Today we’ll take a quick look at one of the many fun, amazing or cool day trips from Knoxville. It’s one of the great things about our city that a two or three hour trip in one direction or another lands you in a very different and interesting place. I’ve written before about Asheville, Chattanooga and Abingdon. I’ve not written specifically about Biltmore and it’s on my mind because we took the two-hour drive last weekend.
We actually started our day in Black Mountain which is about thirty minutes east of Biltmore. We shopped a bit and enjoyed tea at Dobra Tea and a great lunch at the Veranda Cafe. It’s not always easy keeping a crowd of seven happy when the crowd ranges from 9 months to 58-years-old, but we all had a great time and loved both these places.
After an ill-fated attempt to stop in at the Grove Park Inn (they were allowing no one but registered guests to stop – a lot of people out there have a lot of money and they are spending it), we drove to Biltmore. Tickets aren’t cheap. We were determined to see the Christmas decorations by candlelight and did so on the last available night at a cost of about $90 per adult (children under 10 free). This is actually the least expensive time of the year to visit, with tickets currently running around $60 per adult for a daytime tour.
The grounds and the mansion are, of course, magnificent. The grounds include gardens – which are best viewed in spring, of course – and many acres of wooded areas. Also included on the grounds is a hotel, winery and dairy farm. Given that the weather was cold and we’ve visited before, we focused on the mansion itself. I was very disappointed to learn no photography was allowed for our tour, whereas I’d expected to see “no flash allowed.” I could have taken some beautiful photographs.
Fittingly for our Christmas season visit, George Vanderbilt first opened the home to his family on Christmas eve, 1895. The 120-year-old home includes a massive entrance hall and an indoor winter garden. Billiard rooms, hunting rooms (with guns for hunting – not actual hunting in the home), a 70,000 gallon swimming pool with underwater lighting, a two-lane bowling alley, several parlors, a small gymnasium and a library all offered amusements for guests.
The great banquet hall features Flemish tapestries from the 1500s and a pipe organ for the guests entertainment during what were often 7-to-10 course dinners. As many as five crystal glasses would be set at each plate to enjoy wine pairings throughout the meal. Through this room and others, numerous works of art hang on the walls from artists such as Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, James Whistler and other well-known artists.
The home was built with the most modern amenities, including electricity – which very few had at that time – and bathrooms. In fact, the home contains 43 bathrooms. To support the lavish lifestyle of the residents, a massive underground system including servant’s bedrooms. While servants in the home had private, heated quarters, they also worked virtually around the clock with one afternoon and one evening off each week and a half-day off every-other Sunday. A pastry kitchen, rotisserie kitchen, main kitchen, kitchen pantry, walk-in refriderators, laundry and drying rooms were also hidden below ground.
The estate currently includes 8,000 acres (which is much smaller than its original size) and the home itself includes 178,926 square feet. It is the largest privately owned residence in the United States and is an example of both a French Chateau style and the pinnacle of gilded age excess. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, the intention was to reflect the chateaus in France visited by George Vanderbilt. A building nearby housed Vanderbilt’s 20 carriages and the construction of the home is thought to have depleted his fortune.
Some other numbers to help readers fathom the size of the place: It contains for interior acres, including 252 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The largest room is the banquet room measuring 42X72 feet. The library contains over 10,000 volumes, but the home held books throughout its rooms and hallways totaling over 23,000. The estate originally included 125,000 acres or 195 square miles.
I’ll confess, I can’t visit without thinking of our current national situation with a shrinking middle class and a top one percent that dwarfs the resources of the ninety-nine percent. This kind of lifestyle is not possible without the impoverishment of large numbers of servants. All of which offers a great opportunity for constructive conversation with children.
That aside, the place is beautiful and a special place to visit. It’s as close to a castle as we’ve got nearby, Williamswood Castle and Schulz Brau Brewing aside. It makes for a magical trip outside our normal day-to-day and children are wowed. It’s another great short trip from our little city.