Voyages: Biltmore Estate [@NorthCarolina]

Over four years of living down here in North Carolina, and I finally made the trip out west to visit Biltmore.

Of course, I am writing this post a few weeks later, from my current home built on Catawba and Sugaree land, about an estate that was built on Cherokee land, while thinking back to my Rhode Island home built on Wampanoag land.

That is a land acknowledgement statement, which I learned about thanks to Anti-Racism Daily. Apparently they’re common in places like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but I haven’t seen many in the US.

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.


What a facade! I could do without the flagpole on the roof though, if I’m being honest. I’m sorry, I’m not all that sorry. It’s gaudy! Put it on the ground so we can run it up the flagpole and see who salutes (but no one ever does). Are you having that? No? Right, this is Biltmore House. Carry on.
The Winter Garden. Easily my favorite part of the house. The greenery plus the natural light plus those floors and vaults? Come on! This will definitely let all of the heat right out of your house, but so worth it. The sculpture in the center is Boy Stealing Geese by Karl Bitter.
This is one of my favorite pictures I have ever taken. Look at that ceiling! Still the Winter Garden. For those of you who are new around here, I have an obsession with ceilings. You’ll see. They’re freaking incredible.
Told you. When I visit these big houses, I spend more time with my neck cricked back than I do looking around at eye level. It’s a checklist of ceilings and libraries, really. My dream of dreams is to have a house with different styles of ceiling in every room. This tiling was in the hallways that circled around the Winter Garden. What a combo.
Absolute beaut of a Grand Staircase. That chandelier went up four stories and I stopped to stair at it on every single one of them. (Eh? Are you having that?)
Any guesses on this one? Correct. The ceiling of the Grand Staircase.
The Library looks bright thanks to my editing, but trust me when I say that it was a very dimly lit room. Most of the house was kept in dim lighting, which I understand – light being the arch nemesis of preservation and all. This is only half of George W. Vanderbilt’s (let’s call him G.W., shall we?) 22,000-volume collection. 22,000 volumes! I asked, and hardly anyone ever touches these books anymore. Wholeheartedly depressing. G.W. read an average of 81 books a year. He also kept meticulous lists of what he read. A kindred spirit. I’m going to go ahead and hypothesize that his favorite book was Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly.
I gasped so loudly in the dungeons (“Stone Hallway”) when I saw this sign. I had no idea it was coming! A whole room decorated for Halloween? Sort of. There was an unfortunate lack of information on whether or not the Vanderbilts were big Halloween fans, but this definitely confirms for me that Cornelia was a witch. I’m here to pass on the “facts” to you, Dear Reader.
The Halloween Room was covered in hand-painted murals, which were apparently done by Cornelia Vanderbilt (G.W. and his wife Edith’s only daughter) and her husband, the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil… for a New Year’s Eve party in 1925? Your guess is as good as mine on the thinking there. But a Halloween-themed New Year’s Eve? Talk about the Roaring 20s. Count me all the way in.
I may or may not have really scared myself by standing in this exact spot and imagining a Shining-esque moment of blood gushing from the back wall as I snapped this photo. This underground pool was right next to the Halloween room, after all. What is it with rich people and basement pools?
Technically speaking, I should have hated this room. I really wanted to hate this room. It’s the Smoking Room (not cool) in the Bachelors’ Wing (very not cool). But look at that wallpaper! And those books! It was one of the few rooms with strong natural lighting, which would have made it a preferable reading spot, methinks. My scotch cart would go very well with that carpet.
That wraps up what I found interesting with the interior of Biltmore House. Now on to the exterior, starting with the equally absolute beaut of an encasing for the Grand Staircase.
The back of the house offered stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This little corner was part of the Library Terrace, which is shaded by an arbor of wisteria and trumpet creeper vines. Imagine the things those trees have heard over the years.
You know I can’t resist a good framing photo opportunity. More Blue Ridge Mountain views on the South Terrace.
It’s not a proper estate without a Walled Garden, is it? Especially without a Walled Garden that has a Rose Garden right behind it and a Conservatory peeking out in the distance. I was very pleased to see the Walled Garden teeming with bees. It also made my heart hurt with reminiscence of Ireland.
Eden, is that you? How are the children?
Coming right on the heels of the Winter Garden, the Conservatory was my second favorite place at Biltmore. It was a little difficult to appropriately wander through it, what with the social distancing restrictions. Not much space to stop and (literally) smell the flowers, but I did my best.
Not quite the perfect white camellia shot, but pretty close.
After visiting the Conservatory, I set off on the trails that led away from the house and out towards the Bass Pond. There was a quick stop made at the Azalea Garden (I flipping love azaleas) but unfortunately nothing was in bloom so no interesting photos for you.
THIS monstrosity is the Bass Pond. Green everywhere. Everything green. I did not linger long. Fish freak me out. That’s a me problem, but if you were smart you’d make it a you problem too.
We wrap with a trek back up to the front of the house to head off for Antler Hill Village & Winery. No photos, but while I was there I tried a Biltmore Malbec (I know, I know, I don’t know what I was thinking either) and it was… exactly what you’d expect a Malbec made in North Carolina to be like. I don’t trust a 2018 so I think that could have been part of the problem too. Needless to say, the Winery visit ended there.

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.