From Christmas Eve to New Year's Day, 1895, the friends and relatives of George Vanderbilt - people not unaccustomed to grand occasions - enjoyed one of the great celebration of the 19th century: the housewarming party for Biltmore House and Estate.
Guests came to Asheville in private railway cars from New York, arriving on Biltmore's own spur line, built to deliver construction materials. They celebrated with music and dancing (though not from the great pipe organ with its magnificent Skinner pipes because the console was not installed, and indeed never had been.) And feasted in the banquet hall with elaborate late Victorian meals from the great kitchens. And promenaded over the vast house which looks as though it were a set for a Christmas fantasy ballet. And in the cold but sunny North Carolina weather, there were horseback and carriage rides around the magnificent estate. To keep the frivolity from getting out of hand, there were periodic lectures from the owner on the serious purpose of pioneering forestry and field management on this munificent acreage.
Biltmore, in the beginning, was not so much an estate as a principality.
In the mid-1880s, George Washington Vanderbilt came to Asheville to look at the mountains. He came with a number of assets. He was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, said to be the richest man in the world. He was a close friend of Richard Morris Hunt, thought by some to be the best American architect of the period, and of Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of the time.
By 1890 Vanderbilt owned 125,000 acres, including Mt. Pisgah, a vast holding larger than most European principalities and indeed some kingdoms. By 1895, he - and 1,000 workers directed by Hunt and Olmsted - had completed a 250-room palace for his kingdom.
Today Biltmore not only remains one of the grander of American palaces, but it has moved into the last third of the 20th century under its own power. As a triumph of capitalism, Biltmore pays its own way, not by working, but by being. In the great capitalist tradition of "those who have, get," Vanderbilt's investment today returns rich dividends to his grandsons, William A.V. Cecil and George Cecil. William runs the house for its visitors - 4,700 on July 3 this year. George manages the vast Biltmore dairy operation which produces a million or so gallons of milk a year. Biltmore remains the largest taxpayer in its county.
That the house is self-supporting can be seen from basic arithmetic: 360,000 visitors (expected to reach 400,000 in a year or two) who each pay $5 a head for admittance. They buy numerous guidebooks, reproductions of paintings, postcards, lemonade and ice cream cones. The 2,500-acre farm produces 14,000 tons of feed for the 1,900 head of pure-bred dairy cattle. Those cattle supply two large dairy processing plants with products for 15 Carolina branches. And by 1980, the Cecils confidently expect to have Chateau Biltmore wine on tables across the country.
In 1890, G.W. Vanderbilt set about his project as seriously as though he were indeed building now a new house, or a new town, but a new nation. At the foot of the hill, he built Biltmore Village, with All Souls Church, a remarkably fine Episcopal (of course) church. He also caused to be built a hospital, a school and a post office, as well as shops and houses for the estate's staff: the veterinarian, the doctor, the cabinetmaker, the leatherworker and so on.
He built first a railroad spur to the site to bring in materials and the 1,000 workers. When all was completed in 1895, at the Christmas-through-New Year's housewarming, the railroad spur brought in a great number of guests from New York and other points, before being demolished.
As historic house museums go, Biltmore is remarkable because it looks much the way it always did. It still has 80-odd servants to tend its gardens, dust its ornate furniture and polish its marble floors. Its roof does not leak nor its mortar crumble.Its fortunate owners have always had the money and the inclination to maintain it in the manner in which it was built.
Nothing of consequence has been lost - even the beds still are comforted with the heavily embroidered linens of the day. When curtains and wallcoverings wear out, they are replaced with custom-made duplicates. The only major changes in the house are the two rooms, left unaccountably unfinished, which have just been completed with the help of architect and great Hunt scholar, Allen Burnham, and the addition of a Hunt-designed mantel and much furniture from the basement.
The gardens, of course, have matured. Currently, the owners are worrying about whether to trim back the great trees: Chinese holly, Japanese cut maple, azalea and dogwood - planted as a shrub garden by Olmsted to give vistas as one walked down the slope. The great wisteria vine has thickened to become trunks.
