The Start of Biltmore
George Vanderbilt was the youngest grandson of tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. George and his mother's first visit to Western North Carolina mountains was in 1888. At the time Asheville was established as a high-society retreat for those from the Northeast. At 26, George Vanderbilt recognized the area as a perfect spot for an estate. He envisioned an estate that would not only showcase his collection of art, but also become a self-supporting business. He had traveled extensively throughout Europe, and believed he could bring a landed barony to America.
The Vanderbilt's were not without their competitive streak and George's siblings in the Northeast had their own estates that he wanted to rival. The Vanderbilt’s had a tradition of building lavish homes, a tradition begun by the Commodore.
The original purchase of land by George Vanderbilt was about 125,000 acres with Pisgah Forest and the town of Biltmore Village of today originally being part of that. The name Biltmore comes from George combining the Old English name for open rolling land and the name of the Dutch town where his ancestor's originated.
The Biltmore House
The original designer for the Biltmore House was Richard Morris Hunt who was a famed society architect of the time. He had already built several homes for George's brothers in the Northeast. The ornate design required an immense amount of materials and was based on an early 16th-century French Chateaux. A special rail spur had to be laid between the depot in a neighboring village and the estate to carry the tons of materials used. Among the many laborers used for the project, there were also many world-renowned craftsmen of the day. Vanderbilt spared no expense and, in fact, found himself in some financial difficulties by the time the estate was finished.
Vanderbilt wanted his house to be not only a showcase for his extensive art collection, but also a technological marvel. Vanderbilt included such cutting-edge technology as central heating, electricity, running hot and cold water to upstairs baths, a fire alarm, cold-storage mechanical refrigeration (using circulating chilled brine solution), an elevator, an electric communication system for calling servants, and a swimming pool with underwater lighting. Many continue to marvel at what Vanderbilt had built and opened on Christmas Eve of 1895 despite some of the rooms being incomplete.
Surrounding Biltmore Landscape
Fredrick Law Olmstead, who had designed places like New York's Central Park, supervised the surrounding Biltmore landscape. Olmstead convinced Vanderbilt to veer away from having extensive parkland to having commercial timber forest surrounding a 250 acre pleasure park. This plan worked nicely with Vanderbilt's desired for the estate to be profitable. Renovation of the forest was handed over to Gifford Pinchot, who later established the U.S. Forest Service.
Olmstead gathered seedlings from all over North Carolina to transplant onto a fully sculpted landscape. These native plants were supplemented with plants grown in the Biltmore nursery, including decidedly non-native plants such as the bamboo groves. The design of the approach road intended to mix deciduous trees, pines and shrubs to offer an interesting drive during any time of year.
The Biltmore Tradition
Forestry and farming were important to Vanderbilt who introduced new techniques to the region and helped to found the Biltmore Forest School which is known as the first institute for scientific forestry in America. Biltmore industries was started to teach woodworking and weaving, the traditional handcrafts of the area and help local people get better wages. For women of the area, the Vanderbilt’s setup the School for Domestic Science that taught housekeeping skills.
After the death of George Vanderbilt in 1914, Edith Vanderbilt continued to be active in community affairs. She deeded close to 87,000 acres to the federal government to preserve Pisgah Forest for public enjoyment.
Even today, George Vanderbilt's grandchildren continue to benefit the region through employing a 650-person staff to maintain Biltmore House for public enjoyment.