The Biltmore Estate (August 14)

And then, fresh from a night of camping, our family descended upon the fancy-pants Biltmore. 🙂

Okay, so it’s the largest private home in America. It was built in the late 1890’s by George Vanderbilt, who at that time was considered the most eligible bachelor in America. He would, in a few years, find a Mrs. Biltmore to share the estate with him, and they would go on to have a daughter who would marry and inherit the property, and who will one day pass it on to her children. He was what you might call independently wealthy. Having fallen in love with these North Carolina hills, he purchased thousands of acres upon which to build his (tongue-in-cheek) “country cottage.” It was built to impress, to entertain, and maybe also to innovate, as he showcased the most modern farming techniques with the aim of creating a working estate that was self-sustaining and exported surplus to the community. These are still stated aims of the estate, which of course continues to operate the main house as a tourist-attraction, maintains stables for trail rides, and continues to grow and expand winery and farm-to-table ventures.

I, personally, wasn’t overly interested in the imposing architecture or the lavish interior decorating. I get it, the guy was super-proud of himself and endlessly-resourced to procure the best at every turn. I was  looking forward to seeing some great period furniture, which Joe would find educational and inspirational. And, I was really looking forward to seeing the equipment that made the house run! It was a big place with a lot of servants and some fancy parties – so what were the kitchens like back then? Lights and heating? Sinks and toilets and showers? Food storage? Since we try to live more simply, I just thought it would be neat to see what kinds of things were used to run such a big place in the early days of electricity and plumbing. 

And the kids…Well, the kids would just have to find enjoyment where they could along the way…

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Okay, you can’t touch the water fountain, but you can blow on it, right? Right, Mom? Look, look, look, when I blow it, it moves!

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It was a very cool place. And it was fun to the see the pipe organ, and the beautiful old windows, and the carved stone walls, and the old stoves and refrigeration cabinets and dumbwaiters and speaking tubes…It was amazing to hear that the electricity was provided by the original DC generator, which is still in operation, and that the estate was heated throughout the day by steam, and at night by fireplaces, because it was considered that sleeping in steam heating was bad for your health. It was interesting to learn that there are no sinks in any of the 43 guest baths, not because the technology wasn’t available, but because it was considered a high standard of luxury, and an elegant European custom, to have hot wash-water delivered in a pitcher by a servant. It was a hoot to see an ornate wooden armchair made to fit over the porcelain toilet. And it was definitely fun to go down through the tunnels to the old pool and bowling alley and gymnasium!

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It was lovely (though hot!) to wander the gardens and visit the enormous conservatory…

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And I giggled because the “small” gardener’s cottage beside the conservatory was the only structure that I could personally imagine ever living in on this estate!

But the best value of the day, by far, was the stop at the Confectioner’s gift shop, where maple candy, chocolate truffles, and many-colored lollipops supplied afternoon pick-me-ups!

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It was a fast-moving visit, to be sure! With so many daily visitors, the Biltmore estate really capitalizes on time. Even the self-guided tour follows a well-roped predetermined path, to keep traffic moving smoothly and efficiently in the right direction…Staff members are liberally sprinkled throughout the route, to offer tidbits of history, answer questions, and make sure you’re staying in line 🙂

Happily, I didn’t realize until after we finished our self-guided tour, as I browsed the pamphlet while we enjoyed some refreshments in the courtyard, that family photos are not allowed during your estate tours. That’s why, I realized, there is a single stop along the track where staff-members will take your photo, available at the kiosk at the end of your tour for a nominal charge – we hope you smiled! 🙂

Even more happily, I totally forgot about that rule again when we completed our Behind the Scenes tour and came down the Grand Staircase! 

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We even managed to be on the move and on our way out the door before the nice staff lady could make her way over to remind us that family photos are strictly unallowed, for the enjoyment of all guests.

So, we did enjoy our visit. The estate was certainly grand. The business model was down to a science, very well-executed. The kids did an amazing job finding enjoyment throughout. And we did learn and see and discover lots of interesting and inspirational and educational things…And all just in time, as the dark clouds rolled in over the forested hills…

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And the slate towers…

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And we prepared to head on down the road, northward-bound!


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