To become a behind-the-scenes tour guide at the Biltmore House in Asheville, Chuck Holmes had to take a test that included the question: “What do you wish you could ask
To become a behind-the-scenes tour guide at the Biltmore House in Asheville, Chuck Holmes had to take a test that included the question: “What do you wish you could ask George and Edith?”
Holmes had to give this some thought. There were so many things that he’d like to know about the lives of Biltmore’s original owners, George and Edith Vanderbilt. He finally wrote: Why were you so socially responsible when you didn’t have to be?
The Vanderbilts’ kindness is legendary, but when Holmes explains their sense of hospitality, he doesn’t reel off the names of the famous artists and politicians who sought respite as long-term house guests. Instead, he talks about Essie Smith, a servant. Smith was a teenager when she began working at Biltmore, and she was intimidated by its opulence. On her first day as a server, she walked into the house’s grand banquet hall and, startled by the vastness of the room, dropped the tray of monogrammed china she was carrying.
George, a professorial figure with dark hair and a slightly curved moustache, rose from his chair as his guests looked on, their eyes begging: What on earth are you going to say about this distraction? But he didn’t say anything. Instead, “he got down on his hands and knees and helped her pick up the shards before saying, ‘Come see me in the morning,’” Holmes says. Smith assumed she was going to be fired. Instead, she was promoted to chambermaid, so she wouldn’t have to carry such heavy dishes. Holmes says, in a tone of disbelief, “A man as rich as he was — on his hands and knees.”
It’s a story that could easily be forgotten in this mansion’s vast halls, but Holmes and his colleagues keep George’s generous spirit alive by sharing his stories, tour after tour.
• • •
It’s hard to believe that the Biltmore House was a bachelor pad, complete with a billiards room and a bowling alley. In total, there are 250 rooms in the house. That includes 35 guest and family rooms, 43 bathrooms, and three kitchens. George opened the house with a glorious party on Christmas eve in 1895 and remained single for the first three years he lived there, until he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser.
Even in those early years, George was a gracious host. In the Victorian era, it was inappropriate for single guests to stay in mixed company, so George and Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt planned for an area designated as bachelors’ quarters.
There’s only one way to get to the bachelors’ quarters, and it’s not an easy trek. “There’s only one way out and one way in, so we’ve had to keep the traffic down,” Holmes, a former retiree wearing a Bluetooth-style earpiece, explains. It’s a hurdle for modern tourism, but for Victorian-era morals, this was a plus. Holmes says, “You didn’t want single men traipsing over to the main house. That’s where the single ladies were sleeping.”
Holmes often begins his specialty Butler’s Tour in the bachelors’ staircase, which houses curiosities including a mounted caribou with a third antler growing out of its forehead. Holmes points down to small hooks protruding from the stone steps underfoot and says, “This back staircase is the tallest view in the house and the only one that was ever carpeted. Why? I don’t know, other than the fact that bachelors, as a bunch, are noisy.”
• • •
The bachelors’ quarters are unassuming rooms now full of curators’ steel shelving. They house large collections of rocking chairs, tables, and ornate mirrors. Interestingly, these rooms had an entire life in between their carefree bachelor days and current storage duties. In 1918, Edith decided to downsize. She retrofitted the quarters into a cozy home-within-a-home. She opened the main areas of the house for celebrations — most notably the elaborate wedding of George and Edith’s only daughter, Cornelia, to John Cecil in 1924 — but the family still resided in this relatively small section of the property until the 1950s, which means that tourists roamed the house while Vanderbilts still lived here.
