The Biltmore mansion is the largest privately owned home in America. George Vanderbilt, son of the railroad magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt, built the mansion between 1889 and 1895. For decades, visitors have journeyed here for a chance to tour the estate and marvel at the Vanderbilt’s wealth. Beyond its sheer size, visiting the Biltmore is an astounding and unexpectedly refreshing experience.
The estate’s homepage scarcely exaggerates in promising “travel to a whole new state of mind.” In America, a land without castles or genuine aristocracy, nothing compares with the Biltmore home, which boasts more than four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, three enormous kitchens, 65 fireplaces, and every turn-of-the-century luxury in between.
Without a tour of the Biltmore, it would be difficult to imagine purposes for all those rooms. On the ground floor alone (there are five others), there is a room for billiards, another for plants, and another for guns. Enjoy music in the music room, and tobacco in the smoke room. And do enjoy dinner in the medieval-sized banquet hall, under the coat of arms and cathedral-sized pipe organ.
The average home would likely fit inside the Biltmore library. One of the original American bowling alleys is in the basement, and at a time when most Americans were without indoor plumbing, Vanderbilt’s home included an indoor swimming pool.
Vanderbilt also took pride in owning every acre as far as he could see. At the mansion’s completion, the estate was 125,000 acres large. Reportedly, it would take Vanderbilt two full days of hard riding to reach the end of his property. His goal was to create the kind of self-sufficient estate found in Europe. Think Downton Abbey. To that end, in addition to the house, Vanderbilt designed an entire village to house the estate employees and their families. A forestry program, a furniture company, stables, and several different farms allowed the estate to support itself.
Biltmore’s size is impressive but certainly not admirable for its own sake. The story of its construction seems like it should be whispered in cautious, politically correct tones. This is the perfect place to admonish American opulence, so-called colonialism, and the oppression of the working class, to be sure.
And yet. Not a single plaque or tour guide feels the need to apologize for Vanderbilt’s inherited wealth here. The Biltmore is not large for the sake of being large, the monstrous creation of a rich man's pissing contest. Instead, at every turn, Vanderbilt’s money and the construction of his estate contributed to the betterment of everyone involved. Family, friends, employees, the Carolina community, and even the land itself, were made better by the mansion’s construction. The estate and the story of its creation are refreshing reminders of how wealth can be used to improve and dignify human life. Well over a century after its completion, the good work of the Biltmore is undiminished.
The Biltmore provided an opportunity for thousands of people. Only the Vanderbilts generously paid “New York wages in rural North Carolina.” According to diary accounts, for most staff members their room at the Biltmore was the first room they ever had to themselves. What’s more remarkable is how George and Edith were dedicated to caring for their staff. Edith especially, was sure to know every man, woman, and child who worked at the Biltmore. If someone was sick or nursing, Edith would personally bring care baskets and gifts. In addition to providing work, the Vanderbilts created Biltmore Estate Industries, a trade school which prepared boys and girls for careers later in life.
Today, the Biltmore is still the largest employer in the area, employing more than 1,800 people. The benefits and pay are still enough to build lifelong careers; many families have now continued to work on the estate for five generations.
North Carolina has benefitted enormously from Biltmore. The Vanderbilts hired hundreds of laborers and brought the railroad to Asheville, creating a stream of money to the local economy. In the 1930s, they opened their estate to tourism in order to save Asheville from the Great Depression. Vanderbilt created his estate on land that was described as “tired and over-forested.” Today, all but 8,000 of those original 125,000 acres have been preserved as a national forest. Instead of the original dairy farm, the award-winning Biltmore Winery ensures the estate will continue to be self-sufficient.
The Vanderbilts still own and operate the estate. And guests still stay on the grounds at the Biltmore Inn. In every way, the Biltmore maintains its former grandeur and is now a world-class destination for over a million tourists a year. Most will visit the Biltmore to witness its magnitude. But many will leave with an unexpected appreciation for George and Edith Vanderbilt, who built and managed their estate in a way that continues to improve the lives of other people. The Biltmore provides a rare opportunity to celebrate wealth used rightly.