I’m learning, as many of us are, about the importance of contextualizing the places we inhabit or visit in the cultures of the many people who have passed through or laid claim to them over the years. Native Land has been a great help with this. It’s a slowly but surely process that I’m adopting, to do my research, apply the lenses of those cultures, and understand how I can better help them in the fight against the injustices they experience. I invite you to join in. Land acknowledgements are just the first tiny baby steps.
For those of you who may not know, Biltmore House and Gardens is an 8,000-acre estate built by George W. Vanderbilt in 1895. Yes, of those Vanderbilts. And yes, the W in his name does stand for Washington. I know, I laughed out loud too. What isn’t as well communicated by or about the aforementioned estate is how it displaced many formerly enslaved people in the old Shiloh neighborhood of Western North Carolina. Buncombe County, where Asheville (home to Biltmore) is located, was largely built up through the labor of enslaved people. Another lens.
Before we go any further, let me also remind you, Dear Reader, of the fact that I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island. Why is that important, Cass? Good point. It’s important for any number of reasons, so perhaps I should have posed a more specific question on your behalf. Why is that relevant, Cass? There we go. But, let’s take a second to cover both.
It’s important because Newport has its own history with slavery. A history that I unfortunately did not learn much about during my 18 years of living there. Not only was Newport a major trading port for enslaved people forced to come to North America (many of them children), but it also heavily consumed the products of enslaved people’s labor in the West Indies: sugar and molasses, the keys to a burgeoning rum distillation and distribution industry.
Many enslaved people were relied upon for their skilled labor in trades such as rope, barrel, furniture, and candle making, masonry, carpentry, shipbuilding, rum distilling, and silversmithing. Brown University, Touro Synagogue (the oldest existing synagogue in North America), Redwood Library (the oldest extant library in America), and the United States Navy were all built from the profits of Rhode Island slave traders.
It’s relevant because Newport happens to be home to many mansions, also affectionately known as summer homes, and of those many mansions, or summer homes, quite a few belonged to the very same Vanderbilts that constructed Biltmore. Hence my desire, nay, my need, to visit the North Carolina estate and draw the connections between the mansions I looked at all of my adolescence and the largest privately owned residence in the United States.
I’m a sucker for big houses with rad libraries, what can I say?
Come along. Learn some things.
In conclusion, I wasn’t super impressed by Biltmore House itself. Maybe it’s because of the designs of the Newport summer homes that I’m used to, or the English country estates that I so enjoy visiting, but give me a Rosecliff or a Chatsworth House any day. Or maybe it’s because I’m not architecturally educated enough to appreciate Biltmore. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t for me.
The grounds, on the other hand? Absolutely stunning. Obsessed. Dying to learn more. Will be reading ‘Genius of Place’ as soon as I get my hands on it. Biltmore Estate was originally approximately 125,000 acres. That blows my mind. After G.W. died in 1914, Edith carried out the sale of 87,000 acres to the federal government to create Pisgah National Forest. What’s left of the land has been gorgeously maintained. Well done to the grounds crew. I definitely could have spent days wandering around all of the trails and gardens.
When I reached the end of this estate-filled day, I set off on another fun adventure. Hint: South Terrace inspired. Follow-up Voyage coming soon.