Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Day 2 - Biltmore Estates, Asheville, North Carolina

My goodness! I assumed this would be a really big house but I didn't quite expect such a conspicuous display of consumption. Small wonder this estate has become a self sustaining,, I guess you could call it. Who could afford to run a house like this these days? But with the cost of admission $60 a person along with $12.95 for a pictorial guide to the house and grounds and $20 for one lunch and $10.95 for a digital postcard (and the lady said I could copy the pictures if I wanted to so I'll try to upload pictures for all to see), all of which is what I spent today, I can well imagine that they are raking it in and doing a fine job of sustaining this historical masterpiece.

I've been to visit Newport, Rhode Island's summer 'cottages' where the great and wealthy tried mightily to outdo each other in building the biggest and most elaborate and sometimes downright tasteless mansions they could possibly afford. As big as those monsters are, I do believe this one is bigger. In fact, it's described as America's largest residence with 250 rooms in it. There are 33 family and guest bedrooms, 43 bathrooms (with toilets and running hot water, amazingly enough), 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, an indoor bowling alley, a billiards room, a two-story library with 10,000 volumes in eight languages and an indoor pool. There's also a Pellegrini ceiling painting in the library, The Chariot of Aurora, which came from the Pisani Palace in Venice. The house is settled cozily on 125,000 acres of forests, farms and a dairy, a 250-acre wooded park, five pleasure gardens, and 30 miles of roadways. I think this member of the Vanderbilt family out-Vanderbilted them all!

Where do I begin? I woke up late and got there around 12:00 am with a 1:00 appointment to see the house. With such a short time before my tour time began I walked through the Italian Gardens which were right off the left side of the house. Lots of leafy bowers, busts and statues, flowers I couldn't name and lily ponds all over the place. I then wandered back over to the side of the front entrance where all the cafe/coffee/ice cream vendors were and rested with a cup of coffee before starting my tour. I had been warned that the house would take about 1 1/2 hours to see and I wanted all the rest I could get.

Some background information here. George W. Vanderbilt opened this house in 1895 and brought his bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, to live there three years later. They had one child, Cornelia, who was born there and who would later marry the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil and they would both remain at Biltmore with Edith after George died in 1914.

The house became open to the public in the 1930's both to increase area tourism during the Depression and to offset the costs of preserving the estate. Even wealthy heiresses need a handout sometimes, I guess. This tradition became a family business and today Biltmore is owned and run by William Cecil, Vanderbilt's grandson, and his son and daughter assist the board of directors as CEO and advisor. There are 1,800 employees (when the Vanderbilts lived there, they had at least 35 servants in the house alone) who work to continue the preservation of this incredible home.

So why bother preserving it? Lordamighty! Thank heavens I've taken several art history classes because there was an incredibly diverse collection of different furniture styles, tapestries, carvings, porcelain vases from all over, cutlery and dishes by well known and expensive (think Baccarat crystal, for example), statues, a chess set owned by Napoleon, and countless paintings by well known artists such as John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, and James McNeill Whistler. The place is a walking treasure trove of historical art! Even the wallpaper and fabrics are of historical interest and have been either restored from the existing remnants or reproduced by the same company that produced the originals. I mean, you can't spit without hitting something that should be in a museum, which is actually what this house now is.

The bedrooms were decorated in wildly varied styles from Louis XVI to Neoclassical to Baroque to Rococo. In one of the bedrooms is a hand-painted 18th century Swiss porcelain tile chimney which Vanderbilt asked the architect to incorporate in the plans. It's pretty amazing, I'll admit. In the Louis XV room there is ornate cut and uncut silk velvet wallcoverings and is also where Cornelia was born and later on where Cornelia would give birth to her own two sons. Pretty elaborate furnishings to have around you while you scream the bloody walls down, ya?

Oh, I forgot to mention there is, of course, several sitting rooms and salons where guests could gather to chat, write letters, play games, etc. There was also a music room and a gymnasium and beside the indoor swimming pool were several dressing rooms where the guests could change into clothing considered proper for these activities. Think one-piece suits covering most of the body for both ladies and gentlemen and you'll get the picture.

There was also a smoking room where the male guests enjoyed their after-dinner cigars, pipes and brandy and where the women didn't come in; the gun room where Vanderbilt and his guests would select guns for their hunting expeditions on the estate; an indoor winter garden where guests could indulge their noses with exotic smelling flowers; a fountain in the entrance hall which had (and still has) a glass ceiling; and a bachelors' wing hallway where the single men could gather and talk dirty, I suppose.

The grand staircase goes all the way to the fourth floor and has an iron chandelier that hangs all the way down to the first floor. That must be one heck of a butterfly bolt hanging that baby up there! While walking down from the fourth floor I thought about sliding down the bannister but I think I would have been asked to leave if I did. But what a ride it would have been!

The banquet hall has a seven-story high ceiling and the table in there which could be expanded to an even larger size was set for a mere 32 people. Those would be your most intimate friends, of course. There were three different fireplaces heating the area at one end and at the other was a HUGE pipe organ in a loft. There were also Flemish tapestries hanging on the walls from the 1500's. Pretty darned nice, if I must say so.

The servants who worked here had it good, by the way. For those of you familiar with the Victorian era (or the Eduardian era as this actually was) or who have even watched "Upstairs Downstairs" on BBC, you will note that the servants' rooms were at the top of the house, unheated, and most slept two to a bed without much privacy. In this house, the servants had private rooms at the top of the house that were very nicely furnished and they were heated!!! It would have been ghastly cold in the winter without it but these folks had kind and thoughtful employers. They also had a sitting hall at both the top of the house and in the basement and a separate large room where they ate their meals. The chefs and the head housekeeper were the only ones who had rooms in the basement and they were very nicely furnished. Compared to the rooms above them, they were exceedingly plain, but the furniture matched and was of good quality. It wasn't just castoffs that the family no longer wanted to use which is what filled most servants' halls. These folks had it good!

Well, after the house tour I was pretty worn out so I cheated and did a drive-by photographic shooting of the gardens I could see from the road. I know I missed a lot but by then I was sincerely pooped. I drove another three miles down never-ending roads to Antler Village where I had my $20 lunch and where I took the pictures of the clematis, a robin bathing in a bird bath and other flowers that I liked. And after that I just went back to the RV site 'cause I wanted a shower, a nap and some coffee, in that order.

I'll upload the rest of the photos on Facebook so you can see everything. I wish I could upload more on this site but I'm limited. Oh, well.

Tomorrow I head towards Virginia where I'm stopping to see friend Jeanne, and then friend John. I don't know how far I will get so that will be a surprise to us all. Until tomorrow, expect a fantastic day!

Lessons Learned:

Just because Chopper is the kitty who throws up most of the time doesn't mean that NakedButt won't add to the mix. Right in the middle of my bed, of course.

Make sure the sewage hose from the RV is well connected to the extension hose when you pick it up. Undesirable biohazard accidents can occur if you don't. Thank heavens for gloves!


A sign by the Blueridge Parkway that I drove to Biltmore Estates: Billy Graham Training Center. Does that mean that you get training to become Billy Graham-like?

Why at the Biltmore Estate does the elevator (original to the house) only go up to the second floor when there are more guests and family rooms on the third? This meant that I had to walk up that damned grand staircase to get to both the third and the fourth and it was pretty tiring. Poop.

NakedButt is no longer sleeping in the litter box but she still has yet to sleep in the nice little cozy bed I made for her. Today I found her tucked away in a little carpeted area that I had thoughtlessly not stuffed anything into. I guess I'll just leave it open for her. Sigh...

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