The Biltmore Estate in Ashevile, NC was built for the Vanderbilt family and opened its doors on Christmas Eve in 1895. The 250-room home was the vision of George Washington Vanderbilt II and was modeled after great country estates in France. It is the largest privately owned home in the US.
The first glimpse of the grand estate begins with this vista, where one can admire the work of architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. On the day we visited, also random machinery right smack in the center of the view. Is that distracting at all?
For $59/person, we were able to wander the grounds and parts of the house all day long. There are additional fees for an audio guide or themed specialty tours. There are also Segway tours, Land Rover driving lessons, carriage rides, and much more. Exterior photography is allowed, so here are some visual treats:
Once inside, rules be damned, I had to snap a quick photo of this ornate ceiling:
And also the bowling alley in the basement:
The Palm House in the Conservatory features a soaring ceiling to house tall palms:
Everywhere you look you find beautifully crafted details, like the back of this wrought iron bench:
Even the old carriage house and stables are appropriately opulent. They are now essentially a mall filled with overpriced food and beverages and plenty of Biltmore-branded products to “spark your personal style with items inspired by the warmth and allure of Biltmore:”
So, this was a visually overwhelming but inspiring experience. I’ve got three main takeaways. First off, the grandeur of the estate is worth seeing, as every detail has been impeccably hand-crafted to the highest standards. At Biltmore, every single thing is the best that money can buy. Everything is larger and grander than you may imagine [see some interior photos here; my favorite room is the library].
Even now, as various rooms are being restored, expert professionals are hired to faithfully reproduce various elements of the space. My favorite experience was a video of reproduction wallpaper being block-printed by hand.
Second, we had the bad luck of visiting right as the staff was preparing for the annual Christmas at Biltmore. So, every single room on the first floor contained ladders, library carts, boxes full of ornaments, and occasionally docents wrestling with the decorations. Each room was in a state of pre-holiday disarray, and the steep admission price should have been discounted to reflect that visual distraction. Or, dress up the docents in servant costumes so that they become part of the eye candy on display.
Third, there is something very strange about the humble 99% paying a lot of money to tour the home belonging to the tippy-top of the 1%. Every single part of the experience seemed outrageously priced with equally outrageous up-sells around every corner and more opportunities for branded shopping than I could have possibly imagined.
In so many ways, the Biltmore Estate is really a grand monument to crass consumption and, while I can appreciate the original craftsmanship that went into the making of the estate, the auxiliary tourist traps are pretty horrifying. My favorite example of this is Biltmore Inspirations — “an exciting, new home-based party plan business from Biltmore.” Ha, a Tupperware party for the aspirational set!