Biltmore Estate Part Three: Gardens

In my two previous posts, we’ve seen the glittering Upstairs and dark, work hard/play hard Downstairs, now we finally come to the Biltmore Estate gardens and conservatories! Today's post is probably the best-looking in the history of the blog, so wipe down your reading spectacles and feast your eyes on the glory of ALL THE PLANTS!

Remember when I said that George Washington Vanderbilt spared no expense? Well, he got Frederick Law Olmsted to do all the landscape design for the house and gardens. Do you vaguely remember some little places called Central Park in New York, the U.S Capitol grounds, or Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco? HE DESIGNED THEM. With friends, of course. He was an early American conservationist and helped develop the first managed forest in the U.S. at Biltmore; Gifford Pinchot, one of the first American foresters, revamped the woods for Olmsted and went on to found the U.S. Forest Service. Apparently, people had really done a number on the forests around Biltmore before the Vanderbilts bought the land, so Olmsted and others convinced the family to manage the forest responsibly so they could profit from the lumber (and retain a nice, lush forest view). The Biltmore Forest School opened in 1913 to teach forestry and conservation techniques that are still in use today. The forest at Biltmore is over 4,500 acres, which I think is pretty impressive. If you're going to have a big house in the woods, make sure you are being nice to the woods!

Naturally, I went to visit this place in the dead of winter to make sure there were hardly any tourists, so most of the garden action outside was not action at all. So I peeped into the greenhouses and NEARLY DIED from the beauty of it all (and from wearing a parka and scarf in a 100% humidity, 80-degree glass box of death).

First, there was the Palm House, which immediately fogged up my camera lens but I think it made the whole experience more dramatic and I kind of felt like I was in a prehistoric jungle, except there wasn’t anything there that could eat me. JUST LOOK AT THIS PLACE:

Next came the Hot House and the Cool House, which were abolutely packed with more leafy greens, flowers, and cacti than you can possibly imagine. How do they keep track of all this?! It's astounding. So, now I am going to shut up and let you observe the beauty. BEHOLD!

Just jumping in to say JESUS that giant leaf is 100% some dinosaur plant and it is truly terrifying. Also, I want one in my house.

I'll end this unbelievable trip to Biltmore Estate with the house itself, seen from the staircase to the gardens. Hopefully another day I can come back in spring or summer when everything is blooming, but I'm so grateful that I was at least able to sneak around in the conservatories and get a much-needed dose of nature. I almost didn't go to Biltmore because I was being a snob, was tired from my road trip, and was reluctant to shell out $50 for a ticket. But it was definitely worth it! I really hope you guys have enjoyed the Biltmore series, and if you haven't seen my post on the house's Upstairs and Downstairs, now's your chance!

So what do you think of the conservatories? Over the top? Too steamy? DID I BORE YOU?? Let me know in the comments!

Biltmore Estate Part Two: Downstairs

Are you guys ready for round two? If you enjoyed the Upstairs of Biltmore Estate in my last post, now you can see what was going on below decks at this magnificent temple to free enterprise (and velvet damask...Mrs. Vanderbilt liked her damask, now). Be aware that these photos were in low light so it may not be easy to make out details, but I like to think it adds ambiance.

The first part of the Downstairs world, of course, was a dark creepy tunnel of exposed stones (and subpar lighting) that leads you to endless hallways of recreational areas, changing rooms for guests, servants' quarters, and working rooms like kitchens and laundries. First off, you walk through the very American sports rooms, which included this very fine two-lane bowling alley, a gym, and a swimming pool! Observe and appreciate the rowing machine, showers, and weights, which George Vanderbilt III used to both get shredded and to impress his guests; Asheville had been a popular place for nature-filled health retreats and George wanted to make Biltmore a place where you could rest, get in a few frames of bowling, and sweat your booty off in your turn-of-the-century man's low-cut weight-lifting onesie. You know the ones I mean. And when you were done, you could change your clothes in one of many changing rooms on the lower floor, so you didn't have to be caught in your underoos on any of the upper floors if you forgot a comb or your Dapper Dan hair pomade.

While I do love the easy-to-climb ladder at the far end, I don't think I would be okay with an underground swimming pool like this because A) I am a little claustrophobic and B) I don't have much confidence in the strength of lightbulbs in the late nineteenth century. Although it would be a nice place to retreat to after a day of counting all your money and reading stock market ticker tapes in your gentleman's smoking room, which is maybe not where the ticker tape would be but you know what I mean. I also wonder if this swimming pool was sometimes filled with coins and George would swan dive like Scrooge McDuck into it at the end of a long day and bathe in his golden legacy. Nice subway tile, too.

