The Biltmore is called the “grandest private home in America,” but even that doesn’t do it justice.
At 178,926 square feet, the Gilded Age estate dwarfs the White House by a factor of three and puts Hearst Castle (at 70,000 square feet) to shame. It’s about the same size as a Walmart Supercenter, but it’s a whole lot more impressive.
The Biltmore, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, was the brainchild of George Washington Vanderbilt II. Built between 1889 and 1895 and designed by architect Richard Morris and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate is a picture of opulence but also a technological marvel, boasting the first ever bowling alley in a private home, a washing machine and an electrically lit indoor swimming pool. Biltmore opened its doors to visitors in the 1930s, and it is still run by Vanderbilt descendants. Today the house attracts upwards of a million guests every year.
The site is the subject of an in-depth history “The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home” (Touchstone) written by Denise Kiernan of the bestselling “The Girls of Atomic City.” Here, we’ve pulled some of the most outlandish details about Biltmore from the book:
George Vanderbilt’s most prized room was his two-story, 40-by-60-foot library, with 10,000 or so volumes handpicked from his own personal collection. George was considered “the best-read man in the country” and averaged 81 books a year. The library was crowned by the painting “The Chariot of Aurora” by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, which once hung in the Pisani Palace in Venice.
The estate took six years to complete. A special three-mile railroad spur, which cost George Vanderbilt $80,000 to create (over $2 million today), ferried men and materials to work. Construction on the house required 1,000 workers and 60 stonemasons. A woodworking factory and a brick kiln, which produced 32,000 bricks a day, were also built on site.
New Yorkers were recruited south to build. Stonecutters, employed by James Sinclair & Company, a New York contractor that worked on Vanderbilt homes in New York, did the stonework. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. And Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect famous for designing Central Park and Prospect Park, groomed the grounds to be “an exercise in sustained suspense,” writes Kiernan.
A visitor was meant to ride through the Lodge Gate and wind through three miles of canopied forest past sculptures of St. Louis and Joan of Arc by Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter until finally arriving at the magnificent home.
The house, which opened its doors in 1895, comprises 178,926 square feet (about 4 acres) of floor space and 135,280 square feet of living area. It has 250 rooms with 35 bedrooms, three kitchens, 65 fireplaces and 16 chimneys.
The Biltmore was originally situated on 125,000 acres, though the family sold parcels off to defray the cost of running the estate. Now it has 8,000 acres, which is about 12 square miles.
hen George and Edith’s daughter Cornelia married in 1925, the dairy farm on site made her a massive ice-cream cake 4-feet high with 26 gallons of fresh ice cream. “May your joys be as many as the sands of the sea,” read the cake’s inscription (that’s a lot better than Happy Birthday).
On May 15, 1930, Edith Vanderbilt opened the Biltmore home to the public to offset the costs of running the estate (George died of appendicitis in 1914). At the time, yearly taxes were $50,000, around $800,000 today. The first admission was $2 per adult and $1 per child under 12. The first year 40,000 people visited the Biltmore, minting $64,000 for the estate (though it still operated in the red). By 1968, 96,000 people visited the Biltmore a year. That year the estate saw its first profit: $16.32.
Today tickets cost $65 to $85, depending on whether you visit the gussied-up house during the holiday season (a higher cost). A million visitors take the voyage to the Biltmore every year to see the gardens, wander the home, stay in the hotels, eat in its many restaurants or for weddings and corporate events. Biltmore’s winery is the most visited winery in the United States. The current CEO is William “Bill” Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil Jr., a direct descendant of George and Edith Vanderbilt. Private ownership means that the estate receives no government grants, nor is it eligible for not-for-profit tax breaks.
There was a piggery, a poultry farm and a fully functioning dairy farm on the grounds. Entertaining a revolving door of guests required lots of refrigeration during a time when most Americans still used iceboxes. Biltmore fridges used ammonia gas and could hold 500 pounds of meats and vegetables and 50 gallons of liquid at 40 degrees, the approximate temperature of modern fridges.
The house was an electrical wonder with 180 electrical outlets and 288 light fixtures. No wonder the electrical switchboard was 6 feet by 17 feet.
The basement houses a 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool complete with underwater electrical lighting (positively cutting edge when built). Also in the basement is the first ever two-lane bowling alley built in a private residence.
The laundry system had washing “machines” (for the rest of the country the first laundromat wouldn’t open for another 30 years), a precursor to the ones we know today. These machines could spin and extract, all powered by overhead belts. Heated drying racks accommodated the numerous linens.
Boilers, designed by New York-based company John D. Clarke, provided the heat. The boilers used wood and coal, which heated water and created steam that traveled through pipes in the house. Natural convection wafted the heat upward, warming the toes of visitors. In two weeks alone in the winter of 1900, 25 tons of coal were burned.
The banquet hall
Most holiday feasts were served in the banquet hall, the largest room in the house at 72 feet long by 42 feet wide with a 70-foot ceiling, three fireplaces and an organ gallery. The original dining table could extend to 40 feet and easily accommodate 64 guests.
This article originally appeared at nypost.com