The Biltmore Estate: The Least Private Home in America

Few private homes in America can boast of hosting illustrious guests such as presidents, princes, and renowned authors within their walls. Fewer still can claim to have roles in numerous major motion pictures such as Patch Adams, Hannibal, and Forrest Gump. Then again, the Biltmore Estate is anything but a typical home. At over 135,000 square feet, the Biltmore Estate is the largest private residence in America. Nestled in the serene mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, the estate is known across America not just for its size, but for its luxurious grandeur. A testament to the Gilded Age, the opulence and intricacy of Biltmore’s structural design attracts nearly a million visitors a year, helping to maintain Asheville’s status as a must see destination in America. The Biltmore Estate is an architectural achievement that should be noted for its wide historical and influential importance in Asheville, as its very construction brought about irreversible artistic, economic, and environmental change to the region.

As one of the largest tourist attractions in America, the Biltmore Estate is an economic giant in western North Carolina. Photograph taken by Doug Coldwell, 2009.

Asheville remained relatively secluded until the construction of the railroad in 1880, when it became much easier for tourists to descend on the region in swarms seeking to escape the blistering southern heat or New England chill. One of these tourists was none other than George Vanderbilt, the youngest child of William H. Vanderbilt, a man who inherited a financial fortune the likes of which would make heads spin. George Vanderbilt and his mother first visited Asheville in 1888 hoping to find relief for the woman’s chronic malaria, as Asheville had a reputation as a “healing environment” due to its altitude and mild climate (Cecil 105).

An avid enthusiast of all things artistic, Vanderbilt greatly appreciated the picturesque forests and scenic mountains of Asheville’s countryside. Immediately, Vanderbilt began to purchase land for a country estate, amassing several thousand acres by the end of the year. However, his vision for a country getaway was far grander than anyone expected. Vanderbilt wanted to create a “self-sustaining estate” that could garner its own income and maintain itself for future generations of Vanderbilts. He based his plans off of traditional English manors, complete with tenant farms, churches, and village schools (Covington 20).

Wanting only the best, Vanderbilt hired a team of talented designers including architects Richard Morris Hunt and Richard Sharp Smith and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to carry out his ambitious vision for the Biltmore Estate. These architects, described as “the very best men for the purpose in the country, probably the best in the world” (Poindexter 366) were hardly newcomers to the architectural scene of the 19th century. Hunt was a renowned architect who had worked closely with the Vanderbilts on previous projects, and Olmsted was already well-known for designing New York City’s Central Park as well as a number of other parks and gardens. Together, the designers constructed plans to build an estate that would rival those of European royalty.

The Biltmore Estate circa 1902. Photograph taken by William Henry Jackson for the Detroit Publishing Company.

In 1900 columnist Philip Poindexter wrote that concerning the construction of the Biltmore Estate, “Nothing appear[ed] to have been done for the sake of prettiness. Mr. Olmstead scorned to be pretty, and chose to be simple and grand.” (368) However, at over 4 acres of floor space alone and featuring 250 rooms, one would hardly just describe the Biltmore Estate as simple.

Construction of the 125,000 acre estate began in 1889 and proved to be an extensive ordeal. Even at the end of six years when George Vanderbilt opened the house for family and friends, additions and renovations continued for years. Before even beginning work on the estate itself, a brick factory, woodworking studio, and three-mile railroad spur to the site were built in order to create and transport the necessary building materials. Primary architect Richard Hunt took ideas from various manors and mansions across Europe and settled on designing the estate after the style of the French Renaissance chateaux, in particular, the magnificent Chateau de Blois, Chenonceau, and Chambord manors (Covington 21). Aspects of the Biltmore Estate that most resemble these distinguished manors include the steep pitched roof, the stair tower, and the impressive gargoyles and spires that decorate the roof of the estate.

Château de Blois, France. This manor is the main influence behind the Biltmore Estate's architectural style. Photograph taken by Christophe Finot, 2005

The interior boasted 250 rooms, 34 of which are master bedrooms and 43 of which are bathrooms. The house includes 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, a bowling alley, gymnasium, and an indoor swimming pool even though Vanderbilt himself couldn’t swim. A massive iron chandelier hanging from a single point in the center of the house served as the main focal point of the manor. Vanderbilt literally left nothing to be desired in the house and provided for every possible modern convenience. The house was fully wired for electricity, included three boilers to centrally carry heat to every room, and had elevators take guests and staff to their respective destinations (Covington 21).

