Wednesday, August 20, 2008

America's Biggest Home

Anyone going to the Asheville, NC, area should make a stop at Biltmore Estate, America's Biggest Home. We went not so much for the house as for the landscaping and gardens. The Beach Boys concert that night was already sold out, so we had to miss that.
Frederick Law Olmsted was the landscape architect in charge of the landscaping and forest development when the "house" was built in 1889. Think about that title. An architect designs buildings for a purpose. I never thought of landscaping in quite that formal manner. If his name doesn't sound familiar, he also designed Central Park in New York City, and all the city parks here in Louisville, Ky, among many others. Biltmore has a combination of formal gardens and winding paths through more natural forested areas. As we walked down the hill to Bass Pond, pictured above, I wondered how often the turn of the century society ladies actually took this stroll in their long skirts and corsets! I was breathing heavily on the way back up myself! We were accompanied by several Eastern Towhees and Carolina Wrens along the path, and met by soaring dragonflies and butterflies along the pond's edges. In fact, this is the first decent picture I've ever taken of a Towhee.
The walled garden closer to the mansion is an inspiration to gardeners everywhere. They are famous for their roses, but we were impressed by the thousands of annuals planted in the beds, and how much work is involved in replacing them each season. I bet all these gardeners have at least a Master's degree in botany, as well as a green thumb. Bees and butterflies abound. The ripening grapes in the arbor smelled sweeter than the flowers! A hummingbird landed on the trumpeter vines to rest before sticking his whole head in for the next drink of nectar.

The Vanderbilts wanted their property to be self-sustaining, and operated a commercial dairy, timbering, and farming during their tenure. Their descendants follow that tradition, but concentrate on the tourist industry, offering tours of the mansion itself, a gardening center, outdoor recreation and a farm for city kids, an Inn, sales of home design accessories, an equestrian center, and the Biltmore Winery. We learned about the wine making process, and most importantly, got to sample all their products! Yum! To support this endeavor, we purchased a few bottles to take home. Of course, restaurants abound on the property. We had to stop and take photos of the sunflower fields bordering the corn fields.

Now, to me, "home" is where you live all the time. The mansion advertises itself as a home opened to friends, children and dogs. George Vanderbilt was literally master of "all he surveyed" from any window. As high society at the turn of the century, George Vanderbilt was an art collector, and I kept thinking that our Speed Art Museum would kill to have the collections in this "home." Also, as high society, the Vanderbilts had "homes" in New York and Paris, as well, if not Newport and Washington, where they also spent time. Maybe my concepts of home are too limited.

Maybe I would think differently if I were the heir to that much money. They did provide jobs and homes to the people who worked for them all those years, whether the Vanderbilts were actually in residence or not. During those times, I imagine such jobs would have been hard to find in the mountains. They did provide the land for the Mount Pisgah National Forest to be established. I was surprised that family members are still involved with the active management of the property. But I must admit to a prejudice against conspicuous consumption when there is so much need in the world today. On the other hand, much of the world would consider my modest lifestyle to be conspicuous consumption too. I guess it just depends on your perspective.

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