“Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; we know not exactly when or how.”Fredrick Law Olmsted
I can’t even guess how long I’ve been obsessed with the Vanderbilts. This was even before I found out that my boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, is the third great-grandson of the railroad tycoon, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Many years later, I became a tour director. I lost my mind when it became my job to bring guests to the Marble House and the Breakers, both Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. I was often more excited than many of the people on my coach, which was quite entertaining for many of them.
George Washington Vanderbilt II, the Commodore’s grandson, loved the Blue Ridge Mountains. He built this summer home for himself in Asheville, North Carolina. It has since been visited by several U.S. presidents including William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Hosting notable guests was pretty easy, considering there are 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. It has four acres of floor space. It’s freaking massive.
It is the largest privately owned home in the United States.
Needless to say, the grounds are extensive, the gardens exceptional and even their carriage house and stables are beautiful. You can easily spend hours wandering the grounds alone. Then, take as many tours as your budget allows. You will not be disappointed.
The Biltmore’s grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is often lovingly referred to as the “Father of Landscape Architecture in America.” You may know him as the co-designer of Central Park in New York City, but his firm completed over 500 projects.
He was born in 1822 and lived a pretty interesting life before he became well known. He was a farmer, seaman, and a journalist who founded The Nation magazine, which is still in publication today. During the Civil War, he worked for the American Red Cross, then called the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
George Vanderbilt approached Olmsted in 1888 to advise him on the 2,000 acres he had purchased in North Carolina. George would eventually purchase 125,000 acres for the estate. Olmsted had already worked on multiple Vanderbilt mansions and was good friends with George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt. Who doesn’t want to be BFFs with a Vanderbilt during the Guilded Age?
George told Olmsted, “Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish.”
Olmsted was quite blunt and replied, “The soil seems to be generally poor. The woods are miserable, all the good trees having again and again been culled out and only the runts left. The topography is most unsuitable for anything that can properly be called park scenery. My advice would be to make a small park in which you look from your house, make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly and…keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure and…make the rest a forest.”
And it turned out gorgeous!
Olmsted said Biltmore was “the most permanently important public work” of his career.
There are endless books on the Biltmore and the Vanderbilts. One of my favorite facts is that this building is modeled on the Royal Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley in France, which was the residence of several French kings.
Biltmore was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who you may know as the designer of the Great Hall in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.
For more information on the estate: https://www.biltmore.com