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.

26 Places to Commemorate 26

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I wanted to kick this off with the phrase “another year around the moon” but then I got really stressed that I’ve used it in all of my other annual birthday posts. I’m inclined to think that 23 and 24 may have made it out alive, but 25 feels sneakily suspicious.

Alas, here we are. Another year around the moon. 26. I hate it. This is terrible and this is awful. This is the decline of my youth. There is no excitement.

I’m kidding, of course. Mild excitement. But I learned my lesson from last year. 25 was an age where everyone piled on more expectation than I’ve ever known. “This will be the best year of your life!” “25 holds so much promise!” “That is the greatest age!” Thanks to all of that, I went into it with too much energy and created too many of my own expectations and, shockingly, very few of them were actually lived up to. Very few. I left the year quite displeased with all of those people who did that to me! I’m convinced they put the whammy on it.

So, in 26 I’m decidedly expecting not much of anything at all. It’ll be an age, alright. It’ll hold so much… who knows? We’ll come back and see this time next year.

For now, let’s look behind us. I wanted to get a little different in my birthday reflective writings this year because lately I’ve been giving some serious thought to where I want to settle this here life of mine. As in, settle settle. I thought I had that figured out already. It felt so known for so long. I had a plan and a timeline and a too-stern nod of the head whenever anyone asked me. But lately half of the plan appears to be smudged and the timeline is ticking by too quickly and the brow on the sternly nodding head is beginning to furrow.

I know, I know, we’re throwing expectations right out the window and apparently this is one of them. Rather than get decided about where I’m going to be, this age wants to remind me about all of those tiny nooks and not so tiny crannies that I’ve been. That make me feel like my soul is in a home place. Maybe that’ll help me solve the settle.

Captured below are 26 places that give me those soul feelings. That commemorate what it means for me to make it to the unripe, not-so-old age of 26. “Pin drops” have been provided for the specifics.

Onwards, in no particular order…


1. The Front Porch @ 42

[Pin Drops]: the wall ledge against the house, the edge before the stairs, the original green door

2. Long Lived Papasan Chair

[Pin Drops]: every turned page, every tucked leg, every grey morning

3. West Cork, Ireland

[Pin Drops]: the strawberry patch, cake crawling, Levis’

4. Pembroke College, Cambridge, UK

[Pin Drops]: Pembroke Library, the dungeon room, Brewsday Crewsday

5. On Top of the World

[Pin Drops]: Pride & Prejudice (2005), dir. Joe Wright, mus. Dario Marianelli

6. Where Orion Was Its Brightest

[Pin Drops]: my heart, and soul, and fresh air

7. Cancun, MX

[Pin Drops]: Back of the Jeep, mirror selfies with actual digital cameras, hang outs in hotel rooms where coconuts hid under the bed

8. The bar at Knights of Columbus

[Pin Drops]: paper animals, shuffleboard tables, the salty sweat smell of home

9. Liguria, Italy

[Pin Drops]: the lights, cobbled streets, architecture to steal my breath clean out of my lungs

10. Pacific Coast Highway Beach

[Pin Drops]: warm rocks, cold water, highway air

11. The Special Room @ Kings Library

[Pin Drops]: my tears, most of my tears, all of my tears

12. Boston, MA

[Pin Drops]: Northeastern, the T, the whole damn city kid

13. Kangamagus Highway

[Pin Drops]: Scottish Fest, the condo, that last Tennants up in the lodge

14. Glasgow, Scotland

[Pin Drops]: River Clyde @ the Childrens Museum, Big GG’s garden, Wee GG’s electric coal fireplace, the Genius couch

15. Kirstenbosch

[Pin Drops]: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

16. Wigtown, Scotland

[Pin Drops]: hill down from the train station, bookshelves, quietness of the mind

17. Cape Town, South Africa

[Pin Drops]: bus rides, Wobblies, money, more laughter than my heart will ever know again

18. The Olympic Peninsula

[Pin Drops]: La Push (baby), Worlds Biggest Spruce, Bella Italia

19. The Old Living Room @ Euclid

[Pin Drops]: 5am, Lord of the Rings, putters under couches for Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

