Our second stop (the first was Graceland, and you don’t want to know) on the Red Dirt vacation was Biltmore, the palatial estate created by George Washington Vanderbilt II, and still owned by members of the Vanderbilt family, located in Asheville, NC. The only word which comes to mind is amazing. Could you call this sumptuous house and grounds home? Would you want to?
This was our second visit, and it didn’t disappoint. The Red Dirt kids were duly impressed as we drove in through the wooded acreage, and the house burst into view.
While we drove, we heard the strangest whirring sound, like our car was having trouble. We stopped, shut off the engine and listened. The whirring continued. It sounded like the Martians had landed in a 50s “B” movie. I looked for a flying saucer floating in for a landing. The sound made my skin crawl. At the gate, we asked and were told it was the seventeen year cicadas.
The woods and gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park and the landscape of the The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Olmsted previously worked on other Vanderbilt family projects before taking on Biltmore. For Biltmore, he and the architect, Richard Morris Hunt, traveled to Europe to scout out how homes and landscapes were created and managed there. When they returned, Hunt decided to change his design to that of a French Chateau.
Olmsted, who was sixty-six years old, convinced Vanderbilt (twenty-six) that the Europeans managed their forests by primarily using them for preservation and hunting. The timber was managed so that the best trees were not destroyed. Together, they hired Gifford Pinchot to revitalize the land which was damaged from too much farming, grazing and timber production. Many of their ideas are models for forest conservation today.
According to an article in the New York Times dated July 12, 1896, . . . shortly after the purchase of his estate at Asheville, [Vanderbilt] began to form plans not only for the preservation of the great domain of woodland which he found in existence, but for the rehabilitation of that portion of it had been exhausted. More can be read about their forestry management here.
After touring the sixty-one stops inside the house, the Diva and I stepped outside and went to the gardens. HH and the other kids had some ice cream. I had thirty minutes. Since she professes to despise gardening and gardens, I believe the Diva came to keep me on the straight path and not the meandering one. Including the conservatory, there are six gardens. In the time allotted, we saw three. If I lived near Asheville, I would visit regularly and spend some quality time outdoors. The Biltmore estate also features a garden nursery. Perhaps, you’ve seen some of their plants in your local garden center.
The Italian Garden was both our entrance and exit to the other gardens. For me, it was just okay. Maybe the Vanderbilt family played lawn bowling here. I’m not into the austere green and white, but it just shows there are gardens for everyone’s taste.
We then moved into the Shrub Garden, which I liked very much. I pointed my camera at nearly everything I saw and loved it all. The Shrub Garden was filled with mature trees and shrubs. Some specimens were larger than any I’ve ever seen. There was an example of my dissected Japanese maple taller than me. It dwarfed my own little tree.
After the Shrub Garden, we went down the steps to the Spring Garden and the formal Rose Garden. The Spring Garden was filled with annuals all in bloom, which would need digging up and replacing very soon. It must take an army of gardeners to keep the woods and the gardens at their best.
The Rose Garden was very traditional. It had formal beds of roses only. A portion of each section was devoted to twenty or so bushes of one variety. A different palette was on each side of the walkway, and in the center of each side, there were arbors, pillars and other structures with climbing roses. I recognized ‘Zepherine Droughin’ on the left arbors. I found ‘Baronee Prevost’ looking very dapper. Many of the roses were older varieties appropriate for the house’s age and formality. Some older Hybrid Teas from before the the Second World War were planted too. This reflects that Biltmore was more than a showplace. It was the Vanderbilt summer home and was occupied until 1956 when it was opened permanently to the public.
At the bottom of all of the gardens was the Conservatory, a garden within itself. It contained four or five rooms, a hot house and a cold house. It was built in the same French style as the house and made a very interesting focal point at the end of the formal walk.