It’s that time of the year, when TV-lovers here in the states may find themselves curled up on the couch, hit with a case of “Downton Abbey” fever—and the need to see how the .001% lived. But who knew that you have the ability to see some historic upstairs/downstairs action first-hand with a visit to the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina?
Billed as “America’s largest home,” the Biltmore House is a home and estate built as a collaborative effort between owner George Vanderbilt, architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. (You may have heard of Olmsted, who is also known for designing some other spots such as New York’s Central Park and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.) Opened to Vanderbilt’s family in 1895, the home boasts 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms all with indoor plumbing—a rarity for that time period. Our kids loved the concept that only one bathroom actually had a sink—George’s—as all of the other bathrooms came with their own servants bearing bowls of warm water and towels to wash ones hands.
They Knew How To Party
Although today the Biltmore is a family business run by Vanderbilt’s grandson William A.V. Cecil, the home is preserved for visitors to give an idea of what went on here. Clearly, the Vanderbilts made sure there was plenty of room for guests, and you’ll learn in the self-guided tours that house parties in the early 1900’s could last for days or even weeks, so their hosts needed to provide plenty of entertainment.
From the banquet hall to the billiard room, you’re shown what life was like; you may have played dominoes, billiards, cards, enjoyed afternoon teas, music, evening “refreshments” or dinners of the 7 to 10-course variety.
On a quiet afternoon, perhaps you’d have chosen to read one of Vanderbilt’s 23-thousand books housed in his library, put your feet up in the tapestry gallery or taken a walk through the acres of gardens including the Italian Garden, the shrub garden, the spring garden, the walled garden, the rose or azalea gardens or the glass-roofed conservatory.
A number of bedrooms were inspired by French kings, with velvet wallpaper made by hand, and breathtaking views. Some are so large that they seemingly dwarf the beds where people would have slept.
The Servants’ Domain
I can only imagine how busy the servants in this home were in light of how much entertaining was done on a constant basis. But I can’t help but imagine how wonderful it would be to have a room in my own home today that’s as big as the walk-in-refrigerators they had here. From the vegetable pantry to the servants’ bedrooms, each servant had a “comfortably furnished, heated, private room”—again something that would have been very uncommon for the time period according to historians. Foodies will appreciate the pastry and rotisserie kitchens, and the kids will look longingly at the electric and manual dumbwaiters and wonder why those ever went out of style.
For The Kids
With all kinds of history to be learned throughout the house, you may be worried that the kids may start to get a bit itchy, but never fear. Just as we thought they were done, we came upon the Halloween room, the in-house bowling alley, the gymnasium and the 70,000-gallon indoor pool. While moving through the house, kids also can play “I Spy” with Cedric the Dog. (We never did find all three acorns carved in stone.)
And once we hit the grounds outside, in addition to the kids enjoying the amazing plants at the Conservatory (rooms and rooms of wonderful plants, including flowers planted in the shape of flamingoes) the kids also had an outdoor maze to run through, farm animals to learn about and pet, and a mini-Land Rover kids course.
Finish with a Toast
What better way to finish than to take a free-guided tour of the on-grounds winery and enjoy free wine tasting? The entrance fee to the estate isn’t cheap (How do you think the rich stay so rich?) so take advantage of everything it has to offer while there.However, there are various discounts to be had throughout the year, and during the “off season”,which is January 2 through March 20th the admittance drops to $35.Kids under 9 are free with a paying adult. For the price, you’ll certainly have plenty to do from early in the morning until late in the evening-making the cost potentially worthwhile.