Reflecting the public opinion of the time period, Poindexter wrote that “Mr. Vanderbilt, while gratifying his own taste, is also attempting on pretty large lines to do a public service” (373). While noisy construction and excavation rarely bring to mind images of public service or environmental protection, Vanderbilt, perhaps unintentionally, undoubtedly changed the city of Asheville for the better. Environmentally, landscape architect Olmstead was responsible for creating America’s first managed forest on the ground of the Biltmore Estate. He also pioneered reclamation practices of eroded and nutrient-deprived woodland by removing damaged trees and reforesting the patches of land. Vanderbilt also hired German forester Carl A. Schenck to supervise his forests. Schenck founded the Biltmore Forest School, the first of its kind to produce students knowledgeable in forestry techniques (Covington 26). Secondly, at the time of construction, Vanderbilt was the largest employer in western North Carolina, attracting hundreds of craftsmen and laborers to Asheville (Covington 21). Even today, the Biltmore Estate remains an economic giant in the region, hiring hundreds of workers to assist with the day to day dealings of the estate.

Most importantly, the structural design of the Biltmore estate pervaded the surrounding architecture of Asheville, providing an influence that can still be seen today. Biltmore Village, including All Souls Church and Parish Hall, the Biltmore Estate Office, and the Biltmore Depot were modeled after the architecture of the house itself.

A building in Biltmore Village in Asheville, North Carolina built in the same architectural vein as the Biltmore Estate. Photograph taken by Michael Sprague, 2005.

Richard Sharp Smith, the overseeing architect for the Biltmore Estate, also designed the lavish rental community of Victoria and the Young Men’s Institute in downtown Asheville in the same style.

The Young Men's Institute designed by Richard Sharp Smith, the overseeing architect of the Biltmore Estate. Photograph taken by Tim Buchman.

All of these buildings had the tell-tale signs of a “Biltmore style” of architecture, implementing a mixture of brick, pebbledash, and heavy timbers into the design (Best 10). In addition, many craftsmen employed to work on the Biltmore stayed in Asheville after construction finished and used their talents for other projects. In particular, architect Raphael Gaustavino designed Asheville’s noted Church of St. Lawrence after contributing to the construction of the Biltmore Estate (Architecture in Asheville).

The Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina is well known for its Spanish Renaissance architecture designed by architect Raphael Gaustavino.

There is no doubt that the city of Asheville boasts as many architectural styles as cities two or three times its size. The sheer variety is a testament to the growth and maturing of Asheville through the years, from an isolated town to a thriving urban center. Described as “the most beautiful piece of architecture we have in this country” (Poindexter 373), the Biltmore Estate is undoubtedly the most recognized architectural attraction in Asheville. The importance of the estate in the history of Asheville is unmistakable; its mystery and extravagance attracted crowds that flocked to the then-petite city, becoming an economic giant in the region and putting Asheville on the map as a popular tourist destination. Its structural style infused the streets of Asheville in the 1800s, lending architectural inspiration to many later buildings. As long as it stands, the Biltmore Estate will be recognized in North Carolina and across America as one of the most important historic landmarks in the nation.

Works Cited

“Asheville, NC: Architecture in Asheville.” National Registrar of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. National Registrar of Historic Places, n.d. Web. 24 Feb 2011.

Best, John Hardin, Kate Gunn, and Deena Knight. An Architect and His Times: Richard Sharp Smith: A Retrospective. Asheville, N.C.: Hewitt Press, 1995. 8-13. Print.

Cecil, William A.V. Biltmore: The Vision and Reality of George Washington Vanderbilt, Richard Morris Hunt, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Asheville, N.C.: Biltmore Co., 1972. Print.

Covington, Howard E. Lady on the Hill: How Biltmore Estate Became an American Icon. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2006. Print.

Poindexter, Philip. ” The Biltmore Estate.” Ainslee’s Magazine. 1900: 365-73. Print.

About the author

Sasha Karpinski is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One Response to The Biltmore Estate: The Least Private Home in America

  1. Elvis says:

    Hi my friend! I want to say that this post is amazing, nice
    written and come with almost all important
    infos. I’d like to look more posts like this .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *