At Christmastime, More is Better

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If you want to get into the Christmas spirt, visit the Biltmore Estate in Asheville North Carolina and take the Christmas candlelight tour. There are dozens of hand decorated Christmas trees, including a 35 foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall; over 1,000 poinsettias, miles of garlands which curl over limestone archways and wind up the grand balustrade adorned by a carved statue of St. Louis.

This Gilded Age mansion, the largest private home in America, sits majestically in the Blue Ridge Mountains, aglow, for the holidays. On the front lawn there is a 55 foot Norway spruce with 45,000 white lights. In the Winter Garden, a Victorian era atrium, under carved timbers and frosty glass, sings a high school choir, “Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o'er the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains.”

The Biltmore House at Christmas

The Biltmore House at Christmas

The glory of the Biltmore house is inspiring year round but especially at Christmas. Commissioned by George Washington Vanderbilt in 1889, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and built over a six year period by craftsman from around the world, The Biltmore House opened with a party on Christmas Eve in 1895.

The library at the Biltmore House

The library at the Biltmore House

The estate is modeled after the French Renaissance chateaus that Vanderbilt and Hunt visited together. The four story, 178,926 square foot Indiana limestone building has steep pitched roofs, turrets, and sculptural ornamentation. It has 252 rooms including 33 bedrooms; 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating and an intercom system.

The fit-for-a-king Banquet Hall is one of my personal favorite spaces, measuring 42 feet wide by 72 feet long with a 70 foot high barrel- vaulted ceiling, a Skinner pipe organ at the east end and a triple fireplace on the west end. The dining room table seats 64 and is surrounded by Flemish tapestries…the perfect gathering place for my extended family! This room has Christmas trees flanking the fireplace and another under the organ pipes.

George Vanderbilt, 1862-1914, was that client of your dreams. Grandson of the industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, he was born in Staten Island New York but loved the beauty and serenity of western North Carolina. His landscape architect was none other than Frederick Law Olmstead. Both Richard Morris Hunt and Olmstead had designed other houses and gardens for the Vanderbilt family and both were in the twilight of their career when designing Biltmore.

John Singer Sargent's portraits of Frederick Law Olmsted (left) and Richard Morris Hunt (right) in the Biltmore House

John Singer Sargent's portraits of Frederick Law Olmsted (left) and Richard Morris Hunt (right) in the Biltmore House

On the second floor of the house there is a Living Hall with a portrait gallery. Several large scale masterpieces are displayed here, including two John Singer Sargent portraits of the architect and the landscaper. Imagine having a client who commissioned a portrait of you by the world’s most famous portrait painter of the day!

The Biltmore Estate is a National Historic Landmark, still owned by descendants of the Vanderbilt’s and in 2007, voted one of America’s most beloved architectural treasures by the American Institute of Architects. For me, it represents the beauty, craftsmanship and grandeur of a bygone era, the quintessential period home.
The spirit of Christmas moves me, but the Biltmore Candlelight tour brought me to tears.

Happy Holidays!

Pete