Friday, May 2, 2014

Asheville and the Biltmore Estate

Maggie and I capped off our bridge adventure with a couple of days in Asheville, North Carolina.  I cannot wait to go back and spend more time in the area.  (And with Allegiant Air flying direct from Punta Gorda to Asheville for quite reasonable fares, there's no reason not to!)  We had a wonderful time exploring the galleries in the Biltmore Village area and the River Arts District and did a bit of damage to our wallets in the process.

Any first visit to Asheville has to include a tour of the Biltmore Estate, home to George and  Edith Vanderbilt.  Having said that, I will admit that I was not that excited about the outing.  Looking at dusty old furniture isn't really my thing.  My enthusiasm quotient ratcheted up, though, the moment we drove through the gates.  

In the day of the horse and carriage, it took visitors an hour to travel the three miles from the front gate to the home. It took us nearly the same amount of time, what with stopping in at "will call" to get our tickets and riding a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the home.  And while that sounds kind of painful, it actually wasn't.  Every single person we encountered at the Estate was incredibly nice and full of interesting information, so it felt as if our tour began the moment we entered the welcome center.

Here are some tidbits of info about the Estate:  It was originally set on 125,000 acres of land (195 square miles) nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Estate is now a modest 8,000 acres, with over 85,000 acres of the Pisgah Forest having been sold to the federal government in 1914 for a price of $5 per acre.  The home itself is 175,000 square feet and boasts 65 fireplaces and 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms.  (Yes, there are more bathrooms than bedrooms.)  It took six years to build the house, which is constructed from almost 5,000 tons of Indiana limestone.  In 1894, there were 438 people working on the estate; today, there are more than 1500.

George Washington Vanderbilt by
Sargent (1890)  
Maggie and I opted for the audio tour of the home, and it was very well done.  Running the Biltmore Estate is now a family business, and George and Edith's granddaughter Dini Cecil Pickering is one of the many curators who shares stories about the Estate on the audio tour.   As you can imagine, there's quite a lot to tell.

Not surprisingly, the Estate's art collection caught my attention.  The "breakfast room" (which isn't as cozy as the words sound) is home to a couple of Renoirs.  Several rooms hold portraits done by John Singer Sargent (including portraits of Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect and landscape architect, respectively, of the Estate).  And there are more than 190 woodblock engravings by Albrecht Durer that I wished I'd had time to study.   I later learned (from the comfort of my couch) that the National Gallery of Art sent 67 paintings and 17 sculptures to the Biltmore Estate for safekeeping during WWII (a la "Monument Men").   (Click here to read more on this topic.)

George's library also grabbed my interest.  He owned 23,000 books, and the library proper holds 10,000 of the volumes.  (The narrator made a point of noting that George was a voracious reader rather than just a collector of tomes.)  Special entrances were built to the library from the guest quarters on the upper floor to facilitate easy access to reading material for Biltmore visitors.

The most unexpected wing of the house was the work-out facility.  The home boasts a 70,000 gallon indoor pool, complete with a diving board.  The water for the pool came from a mountain reservoir four miles away and was warmed using steam heat.  (Apparently, the water was warm by the time the pool was full, which is much more than I can say for my hot tub.)  With no chemicals to keep the pool clean, it was filled, heated, used and drained with each use.  Before or after their dip in the pool, guests could use the gym, which was decked out with Indian pins, parallel bars, a climbing ladder, a rowing machine and other instruments of torture.  The home also offered a bowling alley and a billiards table (housed upstairs in the "bachelor wing").  I'm sure all of these opportunities for physical activity--not to mention outdoor activities such as golf, hiking and fishing--were welcomed by the Vanderbilts' guests since the Estate had its own cows and was known for its delicious ice cream.

I've gone on too long here and feel that I've only scratched the surface.  Suffice it to say that there's lots to see at the Biltmore Estate in addition to the house.  The gardens go on and on, and we couldn't believe the gorgeous fields of wild flowers.  There's a winery and a farm and an inn.  And I'm sure there's more that we didn't have time to explore.  That's okay, though.  As we left the property to drop Maggie off at the airport, we both were plotting our respective returns to Asheville.  How nice to have found such a beautiful corner of the world.  

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