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Monday, June 1, 2015

Biltmore Revisited

Biltmore House, 2015--shuttle busses abound.

A Biltmore lion, an old family friend.
I think it was 1988. Our son, now a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was about five at the time, knee-high to one of the iconic stone lions guarding the main entrance to the largest house in America. In revisiting the massive estate a few days ago, I shot a photo of my wife by the same lion. Lots of things had changed. When we first visited, they charged by the floor ($12.50 for the first floor, another ten or twelve dollars to tour the second floor). This time I toured four floors and the basement for $49.95 per person. Twenty-five years ago, even before handicapped parking spaces, we parked along the grassy mall near the front of the house. This time (even with a handicap permit) we parked in one of three distant lots served by medium-sized shuttle buses. When I questioned a guide about this, she noted that nine-eleven had changed things forever.

The Downton Abbey folks pay a visit to Biltmore (or at least their clothes do).
About the only things which haven't changed since our first visit are the house itself, the flowery, Frederick Law Olmsted-designed grounds, and the warm, knowledgeable, helpful staff, who good-naturedly handle crowds that have tripled or quadrupled in recent years. We were especially fortunate to visit during a temporary exhibit of Downton Abbey costumes (above) featuring immaculately accurate period outfits along with history and social comments dealing with the popular television series. It was almost like seeing the G.W. Vanderbilt family in the pre-income tax days of the turn of the century as they lived their daily lives amid such French Gothic splendor.

The Biltmore Inn, rates start at $387 per night.
One thing which has changed is the near constant pursuit of tourist dollars at every turn both at the mansion complex, as well as the various recently-built venues around the estate, one of which is still under construction (2015). Hotels, food outlets, restaurants, gift shops, and recreational activities seem designed with little else in mind. And the prices...! I know that hundred-year-old white elephants are expensive to maintain, but a little moderation and subtlety would be a welcome relief.

The Biltmore Garden Shop--souvenir shrubbery anyone?
And while I'm letting off steam, I hate it when such historic, museum-like attractions ban all inside photography. Vizcaya, the Deering estate near Miami, is guilty of the same offense. In traveling all over Europe through similar venues, I have never encountered such restrictions (other than the use of flash photography). I might also point out that a few more public restrooms, better marked, and more widely distributed throughout the house (such as in the basement) would be a welcome "relief."

An estate gift shop, one of many, this one specializing in Biltmore wine.
Whenever you revisit a place, you
always notice something you missed
the first time.
The tours are self-guided with telephone handset recordings available for the lengthy trip through the house (something like 30-40 stops). I didn't use one. I was already pretty much aware of the house, its style, its history, its architect (Richard Morris Hunt) and its former occupants. Tickets are wisely doled out by appointment every fifteen minutes (ordering online is a good idea) in order to control the size of the crowds passing through the house. It's large (no, huge), but even so, not sufficient for a "super-mob" during peak hours. After a visit, there is a driving tour of the rest of the estate including the charming waterfall (left) which I somehow don't recall from our first visit twenty-five years ago. (Actually, it's the spillway for the dam and the picturesque lake Olmsted created behind and below Hunt's French chateau.)

The breakfast room at Biltmore, set for Christmas morning.
The library Christmas tree.
For years I've wanted to revisit Biltmore during the Christmas season when each and every one of the two-hundred plus rooms is graced by at least one Christmas tree, (many with several of them) and other period holiday embellishments. However our time restraints and reservations during the holiday season are notoriously hard to arrange, even years in advance. So I bought a book and DVD chronicling the extravaganza. Along with the obligatory paperbound book similar to those of other such places(only slightly larger), I left the extensive complex of gift shops (including a candy store, a Christmas store, and a toy shop) about $65 lighter. Some items I found displayed ran into four figures. Asheville's Biltmore Estate is a nice place to visit (and revisit) but I could never afford to live there...even for one night.
The basement and three floors of Biltmore are now open to the public.


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