Castle of the Week 125 – Biltmore Estate

Biltmore House is an architectural marvel located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. At 175,000 square feet, this is the largest privately owned house in the United States. Built in the late 1800’s by George Washington Vanderbilt II, it was the centerpiece of a 125,000 acre estate which was his summer home.

The Vanderbilt family amassed their fortune in the 1800’s in the shipping and railroad industry. George grew up in the lap of luxury at his family’s Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan, New York. He was not a socialite and instead preferred a life of learning and travel. It was on one of his visits to the southeast that he discovered the beauty of the country surrounding Asheville, North Carolina.

Construction of the house began in 1889 and took over six years to complete. The mansion was designed by architect Richard Hunt Morris. His inspiration came from three 16th century French chateaux in the Loire Valley (Blois, Chenonceau and Chombard). The project was so massive that a rail spur was built for transporting materials and supplies; there was even an on-site brick factory. Hundreds of highly skilled craftsmen lived and worked on the estate.

The four story mansion has a 780-foot façade with four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The central tower contains a massive 102 step spiral staircase with a 72 electric light chandelier suspended in its midst. The house boasts a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, two-story library and 64 seat banquet table.

Containing over 11 million bricks, the sheer size and grandeur of the Biltmore House is astounding but the story doesn’t end there. It was a technological wonder of its day using state of the art features such as; electric lighting, hot and cold running water, elevators, central heating, refrigeration, telephones, fire alarm and intercom system – all unprecedented at the turn of the century. Remember, this house was built in the 1890’s!

Every room displays meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. No expense was spared in the houses’ furnishings. Some notable items include priceless paintings, statues, tapestries and furniture.

The grounds of the estate were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the mastermind of New York’s Central Park. He created formal and informal gardens, parks, reflecting pools, a conservatory, nursery and the United States first systematically managed forest. He is known as America’s father of landscape architecture. A visitor can easily see similarities between the gardens at Biltmore and Central Park.

The estate has been featured in thirteen Hollywood movies to include: National Treasure, Forrest Gump and Last of the Mohicans. Today visitors can enjoy tours of the mansion, grounds, winery, dairy, specialty shops and stay at a four-star hotel on the estate. After a hundred years, Biltmore is still a thriving privately owned working estate employing over 1700 workers and receiving more than a million visitors per year.

Authors note: Biltmore is not a medieval fortress but it is truly one of America’s castles. I grew up in western North Carolina and have visited the Biltmore Estate numerous times. The gardens are absolutely breathtaking in the spring and summer. Fall foliage of the mountains greets you in autumn and winter is not without its treats as well. At Christmas, the house is decorated with turn of the century-Gilded Age decorations including an enormous 50 foot Christmas tree in the banquet hall adorned with hand blown glass balls the size of basketballs. If you are ever in this part of the world, it is truly worth a visit.

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Write-up by Duke of York.

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