Some houses are big, some houses are insanely big – and then there’s the Biltmore. It defies description today – probably the most common reaction when George Vanderbilt – grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt – decided he needed a pied-a-tere in a remote corner of Ashville, NC.
Talking about a good idea that got carried away. The Biltmore has 240 rooms (including closets and toilets according to our guide), an indoor pool, an indoor garden, servant quarters by the dozens – and no residents. The Vanderbilt’s only really lived there for 35 years – 2 years longer than I’ve owned my home. It took 5 years to build, many more years to furnish – and was opened to the public by Cornelia Vanderbilt (age 30) in 1930, mostly I’m guessing because the family had simply run out of money to maintain it. In any case, shortly afterwards she divorced her husband, left him to raise their 2 kids and tend to the monster of a house – and went to England. There she changed her name and lived quietly for a long time before she died. Today the home is still owned by her kids and grandkids.
All of which reminds me that money just doesn’t make you happy. Even lots and lots of money.
In the Wikipedia write-up – the authors speculate that George probably spent his entire inheritance on this house – an idea that while appealing, just doesn’t seem right. The family owned at least 4 other homes – so while this one might have been horribly expensive – in those days – it was probably considered just extravagant – but not ruinous. Nope – I think their lack of business smarts did them in, not just the house.
Anyway – our tour. We opted to not only pay for admittance ($49 each) – and get an audio head-set (another $10) – but to take not one but two of the topic specific tours ($17 each). I’d say we’d Vanderbilt out! The Butler’s tour was up first – and our cheerful and extremely knowledgeable guide lead us upstairs and down – showing us the room where the housekeeper lived, explaining the intercom system, letting us admire the freight elevator that even the staff couldn’t use, and letting us peek into Edith Vanderbilt’s toilet, bath and shower. One oddity – there was no sink. In those days – servants brought you water in a pitcher and you washed in a bowl. Kept people employed I’d imagine.
After the tour – we ate lunch in the Stable Cafe – in a horse stall of course. I shared a huge bowl of Mac n’Cheese with my sister. It was totally yummy. Then it was on to the audio tour of the house itself.
While the butler’s tour was interesting and informative – the house tour left you stunned. How could people imagine such a place – then execute it. Four floors plus a basement, glorious art, stunningly beautiful views (it was a great day – I’m sure that helped), huge pieces of furniture. The main dining room – used for family meals as well as banquets was huge – 3 stories high, hung with tapestries bought from Europe, and for musical entertainment – a huge organ.
We toured the bedrooms, admired the wall coverings, gasped in delight at the books in the library, admired the magnificent tile work in the indoor pool, and wondered at the distance between the master bedroom, the wife’s bedroom, and the childbirth room. I suppose if you have to change clothes 4 and 5 times a day – you need a lot of private space. (Oh I can’t wear that – it’s for eating lunch – and I’m going to stroll in the gardens – how silly of you!)
Our tour us through the kitchen, the pastry kitchen, and most interesting – the laundry room. I particularly loved the drying racks for sheets. Ever wonder how often they changed the sheets in those days? We did – and we asked. Daily was the answer! Imagine a team of laundry people whose only job was to keep the bed linen cleaned. Can you imagine – and no electric washers and dryers either. All done by hand.
We took so long – they closed the house around us – and we got to watch the highly trained and extremely informative staff get searched before heading home.
As the security guard explained – it’s for their benefit. If something goes missing – I can say – I searched them – they are clean.
We finally got up sufficient umpf to leave – but realizing that we hadn’t seen the gardens, or even finished up touring the house – we decided to take the $10 next day option. We shall clearly be Vanderbilting again tomorrow.