20. The Attic @ 42

[Pin Drops]: animal hospital, makeshift apartment, imaginings

21. The Atlantic Ocean

[Pin Drops]: Second Beach, Ocean Drive, Ireland

22. The Night Sky

[Pin Drops]: Ursa Major, airplane windows, front windshields

23. The Upper West Side

[Pin Drops]: Museum of Natural History, Cafe Amrita, Dead Poet

24. Parker Hill Abbey

[Pin Drops]: cuddle puddles, the (6 hour?) shower, open-doored bedrooms

25. Punters Pub

[Pin Drops]: Danger Zone at #1 on the jukebox, that Bud Diesel tap, the broken booths

26. My Inside Breath

[Pin Drops]: the moors, the forest, the heart places


As always, thank you for being part of this. I guarantee you, yes you, are woven into one and / or many of the above. Here’s to many more together.

Real Moments: Tales Turns One!

It’s been one whole year since I started Tales of Casstastrophe and look how far we’ve come! If you’re here anticipating styled photos of giant golden balloon numbers or letters, please kindly close your eyes and imagine them for a moment so you’re not disappointed and then open your eyes and continue reading.

First and foremost, let’s review some of the adventures we’ve been on since we got to know each other last July:

Secondly, I’ve made a few updates around the site. Nothing too fancy but allow me to direct you to the new home page. This Is Me and Casstegories have also gotten a little sprucing. Have no fear, navigation is still largely the same and I want to make sure that my past posts remain unaffected so if you see anything looking funky please let me know!

And finally, thank you to everyone who has come along on this whirlwind of a year with me! I appreciate it more than you know that anyone out there, even one single person, cares to read my thoughts and prose. Writing is fun for me; it’s a hobby, it’s a habit, and it’s a love. While I’m thankful to have these musings recorded somewhere for myself in the future, I’m even more thankful to think that someone out there might actually get something from what I write. If that someone is you – please write back.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Here’s to many more Tales of Casstastrophe!

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A Hometown Holiday [@NewportRI]

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Iconic Giraffe Tree Makes Fashion Statement – Newport Daily News headline, probably

Sitting by the fire playing board games. Curled up on the couch watching movies. Waking up groggy after late night wrapping to greet anticipating little ones at 6am. Christmas passes differently for every family. Mine happens to be on the busier side of life, with a lot of time spent in the car traveling to visit pretty much every relative we realistically can. But according to the song it’s the holiday season, not just the day, that warrants celebration.

22 years of my life have been spent calling Newport my hometown, but I never take advantage of appreciating it during the holiday season. Being away at college means I miss out on a lot of that festive time at home. We pick out our tree right after Thanksgiving and I don’t see it again until after finals. But some of Newport’s best spots are right at my neighborhood’s fingertips – in the downtown area – so this year I decided to spend a little bit of time walking around this wonderful City by the Sea to gaze upon my favorite December decorations.

I’m no professional photographer, but I wanted to share these spots with you in hopes that they inspire two particular things: 1) you’ll want to come visit this beautiful little seaside haunt next Christmas season and/or 2) that you’ll go out on adventures to appreciate your own hometown holidays.

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Newport Wharfs get a lot of twinkle light bling around shop windows for Christmas. Not to mention an abundance of trees inside of said windows.

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Everything is prettier with a wreath! – Winston Churchill, probably

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The entirety of December features garnished boats floating around the harbors – a particular specialty of a seaside Christmas.

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Even our docks get decorated. This one at the end of Bannister’s Wharf houses one brave against the waves Christmas Tree.

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Only in Newport would a giant mast serve as a better decoration than a giant tree. My vote is to keep it lit all year round.

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A dockside skating rink which I’m very glad was brought back for the townspeople to enjoy this year. Plenty of wonderful memories spent teaching my little brother how to skate down here.

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The wave is an iconic Newport monument and if you look closely you’ll see two snuggly feet poking out of it.

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America’s Cup meets Thames Street

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If you ask me – the mansions on Bellevue need a little more Clark Griswold to them. The Elms was the best decorated in my personal, professional, and holiday emotional opinion.

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Hometown Hometree

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Newport Bridge – the best Christmas lights of them all

To you and yours – have a blessed (in any way, shape, or form) Happy Holidays and keep love in your hearts. Looking forward to sharing more Tales of Casstastrophe with you in 2016!