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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