Biltmore Estate is a historic house museum and tourist attraction in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore House, the main residence, is a Châteauesque-style mansion built for George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet (16,622.8m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet of living area). Still owned by George Vanderbilt's descendants, it remains one of the most prominent examples of Gilded Age mansions.
In the 1880s, at the height of the Gilded Age, George Washington Vanderbilt II began to make regular visits with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, to the Asheville area. He loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to build his own summer house in the area, which he called his 'little mountain escape'. His older brothers and sisters had built luxurious summer houses in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Hyde Park, New York.
Vanderbilt named his estate Biltmore, combining De Bilt (his ancestors' place of origin in the Netherlands) with more (mōr, Anglo-Saxon for 'moor', an open, rolling land). Vanderbilt bought almost 700 parcels of land, including over 50 farms and at least five cemeteries; a portion of the estate was once the community of Shiloh. A spokesperson for the estate said in 2017 that archives show much of the land 'was in very poor condition, and many of the farmers and other landowners were glad to sell.'
Construction of the house began in 1889. In order to facilitate such a large project, a woodworking factory and brick kiln, which produced 32,000 bricks a day, were built onsite, and a three-mile railroad spur was constructed to bring materials to the building site. Construction on the main house required the labor of about 1,000 workers and 60 stonemasons. Vanderbilt went on extensive trips overseas to purchase decor as construction on the house was in progress. He returned to North Carolina with thousands of furnishings for his newly built home including tapestries, hundreds of carpets, prints, linens, and decorative objects, all dating between the 15th century and the late 19th century. Among the few American-made items were the more practical oak drop-front desk, rocking chairs, a walnut grand piano, bronze candlesticks and a wicker wastebasket.
George Vanderbilt opened his opulent estate on Christmas Eve of 1895 to invited family and friends from across the country, who were encouraged to enjoy leisure and country pursuits. Notable guests to the estate over the years included author Edith Wharton, novelist Henry James, ambassadors Joseph Hodges Choate and Larz Anderson, and U.S. presidents. George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898 in Paris, France; their only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, was born at Biltmore in the Louis XV Room in 1900, and grew up at the estate.
Driven by the impact of the newly imposed income taxes, and the fact that the estate was getting harder to manage economically, Vanderbilt initiated the sale of 87,000 acres (35,000ha) to the federal government. After Vanderbilt's unexpected death in 1914 of complications from an emergency appendectomy, his widow completed the sale to carry out her husband's wish that the land remain unaltered, and that property became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest. Overwhelmed with running such a large estate, Edith began consolidating her interests and sold Biltmore Estate Industries in 1917 and Biltmore Village in 1921. Edith intermittently occupied the house, living in an apartment carved out of the former Bachelors' Wing, until the marriage of her daughter to John Francis Amherst Cecil in April 1924. The Cecils went on to have two sons who were born in the same room as their mother.
In an attempt to bolster the estate's financial situation during the Great Depression, Cornelia and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped the attraction would revitalize the area with tourism. Biltmore closed during World War II and in 1942, 62 paintings and 17 sculptures were moved to the estate by train from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to protect them in the event of an attack on the United States. The Music Room on the first floor was never finished, so it was used for storage until 1944, when the possibility of an attack became more remote. Among the works stored were the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and works by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Anthony van Dyck. David Finley, the gallery director, was a friend of Edith Vanderbilt and had stayed at the estate.
After the divorce of the Cecils in 1934, Cornelia left the estate never to return; however, John Cecil maintained his residence in the Bachelors' Wing until his death in 1954. Their eldest son, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil, occupied rooms in the wing until 1956. At that point Biltmore House ceased to be a family residence and continued to be operated as a historic house museum.
Their younger son William A. V. Cecil, Sr. returned to the estate in the late 1950s and joined his brother to manage the estate when it was in financial trouble and make it a profitable and self-sustaining enterprise like his grandfather envisioned. He eventually inherited the estate upon the death of his mother, Cornelia, in 1976, while his brother, George, inherited the then more profitable dairy farm which was split off into Biltmore Farms. In 1995, while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the estate, Cecil turned over control of the company to his son, William A. V. Cecil, Jr. The Biltmore Company is privately held. Of the 8,000 acres that make up Biltmore Estate, only 1.36 acres are in the city limits of Asheville, and the Biltmore House is not part of any municipality.
The estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, and remains a major tourist attraction in Western North Carolina, with 1.4 million visitors each year.
After the death of William A. V. Cecil in October 2017 and his wife Mimi Cecil in November, their daughter Dini Pickering is serving as board chair and their son Bill Cecil as CEO. The house is assessed at $157.2 million, although due to an agricultural deferment, county property taxes are paid on only $79.1 million of that.
Vanderbilt commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Châteauesque style. Hunt used French Renaissance châteaux as inspiration. Vanderbilt and Hunt had visited several in early 1889, including Château de Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord in France and Waddesdon Manor in England. These estates shared steeply pitched roofs, turrets, and sculptural ornamentation. Hunt sited the four-story Indiana limestone-built home to face east with a 375-foot facade to fit into the mountainous topography behind. The facade is asymmetrically balanced with two projecting wings connecting to the entrance tower with an open loggia to the left side and a windowed arcade to the right, which holds the Winter Garden that was fashionable during the Victorian era. during the Victorian era. The entrance tower contains a series of windows with decorated jambs that extend from the front door to the most decorated dormer at Biltmore on the fourth floor. The carved decorations include trefoils, flowing tracery, rosettes, gargoyles, and at prominent lookouts, grotesques. The staircase is one of the more prominent features of the east facade, with its three-story, highly decorated winding balustrade with carved statues of St. Louis and Joan of Arc by the Austrian-born architectural sculptor Karl Bitter.
The south facade is the house's smallest and is dominated by three large dormers on the east side and a polygonal turret on the west side. An arbor is attached to the house and is accessed from the library, which is located on th...