Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Road Trip. Day 4. Cinco de Mayo. Biltmore Estate.

Welcome to Biltmore Estate. FINALLY. Completed in 1895, George Vanderbilt's vision of a country estate became North America's largest private residence. George Vanderbilt first visited Asheville with his mother in 1888. At the time, Asheville was a popular health resort, as train service brought tourists to the southern Appalachian mountains to enjoy the climate, the fresh mountain air, and the mineral springs. Vanderbilt was captivated by the beauty of this rural region and found it to be the perfect setting for his estate - one which would serve not only as a showcase for his cherished art and book collections and a retreat for entertaining, but also as a profitable, self-supporting business. He was influenced by both the Vanderbilt tradition of extravagant homes and by the vast landed baronies he had seen in Europe, where country estates had endured for centuries, preserving both family and national heritage. Vanderbilt began purchasing parcels of land, which was both readily available and affordable in this area, eventually amassing 125,000 acres, including the 100,000 acre tract which became Pisgah Forest. He called his estate "Biltmore" - from Bildt, the Dutch town of his ancestors, and "more," an old English word for open, rolling land. He then commissioned two of the most distinguished designers of the 19th century: the architect Richard Morris Hunt and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Hunt, the first American to study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was a favorite society architect. He had already designed the Vanderbilt family mausoleum on Staten Island, created the Marble House and The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and a Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. Hunt also was responsible for many important public works, such as the main facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Yorktown Monument in Virginia, and the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.
Olmstead, known as the founding father of American landscape architecture, had designed scores of parks, most notably New York's Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, and the campus of Stanford University in California. He was also an early conservationist, consulting in 1864 on the preservation of Yosemite Valley, which later became one of America's first national parks. You may be wondering about how the Vanderbilts obtained their immense wealth. The Vanderbilts were one of the best-known families in America and one of the oldest. Jan Aertsen van der Bilt emigrated to the United States from Holland about 1650. His descendants were modest farmers on Staten Island. It was during the lifetime of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) that the family name became synonymous with extraordinary wealth. Cornelius began working on his father's ferry in New York harbor at an early age. When he was 16, he borrowed $100 from his mother to buy his own boat, and started ferrying freight and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Cornelius eventually parlayed his ferry service into a fleet of more than 100 steamboats which traveled as far as Central America and Europe, thus earning him the sobriquet, "The Commodore." Vanderbilt earned his second fortune during the industrial revolution. Some of the first railroads in the US were built from Boston to Long Island Sound to connect with the steamboats. Since Vanderbilt dominated the steamboat industry on Long Island Sound, he began to take over the management of the connecting railroads. At his death, Cornelius Vanderbilt had amassed a $100 million estate, making him the wealthiest industrialist of his time. Cornelius and Sophia, his wife of 53 years, produced 13 children and the bulk of the estate went to his eldest son, William Henry. Even though Cornelius had once considered William Henry unsuited to business, William took over the family empire and doubled the family assets within 10 years. This shrewd financier proved to be an equally astute collector, amassing more than 200 paintings which were displayed in the 58-room mansion he built at 640 Fifth Avenue - the largest and most splendid house in Manhattan. The house was exquisitely decorated with European furniture, stained glass windows, tapestries, and countless objets d'art. William Henry and his wife, Maria Louis, had eight children, the youngest being George Washington Vanderbilt. Unlike his older brothers, George was not so interested in the family business. He had been greatly influenced by his father's cultural interests, starting his own collection of books and art at an early age. An intellectual, George preferred the world of learning and travel. Upon his mother's death, George inherited the Manhattan house and its contents. Construction of Biltmore began in 1889. It was a massive undertaking that included farms, gardens, woodlands and the mansion - a four-story stone house with a 375 foot long front facade. The mansion boasts four acres of floor space, (For those of you who can't deal in acres, that's 175,000 square feet. OK, so it's only 174,240. I just wanted to impress.), 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, connected by 16 chimneys. The basement alone housed a swimming pool with underwater lights, gymnasium, bowling alley, and three kitchens. The home was appointed with a priceless collection of artworks and furnishings and was equipped with every conceivable amenity - an elevator, refrigerators, ice making capabilities, intercom system, telegraph, central