The grand organ balcony, which overlooks the banquet hall, is accessible from the bachelors’ quarters. Holmes steps out and peers into the room below. “This is where everyone slept and ate and met when the house was being built,” he says. He turns to face the dark, wooden casing that covers the back wall of the space. The casing, intended to house an organ, stood empty for nearly 100 years. George purchased an instrument to fill the cavern but donated it to All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Biltmore Village. As a result, the red oak case work wasn’t put to use until 1999, when a 1916 Skinner organ was inherited and installed. As Holmes shares the history of the organ, it begins to play — source unseen — cued by Holmes’s headset. Holmes then delivers the historical punch line: “You know the name of the fellow who built the original case work? Skinner. The gentleman who built the case is the same man who built the instrument you hear now. Everything came full circle.”
• • •
Holmes moves on, into a sewing room where curators store Biltmore’s travel-trunk collection. He points to a small, unremarkable trunk at the foot of a woodstove and says, “Note the initials E.S.D. That’s Edith S. Dresser.” He then twirls on his feet, singles out a Louis Vuitton trunk, and says, “Check out how she upgraded! I looked it up once and found that a trunk like this would go for $85,000 or so at auction, but those initials [E.S.V. – Edith S. Vanderbilt] would jack up the price quite a bit.”
Biltmore predates coat hangers, so its closets resemble the interior of travel trunks. Edith’s personal closet, located not far from the bachelors’ quarters, is large enough for a group of 16 to comfortably examine the shelves where articles of her clothing were once individually wrapped in tissue paper and tied with a bow.
Edith’s closet merits a hallway. When Holmes reaches her private bathroom, he marvels at how amazing it was that the house had running hot and cold water before most residential structures had either. Interestingly, the guest quarters have no sinks. It was a sign of hospitality to prevent guests from turning faucets with their own hands; servants brought warm water when it was requested.
• • •
If the Biltmore House is the largest home in America, it would stand to reason that it has the largest basement in America, along with the largest subbasement. As Holmes moves toward the boiler room, the air grows damp and heavy.
The subbasement’s acreage is dedicated to the inner workings of the house, and some of the most impressive hardware in the place is located in the dynamo room. The Biltmore House had electricity from 1895 onward. It was designed to operate on Alternating Current (AC) or Direct Current (DC) because electricity was still in its infancy and it hadn’t been decided which was going to be the most widely used system. “George knew [Thomas] Edison, and together they worked out a plan for the house,” Holmes says. Hunt, the architect, ultimately decided to wire the house for both currents.
Holmes walks through the water-supply room, past a Tabasco water heater, and into the refrigeration room, which once housed an innovative ammonia-gas-and-brine system that made ice cubes at a time when iced tea in summer would have been a miraculous treat. Finally, Holmes emerges from the house to take his position under a Porte Cochere.
Despite Holmes’s proclivity for Biltmore’s historic details, in the end, his most extraordinary qualification as a guide isn’t anything that can be memorized or tested in any quantitative way. Holmes is a Biltmore guide because he understands what once made this house a home. As tourists hustle by his station, Holmes explains that he isn’t fazed by the material aspect of Biltmore anymore. “Really,” he says, “the special thing about working here is that you get to meet George and Edith, and they’re interesting people.”
• • •
George and Edith’s guests were often as intriguing as their hosts. Imagine: It’s 1905. Pauline Merrill, Edith’s sister, is living here for a spell. The sun is softening, and it’s almost time to change for dinner. A servant will be up soon to help Merrill, but she has some time to herself. She sets the book she’s reading on a chaise longue and moves to her dressing table to adjust her hairpins in a three-fold mirror. No need to fret too much over hair this evening. Few people are staying in the house, unlike her last visit, when swarms of guests regularly stayed up past midnight.
She sits idle for a moment, before collecting some papers and beginning to write: “We have been leading a rural existence. … When 10:30 or 11 comes, I go out, either driving … or walking, or sauntering down with the children to feed the swans, or settle on the library terrace with lots of books, and read and read and read. The air is soft and warm, the hills change color continually, there is no noise, no friction, no jar. It is all really quite too easy.”
