Descended from a Dutch farmer, Cornelius Vanderbilt established a huge shipping and railroad empire. When he died in 1877 it is estimated that he was worth about $100 million, a huge sum in those days. Cornelius left most of his money to his son William, but also left money to William’s four sons of whom George Washington Vanderbilt II was the youngest. George showed little interest in business so when his father died he inherited more money but not the Vanderbilt businesses. His main interests were in books and art. During his travels George fell in love with the mountains of North Carolina, so in 1888 he decided to build his summer estate in those mountains near the town of Asheville. Thus was born the Biltmore Estate, one of the most opulent in the USA.
Biltmore House from the Esplanade
George Vanderbilt wanted a house that could compete with the grandeur of the surrounding mountains so to design the house he engaged one of the best architects of the era, Richard Morris Hunt. With its 238 metre (780 foot) façade it was to be the largest of all of the Vanderbilt houses. The design of the 250 room house was based on the great French Châteaux of the Loire Valley. George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House in 1895 even though it was far from complete. George filled the mansion with antiques, art, books, tapestries and Oriental carpets. However, dwindling reserves of money meant that some rooms were never furnished and some land had to be sold off. George died in 1914 and he left the Biltmore Estate to his only child, Cornelia.
Biltmore House from South Terrace
In 1930 Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and her husband, British aristocrat John Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore House to the public. Family members continued to live in the house until 1956, but since then it has been purely a house museum. The house is still owned by descendants of George Vanderbilt.
Interior of Conservatory
The glass roof of the conservatory provided an environment suitable for growing exotic plants such as palms, orchids, and ferns. George Vanderbilt also used it to provide flowers and plants for display in the house. The Conservatory continues to be used for growing much the same plants as in George Vanderbilt’s day.
Conservatory from Walled Garden
Away from the house, Biltmore has more features typical of a grand European house. The walled garden was intended to be an English kitchen garden for growing vegetables, but George Vanderbilt insisted that it should be an ornamental garden. At the bottom of the walled garden is the Conservatory which was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. The central part of the conservatory is the palm house and adjoining it are a cool house, a hot house and an orchid house.
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The grounds at the Biltmore Estate were the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the best landscape designers of the era. He designed the various gardens including the walled garden and the Italian garden. This picture shows the grand view up the esplanade from the front of the house.
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