Celebrate Christmas at Biltmore: America’s largest home

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, America's largest home, is truly a unique place to visit in North Carolina at Christmas.

ASHEVILLENovember 24, 2012 – Travel trivia: Where will you find one of the finest chateaus in the world? France, of course, and there are many, but if you said Asheville, North Carolina you would also be right on target.

George Vanderbilt had a dream, and he realized it on Christmas Eve in 1895 when he officially opened his country estate to family and friends in the mountains of North Carolina.

Though Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate is a year-round attraction, the Christmas tradition thrives even today for it is one of the best times to visit America’s largest home.

Biltmore Estate and grounds

The home, which at the time was one of the largest ventures in residential architecture in American history, was designed by the famed architect Richard Morris Hunt who patterned his concept on three 16th century chateaux in France. Remarkably it took only six years to build thanks to a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials directly to the site.

The construction site also featured its own brick factory and wood working shop.

When finished, the estate nestled atop 125,000 acres of land in what is now part of the Pisgah National Forest. The house itself featured four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. Below the main living quarters in the basement were a swimming pool and gymnasium, complete with dressing rooms, a bowling alley, servants quarters and a huge kitchens which transported meals via dumbwaiters.

There was even an electric elevator from the entrance area to the sleeping quarters upstairs, which, in its day, was a considerable technological achievement.

The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also created Central Park in New York. Today, Olmstead’s portrait proudly hangs in the second story hallway proclaiming his accomplishment. As a result of his landscape architecture at Biltmore, Olmstead’s environmental efforts and ability to reclaim farmland that had been overworked led to the establishment of America’s first managed forest. 

Stairs of azaleas at Biltmore

In the mid-19th Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was known as the “Commodore,” began a family custom of developing luxurious residences throughout the country. The Commodore and his wife, Sophia, had 13 children, 37 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren in their 53-year marriage during which became one of the wealthiest families in America.

George, who was the youngest child, had little interest in the family’s industrialist empire, preferring to travel throughout Europe, Asia and Africa at every opportunity. Influenced by his mother’s cultural interests George became a collector of art and books at an early age leading to intellectual pursuits which are prominently displayed throughout the chateau today.

In the summer of 1898, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in a ceremony in Paris. Two years later, their only child, Cornelia, was born.

Yet, even with a large family and space for all, despite its grandiosity and massive size, Biltmore was never occupied by more than three family members at any one time.

Cornelia, who died in 1976, continued to live in the house until 1956 when it was opened to the public.

Since that time the estate has added a winery and a 213-room hotel on the property. The 8,000 acre chateau and gardens currently attract more than a million visitors each year.

Among the antiques and furnishings, the walls of the banquet hall feature five of a set of seven Flemish tapestries woven with silk, wool and metallic thread between 1546 and 1553, depicting the Roman myth of the love triangle of Venus, Mars and Vulcan. The tapestries are approximately 15 feet tall and 30-40 feet in length.

An Empire walnut game table in the salon is a highlight with its ivory chess pieces that were used by Napoleon while exiled on St. Helena Island from 1815-1821. The room is also adorned by velvet wall hangings created for Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century French statesman.

With a collection of more than 23,000 volumes in eight languages, the two-story high library contains many leather-bound first editions. When the noted author Henry James visited Biltmore in 1905, he complained that his bedroom was a half a mile away from the “mile-long library.”

The elaborate gardens and grounds, including the All America Rose Garden, featuringmore than 250 varieties just to the left of the estate as you face its elegant entrance.

Biltmore’s famous gardens

Even so, there is something unique about Biltmore at Christmas where giant trees rise to the top of the 70-foot ceiling at both ends of the banquet hall. Huge logs crackle in oversized fireplaces and choirs stroll through the parlors with songs of the season as cinnamon smells waft through the air from the kitchen below.

In the evenings a limited number of candlelight visits can be reserved for a unique experience that magically blends the traditions of Christmas with a once-upon-a-time atmosphere.

Though hard to imagine in a house so immense, thanks to the dedication and preservation of now owner William Cecil, Sr., the grandson of George Vanderbilt, it retains the warmth and ambience of a once golden age.

 To savor its spirit to the fullest however, Biltmore at Christmas is special.

Banquet hall at Christmas

After all, it was Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt’s castle became a home.

Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in CharlotteNCTaylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club, which creates, and escorts customized tours to SwitzerlandFrance and Italy for groups of 12 or more.

Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@aol.com Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others.

As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 70 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries. He also played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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