I’ve been to Graceland and what impressed me most there was really the comprehensive nature of the gift shop–down to the Elvis-themed toilet paper. But last week I visited the house to conquer all houses–the Biltmore. Finished in 1895 and opened to the public in 1930, Biltmore House was the summer home of George W. Vanderbilt, whose descendants still own the estate and employ 1800 people to run it. The home has 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, and sits on 8,000 acres. That’s about half the size of the entire county where I live. The Biltmore website suggests buying a two-day pass to take in all the sites, which I thought was just a marketing ploy, but I really could have spent two whole days there if I had planned for it.
The tour of the house is impressive and the audio tour well-done and very informative. My dad and husband and I were rattling off Biltmore trivia to each other and the rest of the family for several days afterward. The banquet hall looks like something out of Harry Potter. Vanderbilt collected Napoleonica and Napoleon’s chess set is on display, and you can visit Vanderbilt’s and his wife’s bedrooms, joined by a sitting room where they breakfasted together. I learned the role of the valet was critical because individuals changed clothes six to eight times per day, depending on what activities they were doing.
Vanderbilt was a visionary in terms of modern amenities. He had electricity, an indoor heated and underwater-lit swimming pool, a home gym that would still be useful today, and the first bowling alley in a private residence. The unfinished music room was used to hide valuable art from the National Gallery of Art during World War II. The house was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and the grounds by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also created Central Park in New York and the US Capitol Grounds, among other environments.
In addition to the house itself, which features gargoyles and stonework to rival the National Cathedral, the gardens surrounding the house and throughout the estate are absolutely beautiful. I imagine many of those 1,800 employees are gardeners. And the estate includes Antler Hill Village, which features exhibits, a winery, shops, restaurants, and a farm and barn with old-fashioned toys, carriages and tractors to climb on, and performances by musicians and storytellers. We heard a 14-year-old self-taught banjo and guitar prodigy play. He said he couldn’t read a note of music and had been playing for just a few years. If you closed your eyes you would have thought it was Ralph Stanley playing. Zoe was captivated by all the toys. I enjoyed the shade in the barn while she played. She rode a hobbyhorse around and around, then patted the mane of a real one.