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Biltmore

Asheville, North Carolina

Completed in 1895, for George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914). Covering 178,926 square feet, Biltmore is the largest privately-owned house in the United States, though the last member of the family to live there was in 1956. In contrast to many other Gilded Age Estates, Vanderbilt's intention was to create a self-sustainable estate, providing work and income for the local community; a tradition that is upheld to this day. The 250-room French Renaissance-style chateau at the center of the Biltmore Estate has become an American icon. Opened in full to the public from 1965; the chateau, Vanderbilt's renowned art collection, it's 8,000 acres of grounds and the magnificent array of landscaped gardens attract over a million visitors a year, making it the most popular historic house destination in the United States.
Following the death of his father in 1885, as the youngest child and still as yet unmarried, George Vanderbilt took to accompanying his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam (1821–1896), on her trips to North Carolina. He became so enchanted with Asheville that rather than building a summer estate in the usual fashionable places as his siblings had, by 1888 he had chosen to establish himself within the Blue Mountain Range.

In 1889, he purchased 2,000 acres, adding to it until it encompassed 125,000 acres of rolling woodland. In the same year, he hired two of America's foremost architects - Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) and Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) - to build his "little mountain escape" and landscape it's gardens.

George Vanderbilt was one of the most progressive and forward thinking millionaires of the Gilded Age. Rather than building something that would only serve his own pursuit of leisure, his idea was to recreate a working estate that would provide gainful employment and bring prosperity to the local community.

In 1889 - the same year that work started on the chateau - George established the Biltmore Forest School, the first institute for scientific forestry in the United States. The majority of the estate's employees lived at the town of Best and that same year Vanderbilt purchased it and renamed it Biltmore Village

In a time when plumbing and central heating was unheard of in ordinary houses, he provided both in the cottages he built for his employees. He paid good wages and at Christmas all the staff and their children were invited up to the chateau for a celebration, with each one receiving a present from under the towering tree in the Great Hall.

The chateau at Biltmore drew inspiration from several of those in the French Loire Valley, but principally from the Château de Blois that for two hundred years was home to a series of French kings. The estate is entered via the arched Gate Lodge from which proceeds a three mile driveway past wild streams, woodland pools and ravines before coming out onto a grand esplanade lined by an avenue of trees.

The gardens closest to the main house follow the lines of those at the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris, while elsewhere are found the 16th century Italian gardens and their three reflecting pools; the four-acre English Walled Garden; the Azalea Garden; and, the shrub garden interlaced with ponds and lagoons. In addition to these, the Biltmore Estate Winery processes more than 250 tons of grapes annually.

The chateau's 250 rooms required a domestic staff of 80 servants and included 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 3 kitchens, with 65 fireplaces. To mention but a few, each of the principal rooms within the chateau have their own distinct style: The 70 foot arched ceiling in the 3,000 square foot medieval banquet hall provides a canopy for the 64-seat table while it's carved mantel spans three fireplaces and Flemish tapestries adorn the walls telling the stories of Vulcan and Venus. 

The 18th century painted ceiling in the elaborately-panelled baroque library, that stands over two stories and houses Vanderbilt's collection of over 20,000 books, was imported from a Venetian palace in Italy. The sunken marble Winter Garden with it's domed skylight supported by Gothic vaulting is centered by a fountain attributed to Karl Theodore Francis Bitter (1867-1915). The Tapestry Gallery features three of which were made in 16th century Belgium as well as portraits of the Vanderbilts by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925); and so the list goes on.

Particularly during the six years in which it took the chateau to be built, Vanderbilt made several trips to Europe specifically to acquire furnishings and trinkets for his new home. Literally thousands of fine pieces dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries and from all corners of the world made their way over to Asheville and can still be seen there today. 

Among the vast collection of treasures can be found paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903); tapestries that once belonged to Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642); and, a gaming table with a set of ivory chessmen formerly in the possession of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).

Surrounded by such opulence, it could have been easy to forget the day-to-day lives of the ordinary folk around, but Vanderbilt continued to give back to the community, particularly in Biltmore Village, where he erected All Souls Cathedral, a hospital, a school and shops.

In 1898, George met someone who shared his ideals in Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (1873-1958) and they were married in Paris that year. Together, they founded Biltmore Estate Industries in 1901, providing apprenticeship programs in traditional crafts such as weaving and woodworking. Students were even encouraged to make reproductions of furniture found within the chateau that they could then sell for personal income. Spurred on by the program's success, Edith established the School for Domestic Science, where young women with poor job prospects were trained in skills such as cooking and cleaning, whereby they could find employment.

Aside from building a community, collecting art and entertaining his friends, George Vanderbilt held a keen interest in horticulture and agriscience. At Biltmore, he oversaw experiments in scientific farming that included animal bloodline breeding and forestry. He died in 1914, and though greatly saddened his widow continued with her responsibilities towards the estate and the community. She built a new hospital, encouraged literacy programs and served as president of the State Agricultural Society.

In 1915, in an effort to keep Biltmore self-sustainable and honor her husband's memory, Edith sold 87,000 acres to the United States Forest Service, creating the Pisgah National Forest. Today the estate has been reduced to 8,000 acres, but as was Vanderbilt's dream, under his grandsons it remains completely self-sustainable and provides a legion of jobs for the local community.

The Vanderbilts only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt (1900–1976), inherited the Biltmore estate in trust and from 1924 lived there with her first husband, Hon. John Francis Amherst Cecil (1890–1954). In 1930, America was in the grips of the Great Depression and the City of Asheville asked the Cecils if they would open the house to the public in the hope that it would increase tourism. They willingly obliged, though as it was still their home they kept certain areas private.

In 1934, the Cecils left for England and Cornelia never again returned to the United States, leaving her mother to manage the property. During the Second World War, Edith allowed priceless treasures from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC to be stored at Biltmore. She continued to live within the chateau until 1956, two years before her death.

In 1960, Cornelia's two sons (who inherited Biltmore on her death in 1976), George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil Sr., returned to the house in which they born to assume management of the family estate. George chose to operate Biltmore Farms while his younger brother, Bill Sr., took on the task of managing the Biltmore estate, through The Biltmore Company. In 1965, the house was fully opened to the public and today Bill Sr.'s son, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil Jr., operates the estate as president of the Biltmore Company.

In 1964, Biltmore was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2007, it was ranked 8th (and as a house 2nd) in America's Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects. Every amenity and a great array of outdoor activities for both adults and children are available at Biltmore today. The 210-room AAA 4-diamond Biltmore Estate Inn enjoys river and mountain views over the estate, providing luxury accommodation for those wishing to stay longer.