Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Grand Debut

Magnet # 125: Biltmore in Snow Photo

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

On this day in 1895, the doors of George Washington Vanderbilt's mansion, the Biltmore in North Carolina, opened to receive its first visitors. As the largest private home in the United States and arguably the most awe-inspiring, the guests were probably amazed by all they saw that night. Of course, these were some of the richest people of their time, and although they'd doubtlessly stayed in many a mansion in their lives, Biltmore was still in a league of its own. In building it, Vanderbilt employed the most renowned American architect of the time, Richard Morris Hunt. They drew inspiration from traditional French chateaus, particularly those in the Loire Valley. But the Biltmore was also furnished with some of the most innovative amenities of its day, giving this old world style chateau advancements with which few residences could compete. Of course, there were a great deal of indoor bathrooms, but there was also a heated indoor pool with a tiled, arched ceiling that no doubt amazed more than one guest. And on the fourth story, Vanderbilt included a two-story observatory which overlooked most of the estate. And the house wasn't complete. Over the years, one of the first bowling alleys ever placed in a private home would open at the Biltmore, along with a great many more guest rooms. Curiously, the Music Room on the first floor was never finished during George Vanderbilt's lifetime. No one seems to know why, but it later became one of the most intriguing rooms in the estate. During World War II, Vanderbilt's daughter, Cornelia, was approached by the curator of the National Gallery of Art. It was feared that, if Washington D.C. was attacked in air raids by the Axis powers, the institution could loose a great deal of their priceless images. They wanted a remote, quiet place to hide them away, and Cornelia agreed to store them in the incomplete room. Guards were posted with these works of art at all times, and tourists to the Biltmore never realized what was going on just a few feet away from them, behind closed doors. It's another chapter in the story of one of America's most beloved homes.

I saw Biltmore for the first time in November of this year. We were just in time to tour it during its Candlelight Christmas Evenings event. The house was completely decked out in time for the Christmas holidays and it was so incredible to experience it in such a manner for the first time, just as the original visitors did in 1895. Our package allowed us to tour the house twice, both during the daytime, and later, when the lights were turned off and special Christmas performances were being given. In the Winter Garden, a beautiful, circular room with a glass ceiling, there were couples in costume engaged in ballroom dances from the time. And they were relieved by a choir singing Christmas favorites. There was also a storyteller regaling guests with Christmas tales in another part of the house. We were also fortunate to be touring Biltmore at that time. We were able to visit all four floors, and two had not been open to tours for many years. If you're interested in seeing all of the floors, you'd better schedule a tour soon. A guide explained to us that they're planning on shutting down one of them soon (the fourth, I think) to make more improvements. The tour would just not have been the same without all these floors. Sure, the guest rooms got a bit repetitive, but when I saw rooms like the observatory and the architectural model room, which houses the original model of the house, I was pretty blown away. Even more amazing, I found out with all of the walking we did - probably about two hours worth - there was still a good deal of the house that wasn't included. Apparently, it's even more guest rooms - I think omitting them might not be a bad idea.

If you've never been to the Biltmore, but are curious, I highly recommend it. The price tag of around fifty bucks might seem a bit high, but you will get your money's worth. And, yes, it's filled with tourists, but it is possible to get away from the crowds at times. When I was there, it was a rainy day, so I didn't get a chance to see the grounds, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape pioneer who also oversaw the production of Central Park in New York City. But they're supposed to be amazing, and walking through them is included in admission. A visit to the Winery and the River Bend Farm, which recreates life in the 1890's, are as well. Although I only got to see the house itself, I'm still very glad I went. And by going through twice, I was able to see some features I'd missed on my first time through. If you're able to tour when Biltmore is decorated for Christmas, don't miss out. It's a wonderful way to connect with the history of this amazing estate and get yourself into a festive holiday mood that can last the entire season.


  1. Hi Elizabeth,
    You got some bad info probably from a Biltmore Host in the house but Cornelia left her husband for Europe to never return in 1933. Edith, her mother brokered the deal to store artwork at Biltmore House during the 2nd World War and the house was closed to the public during the time the artwork was stored in the house..........there are several places that referance this, the Wash DC museum National Gallery has plenty online and the book Lady on the Hill which is the story of how Biltmore survived to be what she is today also details the closure of the house and how it was armed guarded 24/7 until war was over and then Biltmore reopened to the Public.

  2. No, it wasn't a host - I was listening to the audio tour. I guess I remembered a couple of facts incorrectly. I did check online, but didn't see much about it. Do you have a link to the best source online?