America’s Castle: The Biltmore House

America doesn’t have a ruling class, but it does have a castle — the Biltmore House. The largest family home ever built in the United States, if this place in Asheville, N.C., doesn’t drop your jaw, nothing will!

Entrance to Biltmore House.

A Bit Of History
The Biltmore House and surrounding estate was built by George Vanderbilt beginning in 1889. Vanderbilts first immigrated to America in the mid-1650s, but the wealth we associate with the name began with George Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt (1794-1877), and grew under the financial acumen of George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885). The name "Biltmore" came from the suffix of the family name (the original "van der Bilt" referred to the area in Holland from which the clan emigrated) plus an old English term for green, rolling hills: "more." Its founder opened the home to friends and family in 1895, six years after commencing the project.

But while the Biltmore Estate (aka just "Biltmore") is rich in history and a person can spend many hours absorbing the stories of the founder and his ancestors and progeny, the star attraction is the house itself — America’s Castle.

The House That George Built
The Biltmore House has 250 rooms, including family and guest bedrooms (35), servants’ quarters, living and dining areas, kitchens (3), and spaces for entertaining, such as a bowling alley and an indoor pool. The home is 175,000 square feet and covers four acres. It has a total of 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the French Renaissance Chateau style. Furnishings remain much the same as they were when the original Vanderbilts were in residence over 100 years ago. Priceless artwork and antiques complete the atmosphere.

Surrounding green hills attracted George Vanderbilt.

No one has lived in Biltmore House since the 1950s, but America’s largest "family home" remains family-owned. Bill Cecil, the great grandson of founder George Vanderbilt, is president and CEO today. As in the beginning, the estate is self-sustaining, although today this is manifested less in farming and ranching and more in tourism infrastructure. Some of the estate’s more recent developments include the addition of a winery and an on-site inn.

The Estate Gardens And Grounds
The landscape architect for the Biltmore Estate was Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park and the grounds of both Stanford University and the U.S. Capitol, is often called the Father of Landscape Architecture. Laying out the 120,000-acre Biltmore grounds was his last large project. Although Vanderbilt wanted a formal, English-style plan, Olmsted convinced his client to install formal gardens near the house, but to maintain much of the acreage in a more natural-to-the-area forest. Some of the features designed and built by Olmsted include a 9-mile arboretum and a bass pond.

Small glimpse of the Walled Garden.

Whether you are a hard-core horticulturist or you simply admire a beautiful place to stretch your legs, the grounds of the Biltmore are heavenly. The Italian Garden features pools and sculptures; the Shrub Garden covers 4 acres and is perfect for strolling; the Walled Garden is a formally organized flower garden; the Spring Garden is a riot of blooms in forsythia and fruit blossom season; and the Azalea Garden is a 15-acre tribute to the myriad species of azalea. To time your visit with the bloom period of your favorite flower or shrub, visit the "Calendar of Blooms" page on the Biltmore’s website: http://biltmore.com/visit/gardens/bloom.asp. And don’t miss the Conservatory, with its palms, flowers, bedding plants, and separate Orchid House.

There are many other things to see and do on the grounds. The River Bend Farm is a demonstration farm offering a sense of the self-sustaining farm operations of Biltmore’s early years. There are restaurants, a Creamery shop featuring estate-made ice-cream, and the aforementioned winery. Equestrians can bring their horses and explore one of several trails ranging from 10- to 30 miles, or Biltmore can provide horses for those who don’t have a horse or are unable to bring their own mount.

The Conservatory.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Seasonal events and specialty tours extend the possibilities. For a more complete look at the choices, see the website at http://biltmore.com.

Things You Need To Know
The Biltmore Estate is open year-round, even on holidays (this year 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. on Christmas Day). Hours vary for specific buildings, but basically you will find the Biltmore House open from about 9 a.m. until 4:30 (Jan-Mar) or 5:30 (Apr-Dec) p.m.; the gardens are open year-round from 9 a.m. until dusk.

Sally O’Neal is a Pacific Northwest native who paid a visit to North Carolina earlier this year and was impressed with the lush beauty of the South. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.

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