heating, electricity, fire alarms, and a plumbing system. Construction required hundreds of workers - from local laborers earning 50 cents a day to skilled artisans and internationally known artists. Karl Bitter, an American sculptor, was hired to design elaborate works in bronze, stone, and wood. Spanish Architect, Rafael Guastavino, was another contributor, known for his unique system for building tiled ceiling vaults. Limestone was hauled 600 miles from Indiana and marble was imported from Italy. Supplies were delivered via a three-mile long private railway laid between the local depot and the Estate. An on-site kiln produced 32,000 bricks a day and a woodworking factory processed oak and walnut for floors and paneling. As the mansion was being constructed, work also progressed on the grounds. George had originally desired an extensive parkland, but the property had been overworked and the terrain was too rough for that. Olmsted recommended installing a 250-acre pleasure park and a series of gardens around the house, establishing farms along the fertile river bottoms, and replanting the rest of the property as commercial timber forest. One of Olmsted's first projects was creating a nursery to supply the millions of plants needed for the grounds. He hired Chauncey Beadle, a Canadian horticulturist, in 1890 as nursery superintendent. Beadle remained on the Estate for 60 years, guiding Olmsted's plan to fruition. In 1891, Gifford Pinchot was hired to oversee the renovation of the forest. Pinchot developed the first planned forestry program in America at Biltmore. The surrounding grounds are equally impressive, encompassing a 100,000 acre forest, a farm and dairy, a 250 acre wooded park, five pleasure gardens, a bass pond, and thirty miles of macadamized roadways. (They used the ashes from the coal-burning furnaces to produce the paving material.) Biltmore was conceived as a masterwork of design and a marvel of modern technology.
After six years of construction, George Vanderbilt officially opened Biltmore on Christmas Eve, 1895, with a grand party. One hundred years later, on Christmas Eve, 1995, his great grandson, William Cecil, continued the tradition and opened Biltmore to a grand celebration.
Mr. Hawthorne and I had been to Biltmore several years ago, during the fall, and we've always wanted to return and take actual tours. This time we did. We first took an audio tour which went through 55 rooms of the house. Then we took a guided Rooftop Tour and an extremely interesting and informative Behind The Scenes Tour. I heartily recommend the guided tours. Unfortunately, we were unable to shoot pictures inside the mansion (although we might have shot a few). So I have lots of pictures of the outside. For the rest of this post, I kinda sorta wrote it from memory on our way home, with Mr. Hawthorne jogging the old brain cells as needed. Imagine being a guest of the Vanderbilts. You have received an invitation to come to Biltmore for a little va-cay, a little R & R. Upon arriving by train at the Asheville Station, you would be met by horse and carriage. Your trunks, containing all your clothes and toiletries, would be magically whisked away and would actually make it to Biltmore and be carefully put away by servants before you even arrived. And yes, we're talking numerous trunks, depending on how long your stay. Proper dress was quite important. The gentlemen had their hunting clothes, their riding clothes, their morning wear, their afternoon wear, their formal attire for dinner, their smoking jackets, and I'm probably missing some. The women needed to change 5-6 times a day for their activities and social events. Clothes for a picnic. Clothes for a tea. Clothes for playing croquet. And you had a maid to help you dress. Anyways back to the part about arriving at the Asheville train station and being met by Mr. George Washington Vanderbilt's manservant and liveryman and God knows who else. Your party is helped into the carriage(s). The drive from the station to the Mansion takes 45 minutes. Olmsted planned this. You are driven through a lovely winding path through the forest, intricately designed, exotically planted with 20-foot bamboo, individual mini-groupings of plants within a larger space. I never saw a weed. I only saw planting that was supposed to be purposeful and exquisite and elegant and breathtaking. It was amazingly carefully designed Nature. As I said, the ride up the Approach Road, as it is called (telling in itself), is a 45 minute carriage ride, designed so that the guests could properly "unwind" after their grueling, operose train journey. One wonders how arduous that journey may have been when no doubt they had their own perfectly appointed private railway car and had been sipping brandy and/or champagne along the way. Upon turning on the Approach Road's last curve to the right, you are able to take in the impressive and spectacular beauty that is the palatial Biltmore. I'm sure our driver would've stopped for several breathtaking minutes, while the horses impatiently clomped on the macadam so that my party and I could take in the splendor, just a little bit at a time, so as not to overwhelm. Although I am quite sure I have my vapours on my person in case I need them.
And La-Di-Dah, there it is! Biltmore Estate. After a few minutes of the requisite oohing and aahing we bade our driver to continue. We had sufficiently composed ourselves and were now ready to greet our most gracious hosts. Now, I ask you to consider this: Look at the above picture and notice the color of the stone. 115 years ago that stone would have been a gleaming white. Also, notice the trim at the rooftop line extending horizontally across the top.
