Six Years & 1,000 Men: Building Biltmore House
It started off as an innocent family vacation with his mother, but George Vanderbilt’s trip to Asheville, N.C., in 1888 was more than just a simple getaway. It was the first step in a journey that culminated with the completion of the 250-room Biltmore House, America’s largest privately owned-home.
The Dream Begins
When Vanderbilt arrived in Asheville, he immediately fell in love with the rustic beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area was already popular among the wealthy for its healing springs and reviving mountain air. Away from the hustle and bustle of New York society, Vanderbilt saw a place where he could give life to his dream of recreating an English country estate. An avid traveler, Vanderbilt was captivated by European country estates. He commissioned Richard Morris Hunt, the unofficial Vanderbilt family architect, to help design his new home.
Building a European Estate in America
Work began on Biltmore House in 1889. The construction process required around 1,000 workers ranging from local laborers to internationally known artists such as Viennese sculptor Karl Bitter and Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino.
To accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of building a European chateau in rural North Carolina, Hunt focused on efficiency. The land in front of the home site was transformed into a mini-town with buildings and small factories that produced materials necessary for the construction of the house. An on-site kiln produced up to 32,000 bricks daily, and a woodworking factory supplied oak and walnut for the house’s floors and walls.
Indiana limestone, Italian marble and other supplies were shipped into Asheville by rail. Vanderbilt built a private railroad track from the village depot up to the construction site. The 3-mile route eventually became what is now the Approach Road that leads guests to Biltmore House.
A Home for the Ages
Once the house was completed in 1895, it was easy to see the European influence. Vanderbilt and Hunt traveled through Europe while in the early planning stages of the home’s construction. They found inspiration for the house’s exterior in the 16th-century chateaux of Loire Valley, France. The stair tower and steeply pitched roofline were inspired by three specific chateaux: Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord.
Inside, the house was distinctively English. The country estates of Knole, Hatfield House and Haddon Hall provided guidance for the design of the interiors:
- Winter Garden: This glass-roofed room was considered stylish in the Victoria era and provided a place to display exotic plants. The marble and bronze fountain sculpture by artist Karl Bitter, Boy Stealing Geese, is the centerpiece.
- Banquet Hall: Measuring 42 feet wide by 72 feet long, and boasting a 70-foot high ceiling, this room features three fireplaces and an organ gallery. Artist Karl Bitter carved murals into the fireplaces’ overmantel and the organ gallery.
- Tapestry Gallery: This 90-foot-long room served as a sitting room and a ballroom. It was designed to display three 16th-century Flemish tapestries, which currently adorn the walls.
- Library: The dramatic ceiling painting, The Chariot of Aurora, adorns this massive room. Approximately half of Vanderbilt’s 23,000-volume book collection resides here.