This letter was posted to a Mrs. Viele, but when Biltmore guide Sharon Brookshire finishes reading an excerpt from it, as she typically does on Biltmore’s Vanderbilt Family and Friends Tour, it feels as if she has unsealed a literary time capsule. She explains that Merrill described the Louis XVI room in detail, allowing curators to definitively state that this is where she stayed. The other rooms on this tour were arbitrarily assigned to historic guests so curators can give present-day visitors a better understanding of how the house functioned during George and Edith’s lifetime.
• • •
Brookshire, a slight woman who wears her hair in a girlish bob, casually walks over to a table of black-and-white photos of Edith, Merrill, and their other two sisters. Brookshire picks up the framed images, as if she’s in her own living room, talking about beloved family. She relays a few tales of the girls’ troubled youth — how they lost their parents when Edith was 10 and their grandparents before she was out of her teens — and explains that their governess took them to Paris when they had no surviving relatives to raise them.
When Brookshire reaches the Van Dyck room, she explains that Edith Wharton, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Age of Innocence, was a regular guest at the house. The room is arranged as if Wharton has just decided that it would be a nice day for a walk — complete with walking suit, hat, coat, and parasol.
Brookshire continues wandering through the suite until she reaches the end of the long hallway formed by opening the bedrooms’ connecting doors. This end-of-the-line room is devoted to Paul Ford, one of the Vanderbilts’ best friends. He dedicated his Biltmore-written novel, Janice Meredith, to George.
Brookshire picks up an old book and begins to read from the dedication page: “As I have read the proofs of this book, I have found more than once that the pages have faded out of sight and in their stead I have seen Mount Pisgah and the French Broad River, or the ramp and terrace of Biltmore House, just as I saw them when writing the words which served to recall them to me. With the visions, too, has come a reoccurrence of our long talks, our work among the books, our games of chess, our cups of tea, our walks, our rides, and our drives. …”
Brookshire snaps the book shut and continues to move through the little-known passageways that connect the village-size house. Room after room, she shares stories of the Vanderbilts’ loved ones. They came to Asheville to evade kidnappers, to mourn the loss of family members, to create art, to recuperate from illnesses. These guests arrived bearing travelers’ fineries and calling cards that they slipped into brass plates on their bedroom doors so that servants would know them by name.
The individuals who catered to the Vanderbilts’ guests were also provided storybook nooks to call their own. Brookshire enters a narrow hallway of unadorned plaster on a servants’ floor for single females. Brookshire, peering into one of the bedrooms, says, “These were nicer than my bedroom growing up. … I would’ve liked to have been a servant during this time.”
Each bedroom is outfitted with a rocking chair and a tiny window, a porthole to view the earthen sea beyond.
• • •
The view from George and Edith’s magnificent home hasn’t always been a pretty one. Dave Richard, a retired schoolteacher, leads Biltmore’s Legacy of the Land Tour, a driving tour of the grounds. On the trip, he shows people the black-and-white images of what the estate looked like when George first bought it, and they often gasp. The historic landscape, stripped bare of foliage by logging and farming, was full of massive crevasses and piles of dead tree limbs.
In the early stages of developing the estate, George invited Frederick Law Olmsted — the man responsible for designing New York’s Central Park, among other notable landscapes — to take inventory of the property he was acquiring. “Olmsted took a look at the land and said, ‘We can bring this back to life,’” Richard says in a raspy voice.
The reforestation efforts that Olmsted led on the estate, aided by forester Gifford Pinchot, were unprecedented in the United States and resulted in the creation of The Cradle of Forestry, birthplace of the U.S. Forest Service. Historic reforestation efforts required that millions of trees be planted on the grounds to turn depleted farmland into forest. “A lot of people don’t realize that Biltmore was originally listed on the National Historic Registry because of its forestry,” Richard says.
It’s also a little-known fact that a rail line once extended past the depot in nearby Biltmore Village, going right up to the house. Construction workers used the line, which was ripped out when the house was complete. If it had been left in, it would have saved George’s guests more than an hour of travel time, but he had other plans. “George’s family made its money in railroads, but he isn’t a big fan,” says Richard — who often falls into present tense when speaking about George. “He doesn’t want to whisk guests up here in a train. That’s just not his style.” George, we learn, was a stop-and-smell-the-roses sort of guy.