This is a closeup of the trim, fascia, or whatever one calls it. (Take the roof top tour!) The "tiles" alternate between the one with the three acorns and the one with George Vanderbilt's initials and acorns. Heh. George's acorns. 12. Ok. Sorry. Once again I digress.
Imagine this. In 1895, these copper "tiles" were glinting and gleaming brilliantly and beautifully while still new and shiny and coppery. The raised parts were coated in gold leaf. Those first guests to the Vanderbilt Estate were blinded by the splendor of Biltmore both literally and figuratively. Love it when you can kill two birds with one stone.
The copper has weathered throughout the years to a lovely green patina. Interesting information about the slate tiles underneath the fascia. Yeah, I'm going to go with fascia. Slate has a tendency to develop botanical growth on its surface. Not so at Biltmore. When rain water hits the copper above, a chemical reaction occurs, creating copper carbonate (I think.) which is poisonous to algae. Each piece of slate is secured by copper wires. We actually went inside the roof to see this.
Visualize this in brilliant copper and gold leaf.
Gargoyle puking.
These spires serve as lightning rods. They diverted the electricity to somewhere. Well, I guess the ground. Actually, there was some kind of "lightening arrester" in the Dynamo room. I remember our tour guide mentioning it when we were in the "Frankenstein" room in the basement. That was the room with all the gears and meters, and valves, and switches. It was the power generating room and it was a scary place. And guess who got a picture of it? You bad boy, Mr. Hawthorne. The Vanderbilt estate was self-sufficient. They generated their own electricity. As a matter of fact, Vanderbilt and Thomas Edison were acquaintances and Edison was convinced the electrical standard would be DC. So the mansion was set up to provide DC current. When the standard became AC, Vanderbilt was able to convert. The original electrical circuitry was designed to operate on either alternating or direct current The advantages and disadvantages of direct (DC) and alternating (AC) current were still being debated when ground was broken for Biltmore House in 1889. Since much of the equipment needed for the technological systems in the house would be located in the Sub-basement it needed to be in place fairly quickly so Hunt and Vanderbilt settled upon the use of DC current although they made provision for the use of AC as well. The scariest part of this room was a framed poster on the wall - a resuscitation chart next to the door, detailing procedures on how to revive someone suffering from electrical shock. Your standard methods were listed, but one particular method at the end, perhaps a last-ditch effort, caught my eye - "Forcible stretching of the sphincter muscles ..." I don't know which would be worse - being on the receiving end or the giving end of this. End. Ouch.
On the surface, one may think of Biltmore as an impressive display of $$$$$$$, but it was much more than that. It was an engineering marvel and amazing display of technology. Biltmore House incorporated the most technologically advanced systems available at the turn of the century. They are a reflection both of George Vanderbilt’s progressive interests and architect Richard Morris Hunt’s genius and attention to the most complex details of design and construction. During their visits, guests in Biltmore House experienced all the luxuries and comforts that the Vanderbilts enjoyed. What they did not see were the technologies built into the House that helped to make their stays so pleasurable. These technologies included large systems, such as those supplying central heat, hot water, and electric lights, and individual labor-saving devices including elevators and laundry and kitchen equipment. Finally, to an even greater degree than good domestic servants, the technological systems in Biltmore House were meant to be neither seen nor heard. These incredibly complex, expensive and fascinating components of the House are completely hidden, relegated to the Sub–basement and the North Wing, for the most part totally out of view of family and arriving guests and buried deep within the walls and floors. The only aspects of the technologies experienced by the family and guests were their end products - an elevator to one’s room on the Third Floor and the magical appearance of one’s trunks, steaming bath water from the tap, glowing lights at dusk, the rush of warm air from a brass grate, or the silent footsteps of a maid summoned by the simple push of an ivory button. The home featured an indoor heated swimming pool, illuminated by electric lights at the bottom of the pool. Unheard of at that time. There was also an exercise room with a heavy medecine ball, climbing ladder, parallel bars, rowing machines, weights, and showers - not with just one shower head, but with multiple jets on the sides to massage the muscles after a workout. Biltmore was one of the first places to have true refrigeration - not just ice blocks, which, in fact, they did produce on site. Ammonia gas was forced through coils in a brine solution to produce the ice. (I have no idea.) There was a huge ice chest with numerous pits from the ice picks; however, there were no ice picks found. It is believed that the metal picks were used in the war effort. There was also a telegraph room, internal intercoms for summoning servants, and a back up intercom system. The exquisite dining room had a spectacular set of organ pipes. Vanderbilt had the pipes installed and