George and Edith Vanderbilt were still finishing their massive 178,000 square foot country getaway in Ashville, North Carolina when they were approached by the director of Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The year was 1942 and WWII was coming dangerously close to the eastern U.S. coastline. When German submarines were spotted along the shores between Maine and North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and the treasures housed in the nearby museum seemed suddenly vulnerable to attack. Reports of Hitler’s theft of art treasures across Europe caught the attention of David Finley, the Gallery’s new director.
As it happened, Finley had visited the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, still the largest private home in America, and saw its remote location, high-level security and an unfinished room. He asked Edith, then widowed upon George’s death in 1914, to store the priceless exhibits in what would later become the Music Room. Under heavy guard, almost 80 items, including a famous 1795 Vaughan-Sinclair portrait of George Washington, were secretly moved and hidden behind a wall.
Visitors to The Biltmore House & Gardens today are given a glimpse into the style and hospitality of the of the wealthy railroad family during the late 1800’s and into the turn of the century. It was a home for entertaining, to provide modern comforts for family members and overnight guests, with designated rooms for quiet reading, stylish parties, playing and working out. The lower level housed the servant quarters and workrooms, and was modern for its day with hot water, central heat, electricity and mechanical refrigeration.
One cannot help but compare the plush rooms and the Vanderbilt’s large domestic staff to the scenes portrayed in the PBS blockbuster, Downton Abbey. Guests can see the separate bedrooms for George and Edith, not because of marital issues, but because Mrs. Vanderbilt needed a private area for her frequent outfit changes. There are also stories about the kindnesses the couple extended to their staff like the time George got down on the floor to assist a maid who had dropped a tray of dishes or when Edith prepared care packages to those who’d had a baby, or who were ill.
The home is also an art gallery with 16th century Flemish tapestries that took over ten years to complete, a 1720 painting that originally graced a Venice palace now placed on the library ceiling, a 22,000 book collection, and exotic gold-trimmed furniture from around the world. Since the home was intended as a country retreat, there’s an indoor swimming pool, smoking room, billiard room, an early 20th century gym, plus a two-lane bowling alley where after the pins were knocked down, a staffer would manually set them back up.
The home was a collaboration between Vanderbilt and two renowned New York City architects: Richard Morris Hunt (who designed the Statue of Liberty pedestal), and landscape expert Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park). When completed, the house included 35 bedrooms and 45 bathrooms — over 250 rooms in all. In the 1930’s, George and Edith’s descendants opened the house to the public in order to generate income and fund preservation efforts. (P.S. There are no records that Gloria ever visited the estate.)
There’s a full calendar of year-round events, including a Downton Abbey Exhibition opening November 2019 through April 2020. The extensive grounds offer a variety of outdoor activities, like hiking, kayaking, and if guests want to stay overnight, three hotels/cottages have been built on the property.
For more information go to Biltmore.com
Top photo: Entrance to the Biltmore. Credit: MJ Hanley-Goff
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