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Last Build Date: Thu, 14 Dec 2017 18:59:40 UTC

Copyright: Copyright 2017

Christmas at America's biggest home

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 14:00:38 UTC


A 27-year-old bachelor named George Washington Vanderbilt II built America's biggest home as the 1800s wound to a close. Biltmore, as Vanderbilt called it, is still privately owned by the family but is open to touring. It's decorated to the hilt for Christmas. Watch video A 27-year-old bachelor named George Washington Vanderbilt II bought some land in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains and in 1889 started building what he called his "little mountain escape." "Little" in Vanderbilt terms is a house with 250 rooms and four acres of floor space - three times the size of the White House. Biltmore, as it was called when Vanderbilt officially opened his grand chateau to friends on Christmas Eve 1895, remains America's biggest home. See the list of America's biggest houses It's morphed from a storybook bachelor pad into a ritzy tourist estate that draws 1.4 million visitors a year to the outskirts of Asheville, N.C. The biggest draw is Christmas time when Biltmore - still privately owned by GW's descendants - decorates to the hilt with 55 ornate evergreens, 2,000 poinsettias, 500 wreaths, tens of thousands of lights, a mile and a half of garland, and more than 25,000 ornaments. The Vanderbilts became America's richest family when Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt made a fortune in the shipping and railroad industries in the 1800s. But "G.W.," as George Washington Vanderbilt II was called, was far more interested in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Biltmore than running the family businesses that his grandfather, the Commodore, began. G.W. became infatuated with the area after visiting with his mother in 1888, deciding to use a big chunk of his inheritance buying 50 farms and five cemeteries to put together the original 125,000 acres on which Biltmore was built. Biltmore took six years and 1,000 workers to build. Designed by New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed homes for other Vanderbilts, the castle-like creation had 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, a two-story library with 22,000 books, priceless art throughout, and 19th-century novelties like elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms and an intercom system. Vanderbilt didn't overlook the outside. He went big-time there, too, hiring famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of many of America's greatest parks (including New York's Central Park) as well as the campuses at Boston University, Yale and Stanford. Olmsted designed 75 acres of impressive, mostly classic French formal gardens near the house. Those are still there and open to tour, including a conservatory decorated for Christmas, a formal Italian garden with three reflecting pools, a four-acre walled garden with geometrically laid-out flowers, a rose garden, a sprawling azalea garden, a spring garden, and tree-lined trails leading to a large estate pond with waterfall. The view out back shows what drew Vanderbilt to this region - the blue-tinted Blue Ridge Mountains for as far as the eye can see. Olmsted switched to his trademark naturalistic style there - an English style that's looser and planted with trees and huge swoops of native shrubs. Vanderbilt's idea was to create a whole self-sustaining community around Biltmore, patterned after the wealthy European country estates of the day. The plan was similar to what Henry Francis du Pont built at Delaware's Winterthur estate, which is also stunningly decorated each Christmas. The main commercial part was Biltmore Village, just outside the estate gates. It had trade shops, rental cottages, a doctor's office, a post office, a school and a church. A successful dairy farm also was started. Vanderbilt married three years after moving into Biltmore to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, an ancestor of Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of colonial Dutch New York. They had a daughter, Cornelia, before Vanderbilt died suddenly in 1914 from complications a[...]

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