In addition to fun times for yourself and your guests, the downstairs can also be used to house your servants and all the equipment needed to run your hotel-mansion. This means a grand main kitchen with all kinds of smaller rooms (like a meat-roasting room) and a glorious array of copper kitchen pots. I couldn't tell if there was a gas range or not, but there certainly wasn't any of those sad glass-top electric ranges in this place. There may or may not have been gas but there was a good old fashioned fire you could use to roast your half-pig or sauté some fancy French business. This place was very modern and had a walk-in fridge, untold pantries, and two dumbwaiters (one mechanical, one electric). I have to say, if I ever live in a house with a dumbwaiter I will have achieved more than I ever thought possible. But I would also always be afraid of pulling up an attack raccoon just like Shelley Long did in The Money Pit

I feel like it would be preferable, if you were a house servant in one of these big houses, to be a kitchen person because you would be doing something relatively clean (not cleaning bathrooms or the aftermath of rich people parties) and generally would avoid being meddled with by rich dudes if you were a young servant woman. Plenty of knives around to thwart drunk cocktail party guests! But also it was probably unbearably hot in the kitchens in the summer time, so there's that to consider. I can imagine with all the clothes you had to wear, few labor-saving devices, and lots of roasting going on, you would be drenched pretty quick.

But behold! This is where the laundry rooms come in. Somebody had to wash all those linens what with so many fancy guests in and out of that place, and there were several rooms full of very modern laundry facilities: wash basins (with plumbing!), folding ironing boards that have remained unchanged, tables for folding your linen hankies JUST SO, and giant retractable racks for drying bed sheets. I have to say that when I moved to the UK and everyone was drying their clothes and sheets on a line/rack I was NOT IMPRESSED, but dryers have their problems and if the Vanderbilts had dryers would we have this amazing room of sheet-racks to marvel at? We would not. Also, I have a new appreciation for my grandparents' generation and ones before because they were all using REAL irons (not electric) and washing stuff in tubs, and I do not envy them. Although I bet you would get pretty fit doing all that housework. Maybe this is why all my female ancestors were so meaty.

Ah, Biltmore. You are a shining example of modernity and the emergence of American sportiness. And like many big American houses at the turn of the 20th century, you were filled with newfangled modern conveniences to show off to your guests and to make your life slightly less miserable. I was really surprised that I liked Biltmore so much because I tend to prefer things from the 18th century and earlier, but you have to appreciate how much (and how quickly) technology changed toward the end of the 19th century; fast trains, automobiles, telephones, photography and then many things! You have to wonder how people who were born in the early 19th century must have felt about all this once they got older, and then you think of people born in 1900 who went from the beginnings of electricity in homes to high-speed internet. You can only handle so much! So you know, don't be surprised when old people resist technology. They're tired.

Next time, we're literally going back to nature to look at the gardens and greenhouses! Get ready for incredible, outrageous, gorgeous, unbearably amazing conservatory pictures with more plant species than you can shake a stick at! If you like flowers or have ever been near a plant in your life, I guarantee that you will love this post. Tropicals! Cacti! Perennials! They'll all be here waiting for you. See you next week!

Biltmore Estate Part One: Upstairs

Could this be the first post of 2017? It is indeed! So much has been happening lately. I took a trip to Washington D.C. to look for supremely fancy museum jobs and decided to drive up so that I could take more things with me. During my road trip I decided to stop at Biltmore Estate so that I could be a snob and compare it to all the other stately homes I had been to, and let me tell you, I was AMAZED. This place is incredible: all the refined design aspects of European homes with the advantage of unbridled 19th century American technological progress and nouveau riche capitalism. With their powers combined, they make for a ridiculously gorgeous and ENORMOUS house out in the North Carolina countryside. This will be part one of three because I wanted to talk about everything but not write a short dissertation as a blog post. This one will deal with "Upstairs" or the public part of the house, the next will be about the servants' quarters and facilities in "Downstairs," and the third will be all about their gardens and absolutely magnificent greenhouses.

Biltmore Estate is the biggest home in America. It was finished in 1895, and it's still the biggest. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt, who was the first American to attend the École des Beaux-Arts (cue monacle shaking while smoking long filtered cigarette) and designed the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the New York and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, to name but a few of his diamond-encrusted accomplishments. When you are a Gilded Age industrialist, you spare no damn expense when it comes to hiring an architect for your ginormous summer home. George Washington Vanderbilt III had a grand name and a grand fortune to go with it: the Vanderbilt family still owns the estate today and are generally flush with cash (also, I never realized that their name used to be Van der Bilt which makes so much sense it made me feel stupid). For those of you playing the home game and remember famous 1920s socialite Cornelia Vanderbilt, George III was her dad. Are we all on the same page? Yah? MOVING ON.

