Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Biltmore House and Asheville, NC (Southern Winter Vacation continued!)

We drove to see my friends who are retired in Asheville, NC, on the cold afternoon of January 3.  On my summer visit in 2009, it was easy to skip Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 1895 mansion, with tickets at $40 (plus extras).  But with free passes we could not resist.

Members get two guest passes valid only in January (when fewer people come and the sprawling gardens are not flourishing yet).  One of my friends is a member, and he offered us the passes. (He’s a member . . . not of the family, but of something like the “friends of Biltmore.”) Biltmore House is a corporation owned by descendants of George & Edith Vanderbilt, and it has been a tourist site since the family opened it to the public in 1930.

The free admission made a $10 self-guided audio tour seem like a steal.  It took me 2 hours to see all 42 halls, salons, and rooms on the tour.  While those were  the significant rooms, they surely were a small fraction of the total. After all, we learned that Biltmore was opened with 43 bathrooms, and I saw just two or three on the tour.  I don’t know if the number 43 includes the showers and changing rooms downstairs near the bowling alley, gym and pool.  Their indoor yellow-tiled 10-foot-deep swimming pool, by the way, was heated.  Electric lights were exceptional in a house in the 1890s.  The Biltmore had electric lights not only in the rooms of the house, but in the pool.  Under the water.

George (1862-1914) was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt (a shipping magnate), and while still an eligible bachelor he built the house as an extended-family retreat (away from their home in NYC and their mansion on the coast of Newport, RI and place to welcome guests).  Built with Indiana limestone, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, it was the largest private home in the country.  In 1895, it included over 20,000 acres of forest.  The Vanderbilts get credit for starting forestry management in this country, and launching our US Forest Service (now part of the Dept. of Agriculture).  George was in Washington, DC, to negotiate the sale of most of his acreage to the government when he got appendicitis and perished after surgery, at age 52.  Wife Edith concluded the negotiations for what we learned was a good deal for the country.  The result is the Mt. Pisgah National Forest.  Now the Biltmore property is about 8,000 acreas, only a third of its original size.

One of my friends had said, “The Biltmore will bring our your inner Bolshevik.”  I thought he was joking, but he was right.  Getting to the house takes a few stops.  It’s a few miles’ drive south of Asheville.  First stop, the ticket building, where we paused to see a flattering welcome video. It showed the many amenities on the property as well as giving background on the family.  It  invited us to enjoy the “warmth and the legendary hospitality of Biltmore.”  Families in the video lazed on lawns with picnic lunches, and couples walked arm in arm in the sunshine (all families were headed by heterosexual couples, but there was ethnic diversity shown).  On the property there are cafes, restaurants, a popular winery, a resort hotel, “live entertainment and farmyard fun.”  While the family’s on-site working dairy had been turned into the winery some years back, you could still stop by an ice cream stand to purchase a scoop of nostalgia for a way of life you probably never knew.

Second stop, the guard house, where our tickets were torn.  Third stop, the parking lot near the mansion.  Shuttle buses come at least every 15 minutes, but the sign says it’s a 5 minute walk.  We had a brisk walk in the cold but sunny air.  We entered the front door and turned in our vouchers for the audio tour devices.  The entrance hall is noted in our guide a “grand space,” and was surely grander without the audio tour check-in desk near the door.

The winter garden was an atrium with a fountain sculpture in the middle, Boy Stealing Geese, by Karl Bitter. The plants looked ordinary but lush.  After circumambulating this atrium space, we passed by two lighted Christmas trees and a couple of young staff members.  “Would you like to have your picture taken in front of the winter garden?” one asked me. “They will be available at the end of the tour for you to look at.”  I declined, and thought about a similar picture taken before I got on a whale-watching boat in Hawaii.

Biltmore is a National Historic Site but it’s not a part of the Park Service.   What aggravated me were the self-congratulatory and precious attitudes of much of the audio tour’s narrative.  I realized that every word we heard was what the family and corporation wanted us to hear.  At Park Service sites I’m used to getting balanced and factual information, even if it is the current company line about historical findings. Park Rangers do a lot of research, and have no personal interest in making their historical sites reflect only the highest of human values and behaviors.  While Biltmore House’s archivists, restoration experts, librarians and historians surely do thorough work, we’re not going to hear many unflattering revelations or see any dirty laundry on a Biltmore tour.

A few years after opening the house, George met and married Edith.  They had a long wedding/honeymoon trip in France, one of many ventures to add to the art collection.  They gave birth to their only child,  Cornelia, who lost her father when she was a girl.  Edith was a charming and hard-working hostess, and she kept the place running for the many visits by friends and families.

The Vanderbilt family was a good employer of its dozens of staff members, buying Christmas gifts for every staffer’s kids, who went to school with Cornelia and perhaps played with her five St. Bernards when she wasn’t using them.  The living descendents of the Vanderbilts still treat their staff well, I heard, still providing Christmas gifts for the kids.  My Asheville friends confirmed this as the local reputation of Biltmore House, and the staffers I encountered were enthusiastic and sentimental in recounting the excellence of the founder.  Biltmore House restaurants use local ingredients, just as the family used to buy from local farms what foods they did not have grown or raised on their property (or hunted by guests out in the woods for a day).

Near the property is an Episcopal Church given by George, and he and Edith founded local organizations.  My friends told me George died intestate, without a will.  This means that the next of kin inherited everything, and if George had intended to leave his church any money, it was out of luck.

We toured some of the original servants’ work areas and sleeping rooms in the basement.  They were simple, and every one I saw had a window in it.  Speaking of dirty laundry, the house laundry room was massive and high-tech for its day, but the laundresses had to work till 10 PM some times.  We learned that the laundry employed many African American women who commuted in from a nearby town.  I note that they did not live on site like the other servants, and wonder what it was like for them to commute back home so late, through the hills.  No servants or family members live in the house now, since it’s a museum and the keystone of a vast theme park.  I’ve heard that the family is hidden away in other quarters somewhere on the 8,000 acres.

I turned in the audio device near the exit so the staff could santize it with a cotton swab.  I walked outside to find my traveling buddy, and wandered through the bakery/cafe.  I considered accepting a bit more of Biltmore’s “legendary hospitality” and having a free-trade organic coffee for $2.50, or a cookie for $2, but by now I was really worn out by the family and its friends by now.  I was grateful that the winter cold made the many gardens less of a draw, as I was no longer drawn to admire more of the beauty of Biltmore.

We drove into town and met our friends at Early Girl Eatery, for a  wholesome lunch of locally-sourced and humanely-raised foods, accented in Bourgeois style with a local dark beer.  I wanted to take the trolley ride with historical narrative of Asheville; one of my friends told me it was well done and he had learned some things he did not know about his own city.  Alas, the trolley does not run in January and February.

So we went to the North Carolina Arboretum (truly a not for profit organization, where my friends also are paying members) and enjoyed holly trees and a few other shapely or colorful plants that livened up with wintry stillness of the gardens.

Inside the Arboretum’s main building was an exhibition, Emissaries of Peace:  The 1762 Cherokee and British Delegations, about relationships between the Crown and the Cherokee, and a state visit to Britain by a group of Cherokee leaders.  Very interesting, and only $3!

It’s on loan till May 2011 from the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, NC.


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