Monday, June 28, 2010

Odd hobbies

Have I ever mentioned that I have a weakness for Vanderbilts?  Or, more accurately, their gilded age/progressive era mansions?  Like that staple of Lowe's commercials, Biltmore.

Maybe it's the combination of unbelievable excess -- the ceiling murals sold to noveau riche Americans by impoverished European nobility, the incredibly ugly ornate furniture that combines exquisite craftsmanship with truly hideous details, the libraries with what seem like miles of shelves of books that were obviously purchased as books-by-the-yard . . .

The Younger Daughter and I spent a couple days doing mother-daughter bonding in Asheville last week, kind of rewarding ourselves in advance helping her cousins salvage what they could in Macon, and of course we went to Biltmore.  We're both total suckers for historic structures and landscapes, and Biltmore has both.  The estate was Frederick Law Olmsted's last big project -- and it was more than big when the work began, it was ginormous,  over 200 square miles (8000 acres remain today) -- and the house was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.  We've been talking about a Biltmore expedition for several years now, and the timing was right this month. 

I had been to Biltmore before, but it had been almost 20 years.  I could remember some of the highlights from the house, but had forgotten what a nifty little city Asheville is.  Great restaurants, numerous microbreweries (one of the local tourist "attractions" is a Brews Cruise bus tour), the Appalachians for hiking, biking, canoeing, camping, the Blue Ridge Parkway for those who prefer their mountain views through a windshield, etc. . . . it's a great area.  

But the big draw is, of course, Biltmore.  The house is gigantic (~250 rooms), has more than its fair share of ostentatious touches (the two story library with an Italian mural on the ceiling, for example), is packed full of John Singer Sargent paintings (Sargent did so many portraits of Vanderbilts and Vanderbilt relations that he must have been on retainer), but still manages to feel a lot more like people actually lived there than the other Vanderbilt houses I've seen.  The bedrooms are simply bedrooms, nice but not over-the-top, and definitely not reproductions of throne rooms (e.g., Louise Vanderbilt's bedroom at Hyde Park, which was modeled on a French throne room at Versailles), and it's not that hard to picture guests gathering in the gallery to chat before dinner with a few of the Vanderbilt pet dogs lolling around drooling on people (the family's favorite breed was the St. Bernard). 
In addition to the house, the grounds include various gardens -- a formal Italian garden, a rose garden, an azalea garden, and more -- and a conservatory.  The estate also has miles of bike and horse trails, a winery, a farm exhibit (pictured above) housed in the old horse barn and complete with livestock (angora goats, chickens, Belgian horses), a hotel (the Inn on Biltmore Estate), multiple restaurants (one of which claims to be a brew pub), and offers float trips on the French Broad River.  The winery is supposedly the most toured winery in the country.  In short, Biltmore isn't just a tourist attraction -- it's a resort.  A person could go there, spend a week or more, and never leave the property.  (Assuming, of course, one had the the money -- it's not cheap.)

I think one of the things I like about Biltmore is that it does include the farm exhibits and the winery.  It's not just a celebration of conspicuous consumption like so many other historic houses from the Gilded Age tend to be.  George Vanderbilt intended the estate to be self-sustaining, with poultry farms, hog farms, and dairy cattle.  Unfortunately, he wasn't especially successful at making money, and after his death in 1914 his widow sold most of the land to the federal government -- it's now the Pisgah National Forest.  His daughter, Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, opened the house to paid visitors in 1930.

1 comment:

  1. It looks amazing. Another place to add to my list when I visit the Southern states!


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