Built between 1889 and 1895, this grand and massive Chateauesque-style mansion was designed by Richard Morris Hunt for George Washington Vanderbilt II and his wife, Edith Vanderbilt, whom had decided that Asheville would be an ideal place to build a French-style self-sufficient country estate.
The house is the largest private residence in the United States, with a 178,926 square foot (16,622.8 square meter) interior floor space. The house was named for De Bilt, the place where the Vanderbilt family came from in the Netherlands, and originally sat at the center of a 125,000 acre (195 square mile or 510 square kilometer) estate, which included Mount Pisgah, much of the present Pisgah National Forest Biltmore Village, and the upscale Asheville suburbs of Biltmore Forest and Biltmore Park, much of which has been parceled off and sold to help assist with keeping the estate running, with 86,700 acres of reforested land surrounding Mount Pisgah being sold to the United States government in 1915. Prior to becoming part of the estate, the land, which straddles the French Broad River, was home to small farms, and was in very poor condition, with Frederick Law Olmsted designing the landscape of the estate, reforesting large areas and creating a park-like setting with natural and artificial landscaped areas surrounding the house.
Part of the estate included Biltmore Village, formerly a small railroad town known as Best, which was redesigned to resemble a rural French medieval village, with a fan-shaped street grid centering around the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls, which was attended regularly by the Vanderbilt family. The village also features Norman-style cottages, various shops, a train station, a hospital, and a school for the families of workers at the estate, with many of the buildings being designed by Richard Sharp Smith, who took over as lead architect following the death of Richard Morris Hunt. Today featuring many shops, restaurants, and tourist accommodations, Biltmore Village has since been annexed by the city of Asheville. The portion of the estate bordering Biltmore Village features an iconic gatehouse, which melds the cottage-like materials of the village with the more imposing design language of the mansion inside the estate. Between the gatehouse and the mansion, a 3-mile-long (5 kilometer long) driveway known as the Approach Road winds its way through carefully cultivated landscapes, as well as crossing under Interstate 40.
The grounds around the estate include a walled garden with rusticate granite walls, a large rose garden, gardener’s cottage, and a conservatory featuring various tropical plants that would not naturally grow in the local climate. Closer to the house, the large South Terrace enclosed by a rusticated retaining wall stands immediately south of the house, with a gazebo at the southwest corner of the terrace. East of the terrace is the Italian Garden, which features a formal layout, fountains, and Italian-style sculptures, with a more natural Shrub Garden and vine-covered arbor south of the Italian Garden. In front of the house is a large lawn, which runs east to the Esplanade, a stone wall with a series of stairs and ramps that switchback to an upper lawn, with a decorative series of six stone fountains embedded into the base of the wall, and a small belvedere with a Statue of Diana at the upper end of the lawn. West of the house is a grassy knoll, which leaves the views from the house of the surrounding mountains unobstructed. Finally, below the Walled Garden, an enlarged former mill pond, which predated the estate by many decades, is now known as the Biltmore Bass Pond, and has been stocked with fish, and features a boathouse, with a dam and waterfall at the lower end of the pond along the exit road from the house.
The Biltmore House features elements from various historic French Chateaux, including the stair tower and hipped roofs of the Chateau Royal de Blois, as well as various elements from the Chateau de Chenonceau, Chateau de Chambord, also in France, and Waddesdon Manor in England. The house features a facade clad in Indiana Limestone, with lots of Gothic details, leaded glass windows, casement windows, and double-hung windows, towers with steeply pitched hipped slate roofs and decorative copper cresting, ornate wall dormers, an elevator tower at one side of the staircase, a large conservatory known as the Winter Garden next to the front entrance tower, which features an octagonal glass roof with an wooden Gothic support structure, a loggia on the west side of the house with sweeping views of the Pisgah National Forest in the distance, and a stable wing on the north end of the house, with a porte cochere tower entrance to the stable courtyard, stone chimneys, and a loggia on the south side of the house. The smooth limestone exterior of the house is contrasted by the house’s rusticated granite base, quarried on the grounds of the house, which also was utilized in the massive retaining wall around the adjacent South Terrace.
Inside, the house features luxurious finishes, including carved woodwork, intricate plaster details, electric lighting and steam heat, multiple fireplaces, a large kitchen and laundry in the basement, many guest rooms, a massive four-story chandelier in the grand staircase, a basement swimming pool, bowling alley, and gymnasium, a large grand banquet hall, bedrooms for staff, and a two-story library. The house features antiques and decorations sourced from the Vanderbilts’ many international excursions and antique dealers, as well as lots of art.
The house was opened for public tours in 1930, which has, over time, expanded in scale to feature more areas of the house and estate. The house was utilized to store 62 paintings and 17 sculptures from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC 1942, with Asheville believed to be a safe haven for them in the event that the United States was invaded by a foreign military, with the house remaining the repository for these important works until 1944, when the tides of war had turned. Biltmore Estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark 1963, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, owing to the house’s significant size, intact detailing, and connections to notable individuals. Still owned by the Cecil family, the descendants of Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, George and Edith Vanderbilt’s only child, the house is today utilized as a museum and open to tours, with the 8,000 remaining acres comprising the modern grounds of the estate having been developed with tourist amenities, including the conversion of the estate’s various barns into museums, restaurants, and a winery, as well as the construction of a luxury hotel, shops, and additional support facilities. The estate today is a major tourist attraction, seeing nearly 2 million visitors every year.