Cornelius Vanderbilt started it all, amassing one of the largest fortunes in the world in the 19th century through transportation - shipping and railroading. The fortune was so huge that when his grandson George came along, he inherited two million. This was enough money to construct Biltmore here, known then as the largest home in the US. George traveled Europe for a year with his architect, getting ideas and buying furnishings. He also hired Frederick Olmstead, the landscape architect for New York's Central Park, to landscape the grounds and gardens. He enjoyed the home for twenty years until an untimely death from appendicitis. George had been a decent businessman himself, but he didn't leave enough to maintain this grand house. His wife and daughter struggled to hold on, especially as the Great Depression brought down many of the mighty. The family fortune ebbed and flowed, but the home has remained in the family and today George's great grandchildren still live here and share the estate with those willing to plunk down some significant admission fees. They have been using most of the funds they have earned from charging admission as well as other family businesses to repair and restore Biltmore to its previous level of opulence. They have done an amazing job. Even though everything in the house is original, it still was in need of refurbishing since the home first opened in 1895.
We have seen a number of great homes, quite a few on this trip alone, but Biltmore is in a class by itself. The house shows the influence that Vanderbilt's trip to Europe had on its design and it rivals many castles in scale and magnificence. We felt like midgets as we walked through some of the 250 rooms. The banquet hall was seven stories tall; Flemish tapestries covered the walls. The paneled library contained 23,000 volumes, about half of George's collection. Rolling ladders, also beautifully carved, provided access to the balcony full of more book shelves. The chess set there used to belong to Napoleon. The home had 43 bathrooms at a time when many of the folks living nearby were still using outhouses. Vanderbilt's architect knew that electricity was the coming thing, so he had the house wired for AC and DC since it was not clear which distribution method would become standard. A one horse power generator powered the elevator that took guests from one floor to another. The home had the first private bowling alley. A servant had to reset the pins and roll the balls back to the players. The indoor swimming pool held 70,000 gallons. A slew of changing rooms nearby kept these prudish folks from having to parade through the house in their swim wear. The servant's quarters were fairly nice as well; they had private rooms not the done thing at the time. The chef had a pastry kitchen and rotisserie kitchen in addition to the main one.
After oohing and aahing for a few hours we went outside to the garden and oohed and aahed some more. The tulips were in full bloom and the orchids in the green house were amazing. Although Vanderbilt sold 90,000 acres of his land to the Federal government (it's now national forest) the estate today still has 8,000 acres. Once we moved away from the more formally landscaped gardens, paths wound through forested land that still reflect the touch of Olmsted. It felt natural, but if you looked at the plantings closely, they were not wild and placed to their best advantage.
In these days of great wealth being amassed by dot comers and arcane financial investments, it's not clear whether Biltmore is still the largest home in America. But they aren't making homes like this one anymore, that's certain.