was waiting on the organ. When the organ arrived, Vanderbilt knew that a local church needed an organ, so he donated it to the church. George Vanderbilt had no organ during his lifetime. Had no organ. Heh! 12. Years later, an organ was inherited and one of the apprentices who had actually installed the pipes, happened to be the manufacturer of the organ that eventually ended up at Vanderbilt. George Vanderbilt was a bachelor when he built Biltmore, and he lived there with his mother. On a trip abroad, George met his future wife, Edith Stuvesyant Dresser, and they married in Paris and honeymooned for several months in Europe. Imagine bringing wifey home to Biltmore for the first time. Servants and locals lined the Approach Road and driveway and courtyard with candles, cheering the newlyweds as they approached. A magnificent fireworks display welcomed them. An interesting note about the social scene of the late 19th century. The Vanderbilts would have been considered nouveau-riche, in that they actually worked to make their fortune. The sensibility at that time would consider that as rather gauche. Edith, however, was from "old money," and was thus considered socially superior. Her grandfather, Peter Stuyvesent , was the first governor of New Amsterdam before it became New York, so her rank in society was much higher than the Vanderbilts. This was probably the first Power Couple - George with his money and Edith with her social status. It was a perfect combination. George and Edith had one child - Cornelia - and George died at a young age of complications from an appendectomy. Cornelia eventually married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil and their two sons George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil were born on the Estate in 1925 and 1928 respectively. The Cecils, acting on a request from the city of Asheville, opened the Estate to the public for the first time in March 1930, hoping to revive the Depression-era economy with tourism. During World War II, it was believed that Washington was at risk of air attack. Priceless artworks from the National Gallery of Art were sent to Vanderbilt for safekeeping. In 1960, William Cecil left a banking career in New York City and Washington, D.C., to join his brother in managing Biltmore, which they inherited under the terms of a trust. Their goals were to return the historic site to its turn-of-the-century splendor and to perpetuate their grandfather's ideal of self-sufficiency. Changes were brought to Biltmore to keep it self-sufficient. The dairy became a separate business in 1979 and the dairy barn was remodeled for use as a winery. Angus and Limousin beef cattle have been introduced in the farm operation. Today, William Cecil's son, William A. V. Cecil, Jr. serves as CEO of Biltmore Estate, continuing the preservation efforts begun by his father and ensuring that the Estate lives up to the standards established by his great-grandfather. In keeping with George Vanderbilt's vision, Biltmore is entirely self-sustaining, receiving neither government subsidies not private grants. Its operations and preservation efforts are supported by a variety of ventures, including guest admissions, selective timber harvesting, restaurants and shops, and collections of finely crafted Estate reproductions. The Estate, with a staff of 1500, also contributes to the community as one of the region's largest employers.
Now, I shall tell you about the plumbing system at Biltmore. This is the view looking out the front lawn. Several miles away and at a higher elevation, there is a fresh water mountain lake/reservoir. The plumbing system at Biltmore was designed in such a way that the water was gravity fed to the house from that lake after being filtered through a sand field. The pressure was equivalent to approximately 90 psi.
This is looking down on the "Winter Garden." Glass-roofed gardens were quite stylish in the Victorian era, providing a place to relax or entertain amid a jungle of exotic plants. And here's the video I took inside of the Winter Garden which I wasn't supposed to shoot.
The loggia.
With these views.
One of the most impressive rooms in Biltmore is the library, which best reflects George Vanderbilt's personality and scholarly intellect. Vanderbilt was an avid reader and collector of books since childhood. He amassed a collection of more than 23,000 volumes, the earliest dating back to 1561, in 8 languages, about 10,000 of which are housed in the library's walnut stacks. The room appears open to the sky. A dramatic ceiling painting representing dawn and symbolizing the light of learning - The Chariot of Aurora, by Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini - adorns the ceiling. The work was originally located in the ballroom of the Pisani Palace in Venice and comprises 13 separate canvases and measures 64 feet long by 32 feet wide. It's one of Pellegrini's most important canvases as many of his works were destroyed in the World Wars.
Lots of ethnic gargoyles here.
And I think somebody has a problem with breasts. Just sayin'.
You lookin' at me?
Took a trip to the restrooms and while I was waiting for Mr. Hawthorne caught this Luna Moth.
Edith's Louis Vuitton trunks in storage. Thanks, Mr. Hawthorne.
I wanted to take a baby goose home with me but Mr. Hawthorne wouldn't let me. He can be so unreasonable at times.
The following photographs are all Mr. Hawthorne's. Enjoy.
China cabinets.
The telegraph machine.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the gardener being named Chauncey just like in the movie "Being There" with Peter Sellers playing Chauncey Gardener. Thats pretty neat!