• • •
Richard gestures toward an area once called Shiloh and explains that the community was historically populated by farmers scratching a living out of depleted soil. The community was centered on a clapboard church, which George offered to buy for $1,000. The residents refused to sell. “George told them, ‘I’m going to build you another church,’ and they still said no,” Richard says, pausing to let the mystery linger. “Now, you’ve got to understand, this was the deal of a lifetime. George couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t sell.”
Finally, George approached the town preacher, who explained that the people of Shiloh couldn’t leave their ancestors behind. George, suddenly understanding the problem, offered to also move the graveyard to a new church two miles away. The minister and his congregation readily agreed. Many members of the Shiloh settlement went on to work for George, and some descendents are still on the estate’s payroll.
• • •
Olmsted put as much care into designing this famed private yard as he did parks that served millions from their inception. Similarly, Hunt pushed George beyond his original desire to have a relatively reserved country house. “They were trying to fulfill a lot of dreams here,” Richard says.
He believes that Hunt and Olmsted, both in the twilight of their careers, used George’s wealth and artful taste to establish Biltmore as the crown of their own legacies. They hoped that the project would allow them to retire with a bang and keep them in the public mind forever. If Richard is right, then it’s a fabulous success story, even though it nearly drained George’s enormous inheritance.
The grandeur of Biltmore makes it seem impossible that it is home to any unrealized visions, but when Richard points at an overgrown path, he says, “That’s what we call the road to nowhere. It was going to lead to the arboretum, but the money ran out.” It seems odd to think of Biltmore as anything other than polished perfection, but the lonely, unfinished path humanizes George in a way that none of his finished projects ever could. Even George had to abandon some home-improvement projects.
Richard rolls on, past grazing cattle and carefully tended fields. Biltmore’s agrarian past continues in its vineyards, which supply its on-site winery, as well as in other lesser-known ventures, including sharecropping. Richard looks out over a field that blurs into forest at its far edge. “Campbell’s has rented that land to grow vegetables for its soup,” he says. “Anheuser-Busch has leased land to grow potatoes.”
Biltmore has several man-made lakes, owing to the Victorian era’s penchant for using water as a softening agent in landscape design. When Richard reaches a reflecting lake just below the house, he stops the bus and hops out. “You know the movie Being There with Peter Sellers?” he asks. “This is where he walked on water.”
This Hollywood connection often impresses Richard’s tour guests, but it doesn’t wow them like the approach road, the route George’s guests traveled in horse-drawn carriages for an hour or so after their train arrived at the Biltmore Village station, and the final stretch of Richard’s tour.
The road is currently undergoing a 10-year restoration. “We’re going back through letters and plans, trying to re-create the whole thing,” Richard says. He points to the glassy surface of an approach road reflecting pool, which is pocked by the rising roots of a bald cypress tree. “That has been re-created at a size that allows you, in a car at 15 miles an hour, to experience what early visitors saw at two to three miles an hour from a horse,” he says.
This is historic interpretation. Things are not exactly as they were, but the changes preserve an experience. Olmsted, in creating the approach road, aimed to provide scenery that would serve as unconscious recreation. “It wasn’t physically demanding recreation,” Richard says. “It was a state of mind that you went into so that you didn’t have to think about the world at large.”
• • •
Richard throws a veil on reality as the bus moves along: “You’re a guest. You’re going to be spending months here.” Outside, a low, stone wall snakes alongside the road, separating it from the Swannanoa River. “You don’t hear the humming of an engine or the air-conditioning; you hear the tinkling and gurgling of the water flowing beside you.” The road’s gentle curves lead into a fantasyland, following a path that burrows into nature.
