George Vanderbilt was an amazing guy who lived in an incredibly unique time. The Gilded Age. He had vision, aesthetics in mind, loved beauty, art and sport and apparently was a very good shopper. He fell in love with the western North Carolina landscape and, except for 60 or so trans-Atlantic trips, many of which were to choose plans and accessories for Biltmore, he made his home in the mountains of North Carolina. And the main thing? He had LOTS of money. Too bad he died at age 51 from complications of appendicitis. He certainly made the most of his short life.
When he began building his family home, Biltmore, in 1889 the surrounding landscape, of which he eventually bought 125,000 acres including whole towns, was barren and eroding due to extensive logging of the old growth forest. The railroad was a key component in the denuding of the landscape; once it was in place, the trees and wildlife were gone. Ironic, since George’s father, Cornelius, turned $100 into $100,000,000 in a short time building the railroad.
George could have, and did have, the best of everything. The vision it took to plan and imagine this eventual 8000 acre estate is phenomenal. The house is designed by the premier architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt and the gardens by Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of American landscape architecture. If you have ever been to Central Park in New York, you have a taste of Olmstead’s work. Or Boston Commons. Many other distinguished venues. Olmstead considered the gardens he designed at the Biltmore his crowning glory and indeed, he died soon after their completion. He was designing them for us, 100 years later and the vista was breathtaking in all directions.
Father of the managed forest system and basically the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, his estate sold over 100,000 acres to the National Forestry Service. He used to have a 5000 sq. ft. hunting lodge, Buckspring, on top of Mt. Pisgah, with a private road leading to it.
Vanderbilt’s philanthropy seems extensive. And it is. Until you see the lengths he went to in designing and decorating his own house. And glorifying himself… I think when the whole self-glorification thing hit me the hardest was when I went on the Architectural Tour and they took us out onto the roof where copper plates lined the various parapets and gargoyled roof intersections. Each tile was stamped GV, for George Vanderbilt of course, and the guide pointed out the last vestiges of the 22 Karat gold that coated the corner embellishments of acorns. Really? On the roof? 22 Karat gold? You can see the last vestiges on the lower left of this copper plated tile.
I had already been on the house tour where you walked you through his bedroom, the walls of which were covered with 22 K gilded cloth. Who does this? The more I learned, the more I appreciated the energy and art appreciation he exhibited. Treasured artworks from the National Gallery in Washingon DC were hidden in the house during World War II. He had several Albrecht Dürer prints, along with Renoirs bought before the artist was famous. He had 15th century Flemish tapestries in several rooms. Ming Dynasty bowls for indoor koi gardens. A 23,000 volume library. Custom made everything. Many John Singer Sargent paintings, some of which the artist traveled to Biltmore to paint. The Gilded Age is a good description.
We took two full days to tour the grounds, the entire first day touring the house. You only go to so many houses that have 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, indoor gardens, onsite conservatory, winter garden, salons and throne rooms galore.
Anyway, if you are interested, and I was, you can read plenty online although I am seeing a dearth of ebooks so far.
Some pics from our tour. Oh yeah, no photography allowed… Except outside.
More photos on Flickr. Some inside, Yeah, I cheated.