Visiting Biltmore: The French Connection

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During my quest to find a house, Lookie Lou was the nicest name realtors gave me. In four years, I saw 70+ properties and worked with 5+ realtors before buying my current house. After seeing that many homes, I’m certain realtors have a poster with my face and a red line through it. If I combined viewing all the bedrooms, all the bathrooms and all the basements of those properties, it doesn’t come close to matching the grandiosity of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Before diving into our House Hunters: Biltmore Edition, there are a few things you should keep in perspective. Calling it a house is like saying New York is quaint. If there are “You are here” maps, it ceased being a house long ago. When it has wings, it is no longer a house.

If you don’t know of the Biltmore house, it is the largest private residence in America (and that includes the combination of all homes on my block). Calling it a residence or estate seems more appropriate to me. It’s staggering when you look at the stats:178,926 square feet of floor space

  • 250 rooms
  • 34 bedrooms
  • 43 bathrooms
  • 125,000 acres of land

And this was built way before the existence of Costco. Can you imagine how long it would take to clean all those toilets?

The French Connection

The only homes I have seen that come close to the scale of Biltmore are in France. Leann and I toured three chateaus two years ago in December and visited Versailles on our first trip to France in 2014. The comparison is apt since Biltmore was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt in the chateau-style. Notable similarities are the majestic staircases, hidden doors and pure grandeur.

Both Biltmore and Chambord use spiral staircases as architectural focal points. Chambord holds the distinction of world’s best staircase. We also got lost wandering around Chambord. It has a double helix structure (think DNA) that allows you to see across the central cylinder to stair climbers on the opposite side of the staircase. It is remarkable to see and is a must-visit if you get the chance. Biltmore’s spiral staircase isn’t as impressive, but still corkscrews to the sky with iron foliage along the hand rails. Suspended from the ceiling, large, circular chandeliers occupy the central staircase cavity for each floor. An entire book could be written on the evolution of stair construction (Working title: Step-by-Step: A History of Stairs).

Biltmore Secrets

Biltmore’s hidden doors were reminiscent of those in Versailles. The purpose of the hidden doors was likely different for the Vanderbilts and Louis XIV. Both homes share hidden doors and passageways throughout. If you’ve yet to see these hidden doors, it is as if a wall was built and wallpapered. Then someone cut out a door with a saw and added a doorknob. In daylight it is easy to spot; in low-light they vanish. The purpose of the hidden doors in Biltmore was to allow for servants and guests to amble more freely around the house. For the Sun King, the hidden passageways provided privacy when relocating around the palace and allowed Marie Antoinette to escape a mob in 1789.

Biltmore Opulence

It’s difficult to narrow down the best examples of grandeur in these estates. The Loire Valley chateaux and Biltmore all boast enormous rooms and sprawling estates. One of the first rooms you see on the Biltmore tour is an indoor, winter garden, lush with vegetation and a sculpture in the center of the glass-enclosed space. But immediately after the indoor garden, you discover a true standout: the dining room. There are three enormous fireplaces, a table that seats 22 with a 70-foot high wooden ceiling, walls adorned with Flemish tapestries, a family crest. There’s so much to soak in for one room.

The art was another distinction. The Vanderbilts were collectors of art and it’s apparent in every room – Rembrandts, etchings by Louis Orr, one-of-a-kind tapestries. Fun fact: art was hidden at Biltmore during WWII to protect it from damage and theft.

Condensed Biltmore History

In 1888, George Vanderbilt visited Asheville, NC, and, like most tourists, wanted a little something to remember his trip. So he began purchasing acres. When he was done he had 125,000 acres. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to create formal gardens (watch my garden update from the grounds) and to transform the former farmland.

What’s the bachelor basics connection? When the house was completed in 1895, George wasn’t married. Within three years, that changed. George proposed to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. Two years later, Mrs. Vanderbilt gave birth to Cornelia. Read more on the family history here.

            Bachelor Basic tip: Buy a house, then go a-courting.

Touring Biltmore Tips

I recommend getting the audio guide for the tour. The pamphlet provided is informative, but the audio guide provides more detail and perspective to guide your gaze during the tour. If you didn’t gather by now, the home is massive. Touring the estate can be a full day. We spent 5-6 hours on the grounds starting with lunch at the former horse stables. We opted against hay and chose a southern sampler of smoked meats and roasted cauliflower soup.

biltmore-lunch

Not knowing that much about the estate before touring I was surprised and frequently commented “shut up” when we entered a new room or looked out on the lush scenery from the loggia. Venture down to the basement. It is in the running for my favorite part of the tour.

Biltmore tour takeaways

  • Everyone needs a bowling alley in their home
  • Separate bedrooms are the past and future
  • Elevate your bed so guests know you’re important

This tour confirmed the power of travel to inspire curiosity. I learned about the Vanderbilts in U.S. history when I was a kid. The Biltmore wasn’t one of the lessons, but seeing the estate sparks questions about the family and those who helped build the mansion. The tour shared info on the workers, their earnings, how they were treated by the Vanderbilts, the role of the family in creating jobs for the community.

While I may never be as affluent as the Vanderbilt family, it was fascinating seeing how they built an estate. I am extremely fortunate to have seen this home and those it was modeled after in France.

Start planning your trip to see the fall colors and opulence at Biltmore.