The Biggest, Most Glorious Home in America
George Washington Vanderbilt II fancied himself as American royalty, and so in 1887 he aspired to model his country estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains after the châteaux of France’s Loire Valley – perhaps even Versailles.
Some say he outdid them, taking six years, 1,000 men’s labor, 11 million bricks, and who knows how much of his fortune to create Biltmore, whose driveway is measured in miles and whose floor plan stretches across acres. Of the 250 rooms – some with soaring 70-foot ceilings – there are 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. Amenities unheard of at the turn of the century include ten telephones, hot and cold running water, elevators, and refrigeration.
Each of the sixty-four lucky houseguests who could be accommodated at the dinner table used as many as fifteen utensils during the seven-course meals, and even today, the staff numbers 650. Of the 1,600 prints and paintings gathered by Vanderbilt in his meanderings are works by Renoir, Dürer, and Sargent.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape genius who gave New York City its Central Park, left his mark on the estate’s original 125,000 acres (of which a mere 8,000 stunning acres remain today). Flowers bloom year-round – 50,000 tulips in the Walled Garden herald the arrival of spring – but it is the extravagance of Biltmore’s Christmastime celebration that truly amazes visitors: Candlelight tours and concerts take place in timeless salons and halls decked with thirty-five magnificent trees and 10,000 feet of evergreen swags.
When it opened nearby in 1913, rave reviews proclaimed the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa to be “the finest resort in the world,” and for decades it hosted the overflow of high-society houseguests from nearby Biltmore, plus American presidents, industrialists like Henry Ford, and such celebrities as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A top-to-toe renovation restored the glamour and rustic elegance of the inn’s golden days, from the cavernous Great Hall to the outstanding Horizons Restaurant and Sunset Terrace, whose 3,000-foot vantage offers expansive, unrivaled views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The hotel’s overall decor was inspired by the great rough-hewn lodges of the country’s national parks. Enormous, locally quarried granite boulders (some weighing as much as 10,000 pounds) are used in the rock walls, and the oak woodwork speaks of devoted craftsmanship.
As part of the renovation, much of the custom-made, handcrafted furniture and artisan-made fixtures sold off over the years were tracked down and brought back to their original Appalachian home, making the inn once more the largest private holder of American Arts and Crafts furniture, and helping cement its restored reputation as a world-class destination.