Moving into America’s Largest Home would be a work in progress for George Vanderbilt as Biltmore House was not quite finished for his October 1895 move-in date.
Have you ever moved into a custom-designed new home? If you have, you know that the punch list never seems quite buttoned-up on moving day. Little details seem to linger even after the last box is unpacked—and it was no different for George Vanderbilt’s magnificent new house in Asheville, North Carolina.
A ground-breaking project
Archival image of Biltmore House under construction, May 8, 1894
Ground was broken in 1889, and during the course of the six years that followed, George Vanderbilt remained in close touch with Biltmore House lead architect Richard Morris Hunt, supervising architect Richard Sharp Smith, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Hunt passed away in August 1895, just months before Vanderbilt moved in, but Sharp Smith was able to complete the plan.
Archival image of the Brick Farm House, circa 1889
When he came to stay for periods of time at the construction site, George Vanderbilt stayed in what was called the Brick Farm House, a property he purchased from Asheville entrepreneur B. J. Alexander in 1889. Sharp Smith renovated the property, which included a mill and farm buildings, so that it was comfortable enough to accommodate Vanderbilt and his project team when they visited to check on the estate’s progress.
In the months leading up to the official opening, carpentry and cabinetry were among the final touches. With George Vanderbilt’s move-in scheduled for October, archival information shows that Richard Sharp Smith hired 16 additional cabinetmakers to speed up progress.
Biltmore House contractors, including Richard Sharp Smith (second from right), circa 1892
Finishing the last details of America’s Largest Home
On his first night at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt slept in the Bachelors’ Wing because his bedroom wasn’t finished. There was another issue, too, described in the papers of Frederick Law Olmsted:
When the water was turned on in the stable… to get ready for the servants to occupy, it was found that it would not go up to the second floor where the servants [sic] rooms are.
The problem was soon fixed and water flowed a few days later, but there were still a few outstanding details to hammer out. With family and friends expected for Christmas 1895, Sharp Smith hired an additional 10 cabinetmakers in December. While almost all the carpentry was finally completed in 1896, additional cabinetry projects extended into 1897.
View of front façade of Biltmore House
Plan your visit today
Today, when you visit Biltmore Estate, you can see first-hand the incredible attention to detail that went into every aspect of America’s Largest Home. But as you might imagine, even this architectural masterpiece was subject to the challenges faced in any home-building project. By seeing the vision of the project through until the end, George Vanderbilt and his design and construction team created a landmark with enduring quality that we still enjoy today, more than 125 years later.
Our new Building Biltmore House exhibition explores the construction of George Vanderbilt’s magnificent home—a massive project that took hundreds of workers seven years to complete.
A new take on our construction story
“For nearly two decades, we displayed photographs and stories about the construction of Biltmore House in the Basement area known as the Halloween Room. It was a favorite of our guests, but we removed the panels in 2019 to make room for components of a different exhibition,” said Meghan Forest, Archives and Curatorial Assistant.
According to Meghan, the new Building Biltmore House exhibition, also located in the Halloween Room, will uncover additional in-depth information about the people, circumstances, and innovations surrounding the building of America’s Largest Home®.
“One important goal of the new exhibition is to focus more on the craftsmanship and labor of the employees who worked on the project rather than just the construction techniques,” noted Meghan. “Through continuing research in our own archives and outreach to descendants of some of the original workers, we’re able to share new stories that add depth and context to Building Biltmore House.”
Discovering personal connections
In the course of the archival research for this exhibition, Biltmore worked closely with Dr. Darin Waters who serves as North Carolina Deputy Secretary for Archives and History in the Office of Archives and History for the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
His personal connection with Biltmore dates back more than two decades, and his ancestors’ history with the estate dates back more than a century, presenting a thematic through-line for his own life story. Guests will learn more about Dr. Waters’ research and family discoveries as they take in the details of Building Biltmore House.
Design dream team
(L-R) purchasing agent and agricultural consultant Edward Burnett, architect Richard Morris Hunt, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, George Washington Vanderbilt, and architect Richard Howland Hunt, son of Richard Morris Hunt. 1892
In 1889, 26-year-old George Vanderbilt recruited two of the nation’s most sought-after design professionals, architect Richard Morris Hunt, and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, to assist him in building a grand estate that would serve as a scenic retreat for the young man’s family and friends.
Both Hunt and Olmsted had been instrumental in shaping the look of late-19th-century New York, with Hunt having designed the Statue of Liberty pedestal and the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Olmsted creating the tranquil greenspace of Central Park and advocating for the preservation of Niagara Falls State Park.
Planning and inspiration
Archival sketch of Biltmore House façade, drafted prior to construction, does not include the glass-roofed Winter Garden that was added as plans were finalized
Having purchased a total of 125,000 acres since his first visit to Asheville in 1888, Vanderbilt charged Olmsted with choosing the site of his future country home along with designing the manicured gardens and grounds that would rehabilitate the acreage’s former farms and cutover woodlands.
