December 11, 2017

A Southern Castle Christmas

Posted on November 29, 2010 by in Features

Biltmore Estate at Christmas

It’s not easy to impress relatives, especially when their last name is Vanderbilt. But young George III — grandson of Cornelius, the great railroad tycoon — managed to do just that when he invited his family to Christmas Eve dinner back in 1895.

George Vanderbilt

His relatives traveled by private railway from New York to the then-small town of Asheville, North Carolina. There amid the mountains of southern Appalachia, George welcomed them to his new home, a luxurious estate that rivaled the grandest French chateaux. His niece, Gertrude, was appropriately awed. “I have seldom enjoyed a place so much,” she reportedly exclaimed.

I agree. Named Biltmore — “Bilt” after the area in the Netherlands where the Vanderbilts came from and “more” for the Old English word meaning “rolling hills” — the home is sumptuous at any time of the year, but during Christmas it is truly other-worldly. Our granddaughter was convinced it was a castle.

Of course, even without Christmas glitter, the estate is statistically and artistically staggering:
— The mansion is more than three times the size of the White House.
— The 250 rooms, about a third of which are open to the public, include 65 fireplaces, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, three kitchens, an indoor bowling alley and a heated swimming pool.
— More than 50,000 objects of art are on display, including paintings by Renoir and Whistler and several 16th-century Flemish tapestries.
— Some of the 125,000 acres originally purchased by Vanderbilt are now part of Mount Pisgah National Park, but the estate grounds are still more than nine times the size of New York’s Central Park.
— The formal and informal gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose resumé included Central Park in New York City. Fifty thousand tulips and more than 1,000 azaleas bloom in the spring, while in the summer an All-America rose garden overwhelms the senses.

35-foot Christmas tree

Now add to this the Christmas stats: nearly 100 decorated Christmas trees, ranging from a small, tabletop model to a 35-foot Fraser fir that sits in the 72-foot high Banquet Hall; more than 1,000 wreaths and bows; 1,450 poinsettias, miles of evergreen garlands and, according to floral manager Cathy Barnhardt, “bazillions of ornaments.”

This year the giant fir will be laden with child-pleasing decorations, including dolls, tops and even tricycles and toy trains. This is designed to reflect early Christmases when the Vanderbilts hosted massive family-friendly Christmas parties for their employees and gave a present to each child who lived on the estate.

Biltmore library

While Vanderbilt was most concerned with his own home, he also wanted to provide livable space for his workers. In 1889 he purchased property near the estate, tore down the dilapidated buildings and built a planned community in which all streets radiated out fan-shape from the focal point, All Souls Church. Biltmore Village was incorporated as a town in 1893, two years before Vanderbilt moved into his own mansion.

Most of the buildings have been restored and are now used as shops, restaurants and galleries. Of special note: New Morning Gallery, more than 12,000 square feet of outstanding handmade items, and Bellagio, a showcase of wearable art. Also not to be missed during the holiday season: Olde World Christmas Shoppe, which, as the name implies, is filled with nutcrackers and fudge.

The first weekend in December the Village ushers in the holiday season by turning on thousands of lights. Strolling vocalists and instrumentalists — all dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes — offer free entertainment.

Vanderbilt would have like that. So do I! Reservations advised.

Andrea Gross is a former contributing editor for Ladies’ Home Journal. She and husband Irv Gross now split their time between travel writing and helping people write their personal and family stories.


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