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  • Writer's picture Lance Williams


Since half my readers are in, or headed to, the Blue Ridge, what could be more fitting that


a missive about the man-made jewel of the region, Biltmore House.

In a highbrow riff on "Newport Cottages" (those monster mansions in Rhode Island), rich kid, George Vanderbilt dubbed his architectural behemoth, "My little mountain escape". An "escape" who's outlandish size and cost, lightened his wallet by $5M, at least half of his inheritance as the scion of one of the world's richest men.

In a day of "making an impression" George Vanderbilt hit a grand slam.

You count help by exclaim over the scale of the "largest private home in America": Square footage, four acres, 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 70,000 gallon indoor pool, front elevation, 375 long,125,000 acres, 35 family and guest bedrooms, two elevators, bowling alleys, etc., etc.

But, what struck me, as we visited a couple of months ago, wasn't the overwhelming scale, but the zealous attention to detail and innovation.

With stone, marble, leather slate, copper, cement arriving by a custom made three mile railroad spur, 1,000 workers labored on the limestone folly, one wit dubbing the French inspired chateau "in the Nouveau Riche Style."

And what labor! 100's of feet above your head you spy and intricately carved gargoyle. Nearly out of site, there's the tiniest hand carved stone grotesque, there are layers of stone tracery (stone "lacework"), stone columns bristle with intricate Byzantine carving. (Stone carvers were at the top of the food chain, paid $4.50 a day; what most laborers made in a week).

Those dozens of bathrooms? They were supplied with cold and HOT running water; half of Americans didn't have that luxury until nearly five decades later. Central heat? Check. Electricity? Ditto. It wasn't until 1925 that electricity even reached 50% of American households. Vanderbilt had it in 1895! When our great grandmothers were stoking the "ice box" with huge ice blocks, the Vanderbilts were chillin' with electric refrigerators!

And, while it's a massive pile, because it doesn't blind with gilt and crystal, there's a rustic, mountain charm to the fanciful cake-icing ceilings, intricately carved woodwork, sit-a-spell club chairs, mountain vistas at every turn.

But, it's the "below stairs" world that's most fascinating. Redolent of scenes from Downton Abbey, you conjure masses of servants hurtling through the pantries, kitchens, pastry rooms, silver closets, laundry rooms, and dozens of staff bedrooms.

The basement also holds dozens of guest luxuries: Private dressing rooms for the day's activities: Riding, swimming, bowling, work out togs for the gym, or outdoor gear for strolling the 75 acres of gardens, with massive glas conservatory, and a kaleidoscope of flowers, fountains, tea houses, pergolas, and forest.

The price of admission might seem a little steep: $73 a pop. But, don't demure. Take your kids. It's a history, civics, art, architecture, sociology course all rolled into one big, staggering gob smacking heap! OH WHAT A LIFE!

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