Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Biltmore House- America's Largest Home... by Candlelight!

Impressive, huh?  
But wait till you see it by candlelight!

On our jaunt through the highlands of the South, we stopped at America's Largest Home in hopes of catching the Christmas spirit.  Walking through the 116 year old mansion, I felt spirits swirling other than Christmas which made the evening tour even more delightful!

As we entered the gates and drove through the 8000 acre estate, I told the family some of the history of the home I had learned on my visit here three years prior.  Beginning in 1889, George Vanderbilt set out to build the grandest estate and hunting lodge he could afford and thanks to his grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and his industrious ventures with shipping and railroads, he could afford a grand amount.  Wyatt, our little entrepreneur, lit up when he heard that the Commodore dropped out of school at age 11 and with only $100 to his name began his first ferry service at age 16 and ended up being named the richest man in America at his death at age 83. He left the bulk of his fortune to his oldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt who almost doubled his inheritance before his death nine years later.  He divided his estate among his eight children; George Vanderbilt, his youngest, received much less than his older two brothers.  (I wonder if he would have BUILT MORE if he had had more money!)

After parking in lot C, we arrived at the mansion via shuttle bus to see a massive Christmas tree lit on the front lawn.  Even though we were riding in by mass transit, I still tried to imagine what it would have been like for George's first guests when he opened the house Christmas Eve 1895... After driving all that way through the mountains and valleys, most likely by horse carriage, the sight of this home must have seemed like a dream.

Still privately owned by George Vanderbilt's descendants, the Cecil Family, the entrance, so huge yet so lovingly decorated, set excitement running through our veins.  The vaulted entrance foyer gave way to the winter garden on the right and the famous spiraling stone staircase on the left.  For the candlelight tours, a choir among the trees and poinsettias in the winter garden room greeted us with Christmas carols. The self-guided tour of the home allowed us to pause and listen for a while before viewing the glowing trees and fires of the billiard room and banquet hall.  Yes, there really was a 35 foot Christmas tree in the banquet hall!  With the table set for fifty of their closest friends and a roaring fire in the walk-in fireplace, the Vanderbilts entertained on a scale that had never been seen in North Carolina, nor most of America, no doubt.

Though prohibited inside the house, I surreptitiously snapped a few photos to capture the feel of the home at Christmas:

The Tapestry Room leading to the library

Another view of the Tapestry Room where the family had their afternoon tea.

The Gun Room in the Bachelor's Wing of the home.
Originally opened to visitors during the depression to boost tourism in Western North Carolina, the house today has been painstakingly preserved by George Vanderbilt's grandson, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil.  On the second floor of the chateau, a display guides visitors through the preservation process of each restored room.  The estate constantly works to restore the home and recently opened three new guest rooms so we could really pretend we were guests of George and his wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, having seen where we would have slept. Also upstairs are the family bedrooms and sitting rooms.  The girls loved the third floor living room with its turn-of-the-century toys and fashions on display.  The dulcimer player in the living room told stories of Christmases Past at Biltmore House in between his haunting songs.

What seemed like days later, we wound our way down to the basement to view the Halloween Room.  I think George and Edith's daughter, Cornelia, and her friends had some "good times" in the basement.  Painted during the Jazz Era, the room's walls felt like you were in someone's nightmare.  Interesting, but I preferred reading about the 6 year construction of the house.  Designed after French chateaux by architect Richard Morris Hunt, the photos on display here of each stage of construction fascinated Greg and me, but the kids preferred the cartoon-like walls.

Also in the basement are the indoor swimming pool, bowling alley and workout room.  Not too shabby for 1895!  The equipment in the workout room looked more like implements of torture than exercise.  Maybe other things were going on in the basement...you're miles from where anyone would hear you scream... My imagination ran wild!

Finally, we ended our tour with a look into the servants' world.  Like the BBC/PBS series, Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, the servants' quarters and workspace were just as fascinating as the elite's.  We saw the food storage system and the separate kitchens for food preparation such as the meat kitchen and the bakery with its complete estate gingerbread house.  There were also several underground tunnels leading to the dairy and the gardens which the kids were dying to sneak into, but after two hours of walking through the largest home in America, Mom and Dad were done with exploring.  The last thing I wanted to do was have to hunt for my kids.

If you need some Christmas magic, I highly recommend the Biltmore House's Candlelight Tour.

Tickets to the Candlelight Tour are a little more expensive than the regular tour at $79 for adults, $49 for kids (10 and up) and children (9 and under) are free (Thank you, Emma!)  The evening pass also includes a daytime pass to the estate's gardens, winery, farm and Antler Hill Village.  There are discounts available.  Check out their website.

More to follow on the Biltmore's gardens, 
farm and winery... oh, my!

1 comment:

  1. Hope you got a chance to visit downtown Asheville. Probably, at this moment, my favorite place on earth. I recently blogged about some of my favorite downtown spots, about ghosts, and some great antique shops. If you're still visiting go check them out. shops.http://shannonlmauldin.blogspot.com/2011/11/ever-fell-in-love-with-city-asheville.html


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