Vanderbilt, Hunt, and Hunt’s wife Catharine then embarked on a two-month trip across England and France to gather ideas. The journey proved a success, as Hunt eventually designed a 175,000-square-foot French Renaissance Revival-style château influenced by the exteriors of France’s Blois, Chambord, and Chenonceau estates, and the interiors of Knole Palace, Hatfield House, and Haddon Hall in England.
Vanderbilt named his estate “Biltmore” for Bildt, the Dutch town of his ancestry, and the old English word “more” meaning open, rolling land.
Building Biltmore House
George Vanderbilt escorts a group of guests on the South Terrace during contruction. 1893
When construction began hundreds of workers and tradesmen arrived daily to perform general labor as well as blacksmithing, painting, carpentry, and stone carving. While many materials such as bricks and stone were sourced locally, others were imported from across the country and overseas.
Men, materials, and supplies arrived at the construction area on standard gauge rail lines supported by trestles designed by Olmsted to span the mountainous terrain without damaging the forests below. The construction site became a bustling city of its own, with workers occupying temporarily built offices, workshops, and sheds.
Biltmore House comes to life
Month by month, George Vanderbilt’s vision took shape as Biltmore House rose from its foundation. The home consisted of 250 rooms, including 101 guest and servant bedrooms, 65 fireplaces, and 43 bathrooms.
Luxurious, state-of-the-art conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity were included in the house, along with a fire alarm system, two elevators, and a telephone system. A bowling alley, gymnasium, and 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool were built to provide entertainment and exercise during inclement weather.
The end of a long journey
One of two iconic lion sculptures, crafted from Rosso di’Verona marble, await installation at Biltmore House. March 1894
As with any significant undertaking, one must aim for a deadline, and George Vanderbilt declared December 24, 1895, as the date that his labor of love would be unveiled.
Final touches on the landscaping took place, the makeshift workshops on the property were disassembled, and cabinetmakers and carpenters hastened to finish the endless custom details within the home. Although several areas including the Library and his own bedroom were still incomplete, George Vanderbilt welcomed his mother and 26 other relatives to celebrate Christmas Eve in his new home.
Experience Building Biltmore House and more
“Beginning February 4, 2022, we invite all of our guests to visit our new Building Biltmore House exhibition located in the Halloween Room to learn about the inspiring individuals who came together during the construction of Biltmore House and its surrounding gardens and grounds,” said Meghan.
In addition to enjoying our Building Biltmore House exhibition, enhance your visit with a Rooftop Tour that includes spectacular views and stories.
This new exhibition is included with regular estate admission and is part of the normal self-guided visit route.
Featured image:Visible through a third floor window faced with decorative limestone veneer above the Porte Cochere are the brick walls and iron joists that provide structure for Biltmore House, ca. 1893
Happy birthday to Frederick Law Olmsted, born April 26, 1822.
Olmsted is often referred to as the “father of landscape architecture in America,” and is best known for New York’s Central Park, which he co-designed with architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux.
Frederick Law Olmsted and daughter Marion Olmsted near the French Broad River at Biltmore, ca. 1895. (Photo courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.)
Each April, we honor Olmsted’s work as the designer of the artful landscape surrounding Biltmore House.
Olmsted knew William Henry Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt’s father, when they both lived on Staten Island, and the designer had already worked on several Vanderbilt family projects when George Vanderbilt approached him in 1888 to advise on the first 2,000 acres of North Carolina property he’d already purchased.
Mountain views from Biltmore House
“Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish,” Vanderbilt reportedly told Olmsted.
After visiting Vanderbilt’s acreage in Asheville, North Carolina, Olmsted gave his young client a frank assessment of the property:
“The soil seems to be generally poor. The woods are miserable, all the good trees having again and again been culled out and only the runts left. The topography is most unsuitable for anything that can properly be called park scenery. My advice would be to make a small park in which you look from your house, make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly and…keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure and…make the rest a forest.”
Collaboration with Richard Morris Hunt
Plans for both Biltmore House and its surrounding landscape changed in 1889 when Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt toured France together and the scale of Vanderbilt’s new estate expanded.
Photo caption: The Biltmore Company.
Olmsted wrote that he was nervous, not sure how to “merge stately architectural work with natural or naturalistic landscape work.” But the architect and landscape designer worked together “without a note of discord,” and Olmsted biographer Witold Rybczynki says that the landscape architect achieved something completely original at Biltmore: the first combination of French and English landscape designs.
Designing a living masterpiece
Transitions between formal and natural gardens were important, as was the use of native plants, small trees and large shrubs, and color and texture year-round.
The Approach Road, which Olmsted designed to achieve a “sensation passing through the remote depths of a deep forest,” only to have “the view of the Residence, with its orderly dependencies, to break suddenly, fully upon one.” Photo credit: The Biltmore Company.
Biltmore would prove to be Olmsted’s last design. As he approached the end of his work on the estate, he said “It is a great work of peace we are engaged in and one of these days we will all be proud of our parts in it.”
He said Biltmore was “the most permanently important public work” of his career. More than 125 years later, we continue to benefit from his vision.
Experience Biltmore Blooms
Spring is a wonderful season to experience the mature landscape that Olmsted envisioned. Plan a visit now during Biltmore Blooms, our annual celebration of spring.