Last visit of ours to Biltmore was for Christmas. The decorations & grounds are so different at night. Great trip report & well worth waiting for. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Excellent and beautiful

dle said...

I loved the report...will have to look at the gargoyles next time. them. Anon is correct at Christmas it is a different look all done in candelight and decorated for the Holiday...they even have music groups playing and singing....Did you do the winery tour?

Rosie Hawthorne said...

dle, To see the gargoyles you'll need to take the Rooftop Tour. I recommend it and the Behind the Scenes Tour.
They have a house tour also and we probably should have taken that,
but we'd already signed up for the audio version. There's always next year!

Didn't do the winery tour.
Or the new addition of Antler Village.

rebecca said...

i am so happy that i checked back with your blog. you made it to the biltmore! so happy for you. so many sights and sounds, must have had sensory overload. i looked at your pictures four times now. about time i checked into my own trip them myself.
thanks for sharing your life with us, once again!

Kathy said...

Great history lesson!

Rocquie said...

Great post Rosie. You and hubby definitely chose the right way to visit Biltmore. A few years ago I worked there for a season through the Fall, Christmas, and New Year holidays. That was an experience I'll never forget. At that time they had 2500 employees and I have never worked anywhere with nicer people. Every single person I came in contact with was super kind and considerate. The Cecil family have an excellent reputation in this town for having an excellent operation in every way.

Phyllis said...

Who needs a rooftop/behind the scenes tour when you've got Rosie and Mr. H? Truly a wonderful post, Rosie--just the right mix of history, nostalgia, humor & reverential wonder. AND GARGOYLES! Doncha just love GARGOYLES?! Thanks Rosie--Now I gotta go back to the Biltmore again!

Marilyn said...

Thanks for such an extensive post on your visit to Biltmore.

Hmm, Indiana limestone. Why, that came from right here! It's actually interesting that some local quarries set aside stone that matches stone used in large projects, just in case replacement stone that matches the original is needed. Such was the case in 2001 after the Pentagon was hit.