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!

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