You enter Biltmore House through the lodge gate, with its mansard roof higher than its walls. A peak dormer window is centered over the drive-through arch. The approach road runs three miles through ravines, past forests, ponds, springs and streams. Much of the forest was planted to the order of Olmsted because originally the area was badly eroded.
Vanderbilt was very interested in forests, and part of his original efforts at establishing his own mini-nation was to organize Departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Landscape.
Gifford Pinchot, the first American educated in forestry and later the governor of Pennsylvania, was the first to plan the woodland. He brought in Dr. Carl A. Schenck of Darmstadt, Germany, to be Chief Forester. That was when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture protested that Vanderbilt's forest had more staff and budget than the whole U.S. Agriculture Department. Schenck set up the first American forestry school at Biltmore in 1898.
The visitor enters the great house court through iron gates and pillars, guarded by early 19th-century French stone sphinxes, remarkably efficacious mascots. To the left is the rampedouce terraced entry to the bridle paths and glades. It provides a setting for the mandatory "folly," a play structure made to look like a ruin and designed to give the house a romantic view.
Olmsted designed a 250-acre park around the house, with the river bottom farmed and the rest forest. The formal gardens, the glory of the entry court, were suggested to Olmsted by the Vaux Le Vicomte near Paris. The Italian water garden has pools of lotus, water lilies and other squatic plants. The library terrace on the south side is colled by the thick roof of wisteria and trumpet creeper. Down the way is a four-acre walled early English garden with espaliered trees against the stone walls. The rose gardens have 5,000 rose bushes. The conservatory and greenhouse were rebuilt in 1957. Included are orchid and cactus houses.
The azalea garden contains a remarkable number of the plants collected from all over the world by Chauncey Delos Beadle, superintendent of the estate for 60 years. Of course, there is also a bass pond complete with bridge, a waterfall, a glen and a lagoon. On a promontory south of the library terrace is a swimming pool, where once there was a bowling green. Naturally there is another swimming pool in the basement, near the bowling alleys and the kitchens.
Entering this palace, you pass by a court with a water fountain. The entry way may be the only one in the world embellished by a stone bust of the architect. Unfortunately, Hunt's stone eyes are angled to look at what may be the house's only cracked wall. Vanderbilt was unusual in his celebration of his architect and landscaper: portraits of Hunt and Olmsted, painted by Sargent, are prominently hung in the upstairs sitting room.
Hunt, the perpetrator of the Beaux Arts style on the country, and the first president of the American Institute of Architects, designed most of the New-port palaces. He not only designed Biltmore but he and his great friend Vanderbilt toured Europe to furnish and ornament it.
The house, though one of the last of the great romantic fantasies, is also quite modern for its time, with an elaborate electrical and heating system.
Vanderbilt always called it Biltmore House. The Bilt refers to the family name, originally van der Bildt after the Dutch town of their origins. The more is an archaic form of moor, rolling, grassy countryside. Vanderbilt maintained that House was the only proper word for an American's residence. Mansion, castle or palace he considered undermocratic, though the landscape manager, imported from Germany, always refused to call it anything except a schloss, or castle. Often casual tourists ask if Biltmore House is part of a hotel chain. The tour guides try to keep a straight face as they explain that the house is not and has never been a hotel. Hotels, and a great number of other places or things that purport to be de luxe, were named after the house, borrowing grandeur from the name.
After Vanderbilt's death in 1914, his widow, nee Edith Stuyvsant Dresser, deeded 100,000 or so acres, including Mt. Pisgah, to the U.S. government to form the heart of the Pisgah National Forest and so protect the castle's view, at no expense to the estate. Another portion became the town of Biltmore Forest. The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Interstate Routes 26 and 40 cross the Vanderbilt holdings. Yet the estate still includes 10,600 acres of land.
The house has been open to the public since it became a private corporation in 1932. It was closed to tourists during World War II but served as a safe house for National Gallery of Art masterpieces. During those years, the great tapestries were repaired. John Francis Amherst Cecil, the British husband of Vanderbilt's only child, Cornelia, lived in the house until the 1950s. Their sons now live nearby.
