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From Start To Furnish

Please enjoy my musings on all things interior design!

How Biltmore Absolutely Changed My Life

I was totally amazed.  My little 20-year-old eyes couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  

The year was 1980.  The place, Asheville, NC.  

This Is The Beginning of How Biltmore Changed My Life

Let me take you back.  First of all, my parents forced me to go to college at a women’s college in South Carolina.  No point in trying to sugar-coat that fact.  I wanted to stay home, get an apartment with my best friend, Elise and go to SFA.  My parents weren’t going to have that.  I wasn’t looking at any other colleges because this was my plan.  So they chose for me. They had to shove me out of the nest.  So they loaded me, my bags and my teddy bear in the car and hauled me to South Carolina.  When my dear father came to visit me in October for Freshman Father’s weekend, I told him I didn’t want to stay.  He said that was fine, that they just wanted me to try it.  When I went home for Summer, I told my parents that I wanted to go back.  And there I stayed for four years.  Do you think they knew that would happen?  

I knew nothing of the Carolinas.  Although my family traveled the country on Summer vacations, I don’t remember a trip to that area.  I fell in love with it.  Living there made me a beach person, which I still am today.  I made fabulous lifelong friends there.  I loved those Carolina girls with their lilting accents that took a turn-up and the end of the sentence.  I learned to call a purse a pocketbook.  I found out about Beach Music and how to do the Shag. They were amused at my East Texas long "i’s".  While living there, I met the man who would years later become my precious husband.  Those were glorious times and fond memories.  

Back To The Day Biltmore Changed Me

But back to the day in question.  Asheville, NC is not far from Spartanburg, SC where I was attending college.  My parents came to visit me on a Spring weekend, and we took a road trip to Asheville to see the Biltmore House, the grand estate of George Vanderbilt.  

I had never seen anything like it, and it still holds such a dear place in my heart.  I had traveled to Europe after graduating High School, so I saw the ancient castles and cathedrals there, but this was in the United States.  How could anything so glorious exist in our relatively young country?

A Little About Biltmore

George Vanderbilt fell in love with Asheville, right in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains on a trip there when he was 26 years old.  In 1889 (coincidentally the same year as the founding of my college in Spartanburg) he began construction on his 250 room estate modeled after a French Renaissance chateau.  Vanderbilt hired the architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and the landscape designer, Frederich Law Olmsted most famous for his work on none other than Central Park in New York City.  The hunting lodge opened on Christmas Eve in 1895.  I can only imagine what a grand gala that was.  

George Vanderbilt married and had one child.  Years after his death, his daughter Cornelia and her husband John Cecil opened the home to the public in 1930. 

So there I was in 1980, not even realizing that there were Cecil family members still living on the upper floors.  First of all, you’re amazed while making the three-mile drive from the main gate.  There is so much natural beauty to delight the eyes all expertly planned by Olmsted. Then you arrive at the house and enter the main doors as all the guests would have on that Christmas Eve in 1895.  As I toured the home, I could imagine the era that the Vanderbilts lived here and how they must have lived.  The ladies with their grand gowns sliding through the wide hallways and parlors.  The gentleman in the Smoking Room, smoking their cigars, drinking their brandy, laughing and playing a game of pool underneath the watchful eyes of the taxidermy trophies that graced the walls.  I could not, however, imagine such a dinner that the staff must have served in the cavernous Dining Hall, which at Christmas sports the main tree in the Estate. The family enjoyed breakfast in the much smaller breakfast room with the beautiful Wedgwood mantle.  The library.  How could anyone ever read all of those books?  And that room has the largest fireplaces I believe I have still ever seen.  

As I walked through these halls and took in all of the sights and sounds, it was fun to imagine the people living and working there.  And I suppose, as it was not as ancient as the drafty castles of Europe, it was easier to believe.  Maybe that’s what captured my attention.  It was interesting to learn of Mr. Vanderbilt and how important this project was to him; how involved he was in it, and how he researched and hired only the best to bring his vision to reality.  I was interested in all of the furnishings and art and collections; why Mr. Vanderbilt and Hunt chose them and the significance of each piece.  

Biltmore Forever Became Part Of My Life

After that first visit, I have visited Biltmore many more times.  At Christmastime, my college buddy and I drove there and shivered in line in the Blue Ridge Mountain chill, being warmed by hot chocolate, served by workers.  Upon entering, we had a uniquely different Biltmore experience seeing the Estate regaled in Yuletide splendor.  I’ve also been back since the family members left, and once off-limits areas of the home, have now been opened for the public to experience.  The elaborate kitchen tour and seeing the way the staff lived.  Mr. Cecil and his brother began a winery on the grounds in the early 80’s, and my friends and I were there to tour the winery, do a little tasting and bring some home.  You can’t drive right up to the front door anymore, like my parents and I did on that first visit.  There are now vast parking lots.  
Descendants of George Vanderbilt still own the Biltmore Estate.  It is the largest privately owned residence in the United States.  The necessary commercialism still doesn’t take away from the experience of getting a glimpse of life in the Gilded Age.  And it still holds a special place in my heart, as it was there where I began to get an inkling of appreciation for architecture and furniture and art and how people live in the spaces they love.

If you've never been to the Biltmore Estate, I can highly recommend it; any time of year.  The gardens are phenomenal in the Spring, but the decorations at Christmas can warm the heart of Scrooge.  There are places to stay on the Estate and in Asheville.  Biltmore Village, around the Estate, is a charming community with plenty of shops and eateries.

You may not have the Biltmore House, but your house is your castle, and I’d love to help you realize your dreams for it.  

LifestyleJill Ornelas