The Biltmore Estate is what happens when traditional period European architecture is built with American flare. Naturally, it is grandiose and imposing and boasts luxuries such as an indoor swimming pool with underwater lighting, a bowling alley and exercise room that were state-of-the art for the 1890’s when it was completed. As an American interpretation of European renaissance architecture, it is a hybridized mansion, castle and chateau that somehow comes together beautifully (in my own opinion). Shielding the Biltmore from the rest of the world is sprawling forest in every direction, acquired and painstakingly restored to as close to its natural state as was possible. Even today, it offers uninterrupted views of contiguous emerald green (now the Pisgah National Forest) well into the horizon. Closer to home, nature then transitions virtually seamlessly into tended woods and gardens where, I can only imagine, some of the most interesting conversations must have occurred on many a private walk.
When I first visited the Biltmore, I will not lie, it had me at “hello”. As we drove through miles of meandering road that led to the doorsteps of the Biltmore itself, I was taken by the time-worn, mossy trees and flora that I never would have guessed were planted there by design. It was so lush that the atmosphere cooled by a few degrees as we entered the canopy-covered pass. Not being a fan of air-conditioning, I rolled down the windows and welcomed the clean, moss-filtered air into my hungry lungs. As we approached the massive home of George Washington Vanderbilt, my breath was then taken away. It was even more impressive on the inside. The Biltmore is undoubtedly opulent and lavish and, perhaps, rightfully so. Mr. Vanderbilt was supposed to have built the estate as a place of respite for his ailing mother but also as a center of gathering for the most significant personalities of the day. The roster of the Biltmore’s many visitors included some of the most talented and influential minds of that era and George Vanderbilt created a setting that matched the gravity of their weight on society. Glimpsing a handmaid’s quarters through a narrow passageway, I could not help but think of the stories of those who supported the social and functional infrastructure of the Biltmore and kept it running day-in and day-out. Walking through the kitchen and the laundry room equipped with giant presses gives us but a peek into the world that lived between the Biltmore’s walls and around it. It took a thousand men to build the estate in a short six years and their families alongside them. With this otherworldly setting filled with transient people of all trades, the Biltmore seemed the perfect place for a malach or two to go unnoticed. In the present day, the same is true for the never-ending stream of tourists that come through its doors and stroll on its sprawling grounds everyday.
What stays with me about the Biltmore is, first, its purpose. Unlike many of its counterparts, the Biltmore was not just a country vacation house. It was a home that was lived in that saw the birth of children in its rooms and pet dogs romping down its long halls. Can you imagine playing hide-and-go-seek in a 250 room abode? Second, it was designed to be self-contained and self-sustaining so that the estate was, at one point, a community onto itself. At the core of its landscape design was sustainability, a concept fairly advanced for its time. Unfortunately, the Biltmore would never see its full potential due to the premature death of George Vanderbilt at the age of 51. Today, the farm still produces home made ice cream in limited quantities and a few of the children who were raised on the Biltmore farm still live nearby. On one of my visits, I purchased a lovely coffee mug that was hewn by an artisan whose family worked for the Vanderbilts and who, I was told, still lived on the property.
Enamored by its history and the majestic landscape framing its beauty, I chose the Biltmore Estate to play a central role in the life of one of my favorite characters whom you have yet to meet. I also think that it will play a more prominent role in book 2. So this is all I will say for now.
Thank you for reading!
Chapter 3 to be posted this Friday, December 1st.