a guess here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “One of the kitchens” ?! Yikes!
    The house is beautiful and your pictures are great, but honestly! I wonder how many small countries he could have supported had he been willing to live in just one house? Or two? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, he probably was supporting the local village, providing jobs for household staff, grounds keepers, and some of the farms on all that other acreage. There were three kitchens: a main kitchen, pastry kitchen, and rotisserie kitchen, plus storage.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Spectacular looking tour of a humble family home, Dave. The Vanderbilts make the Crawleys look like the Flintstones, and their castle makes Downton Abbey look like the Dursley’s House at 4 Privit Drive. It would be pretty weird living in a house larger than a Home Depot with 250 rooms. I think I would spend most of my time in the library and the bowling alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) is quite large. I’m not sure of total living space but it has a 30,000 sq ft footprint and 200-300 rooms (they can’t get the story straight.) I understand before the TV series started up it was in bad shape, with about 60 rooms being unlivable and the roof leaking badly. I assume they’ve been able to improve things since.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Back when I was restoring antiques, this was on my wish list to visit. Never did get the chance so your tour share is appreciated. It’s hard to fathom the kind of wealth these folks commanded to create such a place and then to furnish it appropriately. Thanks for sharing your trip there with a lot of great images.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Grandeur on a beyond-grand scale. Thanks for the tour. How long did the audio tour take?
    It’s not sparsely decorated either. Many period items to admire. The upkeep/housecleaning would take forever. And if there are clocks, the staff would dread daylight savings (if it’s observed there).

    I see you’ve mentioned a conservatory and gardens. I expect they will be equally impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been six months since the tour so I don’t remember timing exactly, but I’d say two or three hours. I’ve actually already done one post, “Who Needs Color, Anyway” that features flowers from the grounds and conservatory. The next one will be for the folks who need color.

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  12. Your artistic eye making, selecting and editing photos never ceases to amaze.
    I recall a time when I tried to remember the names of mountains and all the facts on a tour but like you “soon those factoids all dissolved into an amorphous blob of “this guy was silly rich.”
    Nonetheless, the guy died at 51 “complications following an appendectomy.” I’m guessing infection.
    I’d rather be a ordinary citizen in 2020.

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    1. Thanks, Ray. I’ve always had a decent eye, and it’s surprising how much difference editing can make. I agree about preferring to live in this day and age; it’s not by accident life spans have increased so much since then.

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  13. Well, I have to say this place shows a lot more taste and class than the Hearst castle in California. That was a real mish-mash that verged on the kitsch where this appears to be recognisably of a period and properly designed. Hope your travels (and everyone else’s) can be resumed asap given the crisis we’re all suddenly in …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I toured Hearst in 1977 so I don’t remember it too well, but I do remember a sort of disconnect in the themes. I don’t have a lot of hope for travel, but there are still a couple trips in July potentially on the agenda. (But neither with the blogging potential of the cancelled Mexico trip.)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I have visited the Vanderbilt Mansion and how wonderful it is to be able to revisit it here, in your very thorough post! How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during some of their social gatherings as well as daily life. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One does wonder if they were seriously pretentious or just regular folks with too much money? I suspect, growing up rich and socially elite, pretentious is more likely.

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  15. It’s truly a stunning “home.” I’ve been there a few times, and every time I’ve walked through all those many, many rooms, I’ve thought, “How did they ever keep this place clean before vacuum cleaners?”

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Dave, what an extraordinary U.S. “castle” you have introduced us to. The link between industry leaders, wealth creators and architecture is of course a well known one and it is always very interesting to see how those dynasties leave behind not just a history of their business achievements but such grand structures. My favorite room has to be the kitchen. The shelves there look like a ceramic warehouse. The copper pots hanging above are fantastic too. All of it very grand and rather formal in the other rooms of course. Great photos and interesting post.

    Ben

    Liked by 1 person

  17. There are so, so many delightful details in your photos. With a place like this, taking plenty of photos to enjoy after the visit seems the only way to go. There’s too much to take in on the visit itself. Things I particularly liked that I’m sure I wouldn’t have seen at the time were the shelf filled with celadon pottery, and the triptych in the ‘blue room,’ and the white ceramic fireplace. There’s just so much — too much, perhaps. If it were mine, I probably would sneak down to the servants’ dining room from time to time, just to get away from all that ‘stuff.’ It’s gorgeous, and I suppose if you’re used to it, it’s livable, but still….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a tad pretentious, isn’t it? Except, wealth wise, they weren’t pretending.

      One of the reasons I have a photo/story travel blog is to help myself remember all the places and things I’ve seen. Otherwise it would just be a large collection of quickly fading memories, overwhelmed by information overload.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Frankly I think life at sea would be better. They may say a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into, but could you imagine that place? And you’re not stuck in one spot, gilded as that one might be.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. “The Biltmore garage wants a grand, but we ain’t got a grand on hand…” Don’t think I was meant to be one of the nouveau riche; these photos just made my head ache to think of all the wood polish and rags needed to clean that furniture and all those jars, not to mention the heat and electricity bills every month….”

    Hoping this finds you safe and well in your own castle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’d have to hire a lot of people – I doubt the nouveau rich would get their hands dirty. I suspect that’s why keeping castles has become rare; between that newfangled income tax and the rising cost of staff, not to mention maintenance, it’s become too costly.

      Strangely enough I live on Castle street. That’s about as grand as I get. Be well.

      Liked by 1 person

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  20. 🙂 This brings back good memories. When my parents retired they moved to Brevard and it was when visiting them that I first saw the amazing Biltmore estate. I lived for a year or so in Western NC later, and would visit Biltmore House from time to time. Such a fun place to take pictures! And you have some really good ones here. 🙂 in

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    1. I can see how this would be a fun place to return to from time to time, just for the gardens and conservatory if nothing else. I bet there are other nice sections of the grounds good for hiking, etc.

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