The surrounding forest — composed of azalea, mountain laurel, dogwood, redwood, and oak trees — appears as wilderness, but it’s actually a strategically designed woodland garden. “Look at the shapes of the leaves, the tinting, the toning, and the shading of layers giving everything a three-dimensional effect,” he says. “Olmsted was trying to jazz everybody up. He kept things pretty tight to the road. He wanted a closed-in feel to instill a sense of mystery.”
Today, nearly 76,000 people own annual passes to Biltmore — a number that rivals the entire population of Asheville — and almost all of the million-plus tourists who visit Biltmore annually travel the approach road. This doesn’t make for as crowded an estate as it might seem given that the property, at its original 195 square miles, was larger than the city of Washington, D.C.
Richard brings up Bill Cecil Jr., George’s great-grandson and current president of The Biltmore Company. “Mr. Cecil always says, ‘We make a profit so we can do preservation. We don’t do preservation so we can make a profit,’” he says. “That’s the real legacy of Biltmore. When you come here, you become part of the legacy, too.”
• • •
Jane Hunnicutt, a veteran Biltmore guide, pauses at the top of the house’s grand staircase — an impressive limestone spiral of 102 steps — and gestures toward the ornate cast-iron railing. “If you’re not afraid of heights,” she says, “this is a great staircase to look down.”
A little boy, who happens to be passing by with his family, bellies up to the railing and says, “I bet it would be fun to jump over this if you were wearing a parachute!” Hunnicutt gives a weak smile and points out that the four-story chandelier in the middle of the space would make a daredevil jump pretty uncomfortable. Then, she reveals an improbable bit of information: The 1,700-pound fixture is held by a single bolt.
The little boy shudders and begins his slow descent down the stairs. Hunnicutt chuckles. She’s used to people getting nervous on her tours. After all, the Architect’s Tour, which includes a visit to the Biltmore roof, isn’t for the faint of heart.
Hunnicutt leads the group through the observatory, to the vestibule balcony. As she steps outside through the French doors, she cautions, “Be sure not to drop anything as you’re looking out, now, y’all. You’re standing directly over the front door.”
The balcony is narrow, so much so that some visitors are forced to move along the roofline with their backs against the exterior wall. The view is worth it. Hunnicutt points out specific mountains on the horizon — Pinnacle, Craggy, and Black — and explains that when George visited Asheville for the first time in 1888, he stood on this plot of land and declared that he wanted to own everything he could see. In time, he did.
The Architect’s Tour — once known as the Rooftop Tour — often ends on the west balcony, which looks over one of the most spectacular backyards in the world. Hunnicutt points out Mount Pisgah jutting above the other mountains on the horizon. It’s impressive even from 19 miles away.
Mount Pisgah once belonged to Biltmore, but months after George’s unexpected death from complications resulting from an appendectomy in March 1914, Edith honored his intent to sell 86,700 acres to the United States Federal Government so that it could form the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest, one of the country’s first national parks.
• • •
If you spend enough time with any of the behind-the-scenes guides at Biltmore, you’ll likely hear the story of how Mount Pisgah signaled a welcome to Edith on her first night at Biltmore. She’d married George house unseen. When the couple arrived after a European honeymoon, entire families of Biltmore workers greeted them.
What did Edith think when she rounded the last curve of the approach road and saw the house standing there, stately as a mountain? How did she feel when she walked up the grand staircase for the first time? Even those who spend their days roaming the halls of George and Edith’s beloved home can only speculate.
Holmes, who is trained to give all of Biltmore’s behind-the-scenes tours, always seems to find a way to incorporate the story of Edith’s arrival no matter which tour he’s conducting, and he tends to save the Mount Pisgah detail for last. “All the rangers throughout the estate, including the ranger on top of Mount Pisgah, lit bonfires one by one at dusk to welcome the couple,” he says, shaking his head at the idea of mountain-size fireflies dancing on an endless horizon. “Can you imagine?”
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