The most beautiful room is the palm court. Its elaborate walls and arches are of Indiana limestone, supporting an elaborate Xanadu tiered glass and wood dome lighted by iron lanterns. The marble floor has a trap door for the ferns and palms to be brought up from the basement. The center fountain sculpture is by Karl Bitter. The palm court is the ultimate expression of the sort of two-story garden room so many people want today.
On the right of the room is the 70-foot high, 72-by-42-foot banquet hall with its throne chairs and the dining table that seats 68 people. At one end is a great organ. On the walls are five 16th-century Flemish tapestries. A huge three-hearth fireplace dominates the other end. There are four great iron chandeliers. The tapestry gallery, 75-feet long, was built to hold the early Renaissance Brussels tapestries. The fireplace is stenciled with romantic figures but executed in a stylized manner foreshadowing art moderne.
The bachelor's wing - smaller, less formal dormitory space for the young men of the family - is entered through secret doors cut into the paneling of the billiard room, with its heavy 19th-century Knole furniture.
The 20,000-volume library (Vanderbilt spoke eight languages) is thick with heavy Germanic woodcarving by sculptor Bitter. Over the black marble mantle are Hestia and Demeter, good Aryan goddesses. The ceiling painting is a canvas attributed to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1645-1741), bought from an Italian palace. A marvelous ciruclar staircase gives access to the balcony of books. The room is stuffed full of red brocade furniture. The south wisteria terrace is off the library.
The breakfast room has Spanish leather walls and a fireplace mantel made of Wedgwood jasper ware. Josiah Wedgwood in 1767 asked Thomas Griffiths, a South Carolina planter, geologist and botantist, a look for what was called "Cherokee clay." Griffiths found the clay north of Franklin, about 60 miles from Asheville. The five tons he shipped to Wedgwood were the basis for blue, green and white Jasperware.
The morning salon is adjacent with a chess table owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. Next is a room called the music room, which for some unknown reason was not finished until 1976. It had only bare brick walls until Burnham designed the room with the help of Asheville architect John Cort. The room is in the French Renaissance style to display Albrecht Durer's "The Triumphal Arch of Maximilan" - 92 engraved blocks. The mantel, designed by Hunt, has waited 80 years for its installation. In the cabinet are Meissen Apostle figures and candlesticks. A portrait of William Cecil (1520-1598) hangs in the Gothic cabinet. Cecil is a forebearer of the present owners.
A remarkably cheerful room is the red Louis XVI guest bedroom, with Aubusson rugs. Various suites open off the hall, including Vanderbilt's own room with its Louis XIV walnut woodwork. The brackets, hinges and other massive hardware were, of course, custom-made to go with the 18th and 19th-century Spanish, Italian and Portuguese furniture. As you might expect, the bedroom windows give the master a sweeping view of his estate, including Mt. Pisgah.
The north bedroom was originally Vanderbilt's mother's room, because he was a bachelor when he built the house. The Louis XV rococo style is draped and upholstered in purple and gold velvet, including the bed on the dais.
The bedrooms are reached by a spectacular grand staircase with a four-tier chandelier which does impossible tricks in a photograph.
Upstairs is a heavily paneled oak sitting room with portraits by Sargent. In the living hall are the Sargent portraits of Olmsted and Hunt, near a scale model of the mansion.
They have every right to be there, though it's a shame that they are not joined by the third of the triumvirate, Vanderbilt, whose Sargent portrait is at the National Gallery. For Biltmore is a remarkable achievement of the vision of three men who exemplified the best of 19th-century professionalism: Hunt, the architect; Olmsted, the landscaper; and, most of all, Vanderbilt, the ultimate patron.
Today, patronage of the arts is largely consensus by corporations or committees. Biltmore stands as probably the last of the great artistic achievements produced by one man who had the knowledge, the taste and the moeny to say: "I will have it."