Featured image: Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted by John Singer Sargent
Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt collaborated with Richard Sharp Smith to create America’s Largest Home as well as other buildings on the estate and in the surrounding area.
Among others, Smith remained in the Asheville area and contributed their talents to many homes and buildings around the region. Let’s take a look at Smith’s work in the Asheville and Western North Carolina.
After receiving architectural training in England, Richard Sharp Smith came to America in 1882, joining Richard Morris Hunt’s New York office in 1886. A pivotal point in his career came when he was assigned as Biltmore’s supervising architect, responsible for overseeing construction onsite. Following Hunt’s death in August 1895, Smith became Vanderbilt’s lead architect.
All Souls’ Church, designed by Richard Morris Hunt with construction overseen by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. late 1895–early 1896
Once this major project was completed, Richard Sharp Smith started his own firm in Asheville, raising a family and becoming one of the area’s most popular architects until his death in 1924. At the time of his passing, the Asheville Citizen said:
“After long years of residence in Asheville, Smith has done more than any other person to beautify the city. He came to Asheville just at a time when he was needed, and was really a pioneer architect in the community…“
Smith worked in styles ranging from Arts and Crafts to Tudor to Colonial Revival. And not surprisingly, many of these homes and buildings are reminiscent of Biltmore House and other structures on the estate.
Biltmore Village Post Office, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1903
“Two beautiful examples of Richard Sharp Smith’s residential style—the Annie West House at 189 Chestnut Street in Chestnut Hill and the Charles Jordan House at 296 Montford Avenue—include pebbledash stucco, archways, and rooflines, much like his buildings in Biltmore Village,” said Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation.
In downtown Asheville, Smith was the architect for the E.W. Grove Office at 324 Charlotte Street, the Elks Home—also known as Hotel Asheville—at 55 Haywood Street, and the Young Men’s Institute on Eagle Street. Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church on Charlotte Street, Grace Episcopal on Merrimon Avenue, and All Souls’ Church in Biltmore Village are also his creations.
Young Men’s Institute in downtown Asheville, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1893
Smith’s work is evident throughout Western North Carolina, including homes in Flat Rock and courthouses for Henderson, Jackson, and Madison counties.
“Many of the buildings that define Asheville today were designed by Richard Sharp Smith,” said Leslie. “It’s enjoyable to see these structures and worth taking the time to notice the arches, tile work, pebbledash, and architectural features that relate to Biltmore House.”
From flavor to food-friendliness, we’ve always believed that Biltmore wines have big personalities.
To highlight North Carolina Wine Month in May, we’re pairing five of the estate’s historic VIPs with a distinctive Biltmore wine that best matches their own larger-than-life personalities!
~ George Washington Vanderbilt ~ Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful collector of wines
Mr. Vanderbilt was known as a thoughtful collector of wine, often bringing back cases of his favorite discoveries from his world travels to share with friends and family at Biltmore.
Handcrafted from exceptional grapes grown by phenomenal vineyard partners in California’s Napa Valley, our full-bodied Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is as refined and elegant as George Vanderbilt himself.
~ Edith Dresser Vanderbilt ~ Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina
Our Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay is an elegant match for this glorious Boldini portrait of Edith Vanderbilt
Handcrafted from North Carolina’s finest locally grown Chardonnay grapes, this wine is full-bodied with good acidity highlighted by citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
Only vintage wines worthy of the Biltmore Reserve name earn this select honor, and the excellence of this Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina reflects the gracious character of Edith Vanderbilt who, in turn, symbolizes the heart of Biltmore and all that the estate represents.
~ Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil ~ Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil exemplifies the Roaring Twenties spirit of our Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir
Born in 1900, Cornelia Vanderbilt would come of age in the Roaring Twenties, a time characterized by the effervescent enthusiasm of the American Jazz Age.
Our Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir sparkling wine captures the joie de vivre of this exciting era in a crisp, sparkling wine with a delightful light pink hue and flavors of cherries and strawberries.
~ Richard Morris Hunt ~ The Hunt Red Blend Sonoma County
The Hunt Red Blend is named in honor of Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt
The name of our richly-layered and refined Bordeaux-style red blend already honors Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of America’s Largest Home®, so it’s no surprise that it also represents his dynamic personality!
Aging for 18 months in French and American oak barrels givesThe Hunt great structure, just like Biltmore—the magnificent estate that Hunt designed for George Vanderbilt.
~ Frederick Law Olmsted ~ Biltmore Estate Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc
Biltmore Estate Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc reminds us of Biltmore landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted
Known as the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted planned the breathtaking gardens and grounds that surround Biltmore.
With classic grassy and herbal varietal characteristics, Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect partner for such an accomplished horticulturalist, and our Biltmore Estate Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc—refreshing and unexpectedly creamy with hints of toasted coconut, key lime, and oak—is no exception.
Find our award-winning wines online
Put Biltmore wines on your “bucket list” for summer sipping!
Stock up on your favorites Biltmore wines now and discover new varietals at estate shops, local retailers, and online.
Featured image: Photograph of Edith Vanderbilt paired with Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina