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.
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.
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.
A house castle like this needs a really tall grand staircase.
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.)
You could have quite the dinner party.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
And what fancy house would be complete without a swimming pool?
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…
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…
This didn’t all happen in a vacuum. Like Downton Abbey, there was a downstairs.
Servant’s dining vs upstairs dining.
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.