Laura and I needed a weekend away together. We’ve done a good bit of traveling lately, but it’s either been for business or to see family. However, we didn’t want to drive too far. We decided to head up to Asheville for the weekend and visit the Biltmore Estate.
I’ve only been to Biltmore twice, and the last time was well over ten years ago, so I was stoked. After work Friday we drove on up and spent the night downtown. That means that we were in town early, so we were able to head over to the Estate as soon as it opened.
Laura had talked to Karen B and had gotten some good tips about what we needed to see. She said that we really needed to do the Roof Tour. When we got there we didn’t see that as one of the tours. However, we did find out that the Architect’s Tour had replaced the roof tour, and we got the last two slots available that day. We also paid for the general audio tour. The whole deal was quite pricey, but we really wanted to see as much as we could.
We got parked and walked over to the house. As we rounded the corner, both of us were a bit surprised. We both were thinking that the house didn’t look as large as we remembered. Maybe it’s age or something. It’s still as impressive as all get out, but for some reason I was thinking it was more sprawling.
It wasn’t too terribly crowded when we started out. We followed the tour route through the 42 rooms open to the public, out of 250 rooms total in the house. Of course, no photography is allowed in the house, so I don’t have any shots of the interior.
When we first entered I could have sworn I heard the pipe organ in the banquet room playing. This was a surprise, as I had always heard that the instrument was non-functioning, and that the pipes were purely decorative. When we got to that room I inquired, and was told that they were able to get it working with a MIDI keyboard. Air was being forced through the pipes to generate the tone, but it was now all MIDI controlled. Given the repetition of the songs, I suspect that they were using a sequencer of some sort to actually play the organ.
The opulence is overwhelming, and couldn’t imagine how it would be to live here. I also can’t image how someone only 3o years old would undertake such an estate. What amazes me even more was that this estate became George Vanderbilt’s full-time occupation. The upkeep, entertaining, decorating, and all the other endeavors kept a huge crew employed. I’m sure most of the capital came from Vanderbilt’s inheritance, but I wonder how much it was able to make back from the dairy and other pursuits.
We went through the upper floors and had made our way down to the basement. When we got to the kitchen and servants areas we realized that our tour would be starting soon, so we returned our audio gear and went to meet our group.
The Architect’s Tour was a winner all around. We learned that the house’s design by Robert Morris Hunt was based on the Chateauesque style, and has elements similar to the Chateau de Bois in the Loire Valley. In fact, here is Biltmore’s Grand Staircase exterior…
…and here is the grand staircase from the Chateu de Bois…
Notice it’s almost exactly the same, except reversed.
We learned that stone carvings covered just about every surface. Each of these stone carvings were carved in place, so the stone was situated, then carved.
Our tour took us up to the top of the Grand Staircase, then on the observatory at the very top of the front tower. From there we went out onto a balcony overlooking the main promenade. The views were amazing.
We were able to go right and left around the tower, with views of the gargoyles and the slate roof.
From the observatory we went up to a roof area around the copper dome covering the Grand Staircase. Again, the views were fabulous. I think that if I had been Biltmore’s owner, this is where I would have spent a good deal of time.
Our tour led us to the second floor, where a balcony led from Vanderbuilt’s bedroom. Again, there were carvings everywhere. Some of these were really bizarre. However, the most spectacular bit were the views out toward Mount Pisgah and across the estate.
Once this tour was over, we used vouchers we had gotten to reclaim our audio tour gear, and re-entered the house. We went back through the basement areas. One room, the Halloween Room, and had been hand-painted by guests. One thing was abundantly clear. Even though there was opulence and adherence to social protocol, there was a sense of fun and whimsey. This was born out by the paintings n the basement, as well as the strange stone carvings.
By this time the crowds were really picking up and the house itself was getting too crowded. We headed out, and fought more crowds to try to get lunch at the stables.
Needing to get away from the madness, we headed to the other side of the house to the gardens. This is definitely off-season, and there was nothing blooming. Nonetheless, the grounds were peaceful, and we enjoyed walking through the various garden areas.
Eventually we made our way to the walled garden and conservatory.
Inside the conservatory were orchids and other blooming plants. Unfortunately, things weren’t always labeled very clearly.
We were tired. We were tired of walking, and we were tired of crowds. we eventually got back to the car and drove through the grounds, making our way to the winery. As we drove past the French Broad River, I could see where I had paddled last fall.
It was also crowded at the Antler Hill Village, where the winery was located. Our tickets came with vouchers for a winery tour and wine tasting. As tired as we were, we talked them into letting us skip the tour and get straight to the tasting.
It was quite popular, and we still had to wait in a long line. Even so, we were able to take our place and try several wines. I was amazed at how many different wines they were willing to let us sample. It was fun, but we didn’t find anything that we just had to have.
We decided to check out the Antler Hill Village (which we both started calling the “Ant Hill.”) Along the way I spotted a familiar face. Ed Clem, aka Duck Hunter, and I have been friends online for years, but we’ve never met in person. I saw Ed and his wife Carrie in line for the winery tour. Unfortunately, they continued with their tour before I could say hello, so we still haven’t really met in person.
We stopped in a couple of the shops in the village, then proceeded to the farm area. There were tractors and other farm implements.
Master Blacksmith Doc Cudd was given a demonstration. It was so crowded I couldn’t see what he was making. However, I stuck around, and he gave me a concert on his anvil. I caught it on video.
It was a great day at Biltmore, and learned more about the house and saw more of it than we ever had before. I’ve been here at peak season, and it wasn’t a pleasant time. Even though there were crowds, things were manageable. It was a beautiful day, and we had a great time.
Here are all of the photos from that trip…
3 thoughts on “Touring Biltmore”
Glad you enjoyed your visit, I actually work there as a house host and was reading your blog to make sure you’d been told accurate information about the house. The only thing that stood out to me was the organ. I hope they told you that the organ in the house is not the original one but came from a woman who had inherited it and wanted it to be restored and played. Mr. Cecil (current owner) agreed and he repaired the organ, and began playing it in the house for guests. They think the original one, ordered for the house, ended up at the church, All Souls Esp., but that is uncertain. The organ loft was without an organ for almost 100 years. Glad you had fun!
Thanks for the update, Cinthia. Information on the organ during the tour was not as detailed as what you provided. As a musician myself, I appreciate the update.
I’d always read that the original organ was non-functioning because the design structurally didn’t fit the house. The pipes were left, but were purely decorative.
I love the Biltmore and have visited at many seasons of the year. I enjoyed reliving my visits through your photos. The roof tour was one of my favorites visits to the Biltmore. I have photos of the gardens with flowers blooming on my blog. I am happy to have stumbled on your blog! Planning on visiting Savannah next week and hoped to see the lighthouse at Tybee, but just my luck it is closed! There is a great bridge in upperstate SC from before the civil war that you might enjoy if you have not been to it. Thanks for all the great photos!