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The Construction of Biltmore House

Estate History 03/12/19

Written By Judy Ross

Seeing the majestic appearance of Biltmore House today, you almost believe it was always part of the landscape. In reality, it was a monumental construction project as these photos from the Biltmore archives show in the first of two blog posts.

Workers commuting to Biltmore House 1890

The House Site viewed from the top of the Rampe Douce, 1889
The photo above shows that Biltmore House was sited on the lower slope of Lone Pine Mountain, near the spot where George Vanderbilt had paused in 1888 to admire the view across the French Broad Valley westward towards Mt. Pisgah. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted determined the orientation of the house, intending to maximize “the good distant outlook.” 
  
Workers Commuting to Biltmore House, 1890
Workers constructed a temporary railroad spur from Biltmore Village (where it joined the main line of the Southern Railroad) to the building site. The railroad brought construction materials from the village. Each morning and evening the train also provided transportation. The stone carvers, aristocrats of the labor force, rode in borrowed passenger cars. The rest of the workers sat on supplies and construction equipment in the open freight cars. Although the rail spur was dismantled when construction was finished, remnants of at least one trestle are still visible and may be seen on the Behind-the-Scenes Legacy of the Land Tour.

Approach Road construction workers

Workmen on the Approach Road with Chauncey Beadle, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Vanderbilt, 1891

Foundation construction 1891

On the front row, far right, are shown Chauncey Beadle, hired in 1890 to oversee the estate’s nursery; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted; and George Vanderbilt. In this photograph one is struck by fascinating details that reflect the lives and labor of the men involved in building the great Approach Road—such as the road crew’s lunch pails on top of the masonry wall. The Approach Road remains one of Olmsted’s enduring masterpieces. He wanted visitors to encounter a variety of plants along the sides of the road as one would see “paintings on the walls of a gallery.” The road was to be a wide corridor, with plants carefully graduated: low shrubs nearest the road, then higher shrubs, followed by low spreading trees, then higher growing pines and hardwoods. Olmsted intended “this arrangement …[to be] irregular, of course, with some caprice.”
 
Foundation of the western wall of the South Terrace looking south, 1891
Rough-hewn limestone for the foundations was delivered to the site by rail, and then moved by hand-cranked, geared hoists. Work began with the walls of Olmsted’s Bowling Green—today the South Terrace—which provided a place to deposit earth excavated from other foundations. The construction of the Bowling Green also offered an opportunity to test the organization of work crews and the procedures that would be used once work began on the house.

Rampe Douce 1892
Shrub Garden 1892

View of the Rampe Douce and Vista with construction sheds and train in foreground, Ca. 1892
 
 
The Shrub Garden, or Ramble (left), and Esplanade (right), looking west, 1892
As this photograph reveals, the Esplanade in front of Biltmore House served as the work yard for all construction activities. Note the sheds and yards of the stonecutters and woodworkers; piles of stone, sand, wood, brick, and tile; and the tracks of the railroad. 

Biltmore construction supervisors 1892
Stonemasons' shed 1892

The Supervisors, 1892
Represented in this image are on-site contractors and supervisors. The supervising architect from Richard Morris Hunt’s office, Richard Sharp Smith, appears second from right. Others include F.M. Weeks, chief contractor, and W.A. Thompson, chief engineer. Smith designed many of the houses and cottages on the estate and in Biltmore Village. After the completion of Biltmore House, he left the Hunt firm and established his own architectural practice in Asheville. For the next 30 years, Smith designed many private homes and public buildings in Asheville and Western North Carolina.
Stonemasons’ shed on Esplanade, 1892

Workers and steam engine 1892

Workers and a Baldwin steam engine on the Esplanade, 1892

Walled Garden 1893

Pre-existing Homestead (foreground), the Gardener’s Cottage and Walled Garden (middle), and the foundations of the Bowling Green and Residence looking northwest (background), February 25, 1893
Here a complex of hewn-log farm buildings occupies the foreground, with the Gardener’s Cottage behind. The latter was the first building to be completed on the estate. This reflected the importance placed by both Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted on beginning the massive task of planting the landscape to hide the scars of construction. The Walled Garden appears nearly complete, while Biltmore House rises on the hill beyond.

See more archival photos in part 2 of our construction blog.
 

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Jerry W Harrelson
2 years ago

This is a fascinating link to the logistics & rail spur that was a critical piece of what millions enjoy today! I remain curious about if any remnants of the spur rail line remains today? Think the “Behind the scenes Land Tour” no longer is available, but here’s an idea for the engineering-minded visitors? Beyond the rail matter, what about the water supply, the treatment of effluent and the electricity generation in the beginning. These issues were essential to make the Estate work. Thanks in advance of your reply. We have moved to Biltmore Lake after building a new home… Read more »

David Evans
1 year ago

The water came from Busbee reservoir several miles away, gravity fed. Raw effluent was piped to the river. Electricity was generated by a dynamo in basement.

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