I see you, hexagonal staircases. Now, the reason that I first wanted to go and make fun of this house is because I read that the architecture was inspired by Chambord, Blois, and Waddesdon (all of which I had already visited) so I assumed that since it was in the U.S. and built at the end of the 19th century, it must just be a poor imitation, right? I mean, Waddesdon is already a copy of Loire Valley château so Biltmore is a copy of a copy, right? WRONG. First of all, the three houses I mentioned are much older than Biltmore, and so have much more limited technology happening inside. Second, although I will stand by my love of Chambord over all other stately homes I've been to, you just can't beat homes that are still owned by the original family and have the original stuff in them: books, instruments, furniture, guns, billiard tables, the works. Royal residences in France tended to get abandoned/stolen so they usually just find some old French stuff to spruce it back up once it's museum time.

I have to give George credit for his front-of-house indoor garden and resplendent dining hall. Just look at that fireplace!  Also, the name of the statue in the middle is "Boy Stealing Geese", and although it isn't okay to steal geese I appreciate a goose-centric artwork. Anyway, as you can see from the second picture, that is a fireplace that commands respect and instills fear, which are the two most important qualities in building big frickin' houses. Also, for some reason, they installed a huge pipe organ opposite the fireplace on the balcony above the dining area, and just as I was thinking, "Man I wonder what that beast sounds like..." someone started playing it! It was a very important moment in my musical instrument historian life. 

Anyway, the dining hall is fully outfitted for all your Gilded Age nouveau riche and presidential guests. Giant tapestries? Check. Gothic-inspired red-upholstered chairs of doom? Check. Fireplace frieze depicting American narratives of progress? Double check! George and his architect went HAM on this place. Spared no expense!

Let's take a minute to appreciate this VERY FINE library. The more I went through this house the more I fell in love with George who by all accounts was a force to be reckoned with. First a confession: I never get audio guides in fancy houses out of impatience and a too-high opinion of myself so I didn't really know what was going on a lot of the time, but I was able to eavesdrop on a docent dishing out some fun facts in the Library (capital L!). Apparently, George spoke and read EIGHT languages and had a list of books he had read called A List of Books I Have Read or something equally funny. Also, he understood the importance of actual staircases in libraries; you can see the spiral one in the back to the second floor of books. CLASSY. The ceiling, which was impossible to take a non-wonky picture of, is The Chariot of Aurora by Pellegrini which used to hang in the ballroom of the Pisani Palace in Venice, but George and his architect snatched it and plastered it on the ceiling like it was no one's business. So that's actually stretched oil on canvas(es) up there. Spared. No. Expense.

You can't really tell in the second picture of the books, but there's one titled "Musical Instruments." Yay!

Also, Biltmore has put on an exhibition called "Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics" throughout the house of costumes from films based on George's favorite books. Cut to me walking into room after room of finely tailored suits and ridiculous dresses from the 18th century onward, including this very fine dark green number worn by Michael Gambon in Sleepy Hollow. I'd like to think this fly AF suit would be a nice, casual everyday piece for going to the bank and dropping off three duffel bags of money.

So the second picture is Mrs. Vanderbilt's room, and I don't remember what film the costumes are from but the green one on the right was worn by Gillian Anderson, which was pretty exciting because when I was in middle school I worshipped the supernatural ground she walked on. Also, I heartily approve of Mrs. Vanderbilt's vanity table, and her huge Rococo mirror on the right side (and the spooky reflection of the seated costume which freaks me out every time that I look at it). The whole room is in Louis XV style, which the Biltmore book I bought in the gift shop tells me was very popular with Gilded Age Americans (which I will NOT call "Victorian" because there were things besides Victoria wasn't the only person influencing the world from 1837 to 1901, thank you very much!).

Next, in the bottom picture, is one of the suits worn by Michael Fassbender in the 2011 Jane Eyre: I love that damn book and I love that terrifying German-Irish dude. And those boots! Those are the boots of a man that does not mess around, unless of course you consider how much he messed around with Jane's head, which was not cool.

Okay! So that was the fancy part of the house that all the guests would see. The next post will be Downstairs: servants' quarters, kitchens, basement gym and swimming pool! Cause you know those American industrialists wanted to get JACKED to look intimidating while they made more money than you can possible imagine. See you next week!

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