ASHEVILLE, NC, December 13, 2014 – Travel trivia: Where will you find one of the finest chateaus in the world? France, of course, and there are many, but if you said Asheville, North Carolina you would also be right on target.
George Vanderbilt had a dream, and he realized it on Christmas Eve in 1895 when he officially opened his country estate to family and friends in the mountains of North Carolina.
Though Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate is a year-round attraction, the Christmas tradition thrives even today for it is one of the best times to visit America’s largest home.
The home, which at the time was one of the largest ventures in residential architecture in American history, was designed by the famed architect Richard Morris Hunt who patterned his concept on three 16th century chateaux in France. Remarkably it took only six years to build thanks to a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials directly to the site. The construction site also featured its own brick factory and wood working shop.
When finished, the estate nestled atop 125,000 acres of land in what is now part of the Pisgah National Forest. The house itself featured four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.
Below the main living quarters in the basement were a swimming pool and gymnasium, complete with dressing rooms, a bowling alley, servants quarters and a huge kitchens which transported meals via dumbwaiters.
There was even an electric elevator from the entrance area to the sleeping quarters upstairs, which, in its day, was a considerable technological achievement.
The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also created Central Park in New York. Today, Olmstead’s portrait proudly hangs in the second story hallway proclaiming his accomplishment.
As a result of his landscape architecture at Biltmore, Olmstead’s environmental efforts and ability to reclaim farmland that had been overworked led to the establishment of America’s first managed forest.
In the mid-19th Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was known as the “Commodore,” began a family custom of developing luxurious residences throughout the country. The Commodore and his wife, Sophia, had 13 children, 37 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren in their 53-year marriage during which became one of the wealthiest families in America.
George, who was the youngest child, had little interest in the family’s industrialist empire, preferring to travel throughout Europe, Asia and Africa at every opportunity. Influenced by his mother’s cultural interests George became a collector of art and books at an early age leading to intellectual pursuits which are prominently displayed throughout the chateau today.
In the summer of 1898, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in a ceremony in Paris. Two years later, their only child, Cornelia, was born. Yet, despite its grandiosity and massive size, Biltmore was never occupied by more than three family members at any one time.
Among the antiques and furnishings, the walls of the banquet hall feature five of a set of seven Flemish tapestries woven with silk, wool and metallic thread between 1546 and 1553, depicting the love triangle from Roman mythology of Venus, Mars and Vulcan. The tapestries are approximately 15 feet tall and 30-40 feet in length.
An Empire walnut game table in the salon is a highlight with its ivory chess pieces that were used by Napoleon while exiled on St. Helena Island from 1815-1821. The room is also adorned by velvet wall hangings created for Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century French statesman.
With a collection of more than 23,000 volumes in eight languages, the two-story high library contains many leather-bound first editions. When the noted author Henry James visited Biltmore in 1905, he complained that his bedroom was a half a mile away from the “mile-long library.”
The elaborate gardens and grounds, including the All America Rose Garden, feature more than 250 varieties just to the left of the estate as you face its elegant entrance.
Even so, there is something unique about Biltmore at Christmas where giant trees rise to the top of the 70-foot ceiling at both ends of the banquet hall. Huge logs crackle in oversized fireplaces and choirs stroll through the parlors with songs of the season as cinnamon smells waft through the air from the kitchen below.
In the evenings a limited number of candlelight visits can be reserved for a unique experience that magically blends the traditions of Christmas with a once-upon-a-time atmosphere.
Though hard to imagine in a house so immense, thanks to the dedication and preservation of William Cecil, Sr., the grandson of George Vanderbilt, who now owns the chateau, it retains the warmth and ambience of a once golden age.
Cornelia, who died in 1976, continued to live in the house until 1956 when it was opened to the public. Since that time the estate has added a winery and a 213-room hotel on the property. The 8,000 acre chateau and gardens currently attract more than a million visitors each year. To savor its spirit to the fullest however, Biltmore at Christmas is special.
After all, it was Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt’s castle became a home.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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