Friday, March 25, 2011

Biltmore House and Gardens

Last fall, I returned to the mountains of North Carolina to revisit some of my favorite landmarks. One, in particular, has always fascinated me: the Biltmore House. I fondly remember many childhood trips in the mountains, traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting family friends in Celo, camping and picnicking, plunging all-nippley into Toe River, screaming down Sliding Rock, exploring the site of the Biltmore Forest School, visiting the Biltmore Estate, and stopping at the Biltmore Dairy shop for scoops of ice cream. (My grandmother agreed that Jersey cows produced the best.) Located beyond a gatehouse nearly the size of a modest home, even by today's standards, one of America's finest landmarks is mostly hidden from view. Follow me to see what lies behind the garden wall.

The story of Biltmore House and Gardens is one of enterprise. Located in Asheville, NC, the house is a grand New World chateau. The visionary owner was George Vanderbilt, grandson of the shipping and railroad entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilt family descended from Jan Aertszoon Van der Bilt, a Dutch immigrant to New York (1650), who began his new life as an indentured servant. Apparently, Jan recognized a good opportunity, even as a servant, and latched onto it. By the time Jan's great-great-grandson, Cornelius, came along, the family was more comfortable financially. The Vanderbilt family built upon good foundations. But it was Cornelius who became its financial patriarch. While working for his father's ferry service in New York harbor, Cornelius learned from his father and decided, at age 16, to begin his own ferry service nearby. With a keen mind for business, Cornelius expanded his steamship and railroad ventures through very troubled times to become one of America's wealthiest men.

George Vanderbilt II, grandson of Cornelius, was less concerned about business. He was an art lover, collector and traveler by nature, but kept good principles in mind. While touring in the North Carolina mountains with his mother, at the age of 26, he decided to build a home there. Construction was begun by 1889. Quietly purchasing real estate, he eventually amassed an estate of about 228 square miles.

George hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead to help him with the work. Hunt is well-known for his designs including the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clark Hall at Case Western Reserve University, and other Vanderbilt mansions unfortunately demolished. Hunt co-founded the American Institute of Architects. Olmstead and his firm are as famous for landmarks such as New York City's Central Park, numerous other parks, and many academic campuses. Craftsmen, builders and laborers from as near as down the road and from as far as Europe were brought to work on the project. A small village sprang up around the construction site. The results are the magnificent house and gardens you can visit today. Inspired by art of the French Renaissance and chateaux of the Loire Valley, the Biltmore House is a masterpiece.

Though intended to be a private residence, Vanderbilt envisioned Biltmore as a sustainable estate based upon progressive agriculture, dairy and forestry enterprises. Many of the parcels he had purchased from locals had been depleted by poor farming and timber practices. Olmstead suggested that Vanderbilt hire Gifford Pinchot to manage the land. The Vanderbilt estate became "The Cradle of Forestry" in the United States.

George was still a bachelor when he opened Biltmore House in 1895. Two years later, he met Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, married her in 1898, honeymooned in Europe, and brought her to Biltmore. They had one child, daughter Cornelia (1900-1976). Biltmore became a home for hospitality, diplomacy, scientific enquiry and the arts.

Vanderbilt died in 1914 of complications following an appendectomy. Edith raised Cornelia alone at Biltmore. In 1924 Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil, a British diplomat. Cecil was a descendent of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and chief advisor to Elizabeth I. Cecil opened the house to the public in 1930 to fund the continuing operation of the estate and generate interest in local tourism. The Cecil family owns and operates Biltmore today, and their enterprises continue to grow and flourish.

When you visit Biltmore House, you can view the surrounding countryside almost as though little has changed since the 1890s, except for the tower on Mt. Pisgah. Never mind that interstate highways and the city of Asheville have grown up around it. Biltmore remains as grand and peaceful as it seemed in the Gilded Age.

After touring the home, the garden visitor will pass through the magnificent wisteria arbor on the way to the shrub garden. Many of the shrubs are under-planted with perennials blooming in season. Paved paths make the walk quite comfortable. Though we visited in October, the spring garden trail was as beautiful in fall, often offering glimpses of the conservatory and the walled garden. Other trails wind through the surrounding woodland, featuring naturalistic plantings ranging from rhododendrons to bog gardens.

The Biltmore conservatory is a delight. Various sections showcase tropical plants as well as cacti and succulents. Though you might think that the gardens of Biltmore house are too grand and ambitious for the backyard gardener, many displays present ideas easy enough for the casual hobbyist to adapt. Container gardens, potted arrangements, perennial borders, interesting plant combinations, and even bird house displays will inspire you. I was impressed with the simple elegance of this dish of sedum adorning the south terrace of the house. There's always something to surprise, like this unique variegated kudzu vine, for example.

There is really too much to see and do at Biltmore House than will fit into a one-day visit. I recommend buying a two-day pass so that you can enjoy the grand enterprise at a leisurely pace. If you live near enough, purchase an annual pass and visit at least once each season.

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