Built between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore Estate stands as one of the most magnificent Gilded Age mansions in America.
There’s a veritable castle in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains called the Biltmore Estate. Elegant and grand, it looks like it belongs in a French fairytale. But the story of this magnificent home, the largest privately owned home in the United States, is distinctly American.
Built in the late 19th century by George W. Vanderbilt, the sprawling châteauesque mansion embodies the beauty and luxury of the Gilded Age. Not only is the house itself a stunning piece of architecture, but the surrounding grounds were planned out by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.
Discover the story of this opulent Gilded Age manor, and virtually wander its grounds in the Biltmore Estate photos below.
How George W. Vanderbilt Fell In Love With Asheville
The story of the Biltmore estate starts with the man who dreamed it up, George W. Vanderbilt. The grandson of Cornelius "the Commodore" Vanderbilt, who built his fortune as a shipping and railroad magnate, Vanderbilt fell in love with the scenery of Asheville, North Carolina.
"I came to this spot and thought the prospect finer than any other I had seen," he declared after seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time while vacationing with his mother there.
In the 1880s, Vanderbilt set out to build a grand estate in Asheville. He slowly acquired 125,000 acres of land — 195 square miles — by purchasing some 700 parcels, including 50 farms, according to The Citizen-Times.
Then, Vanderbilt enlisted two experts of the day: Richard Morris Hunt, an architect known for his French Beaux-Arts style, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of Central Park in New York City.
The Construction Of The Biltmore Estate
Vanderbilt knew he wanted an English manor type home. Hunt came up with a design for Biltmore Estate in 1889 and got to work, while Olmsted counseled Vanderbilt about his grounds in 1888.
"The soil seems to be generally poor. The woods are miserable, all the good trees having again and again been culled out and only the runts left. The topography is most unsuitable for anything that can properly be called park scenery," Olmsted wrote Vanderbilt, according to the National Park Service.
But Olmsted offered his ideas for the land, adding: "My advice would be to make a small park in which you look from your house, make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly and... keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure and... make the rest a forest."
Building the home took six years. Then, on Christmas Eve 1895, the grand estate opened to Vanderbilt's family and friends for the first time.
Inside The Grand Biltmore Estate
George Vanderbilt's first guests were likely astounded by what they found at his new home, which Vanderbilt named for his family's place of origin, "Bildt" in Holland, and for the expansive hilly landscape (moors) that surrounded it.
The Biltmore Estate had 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, 34 bedrooms, an indoor pool, a library with 10,000 books, and priceless artworks and antiques around every corner.
According to the Biltmore Estate's official website, Vanderbilt used his home to display many of the treasures he'd acquired while traveling abroad. These included stone fountains from the Renaissance, Chinese vases from the Ming dynasty, and an 18th-century Italian painting called "The Chariot of Aurora" which was so large (64 feet long by 32 feet wide) that Hunt designed the house specifically so that it would be big enough to accommodate it.
Vanderbilt also personally curated the expansive library, and was known at the time for his love of books.
"He was a bookworm, a student," one New York journalist declared. "And his love of books came all from his own inner consciousness, for he was not graduated from any college, and his education, while not neglected, had not been carried beyond the ordinary limits of high schools, though now, I doubt not, he is one of the best read men in the country."
Life Inside The Biltmore House
At the beginning, George Vanderbilt was the only person enjoying his books, art, and grand estate. The Biltmore Estate website notes that he was considered one of America's most eligible bachelors until he proposed to his wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, in 1898. The two married, and had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1900.
"A new star has appeared at famous Biltmore, and the charming mistress of this most gorgeous home is smiling upon her first born, a tiny girl called Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and the world shares in her new found happiness," the Spartanburg Journal wrote after Cornelia's birth.
For many years, the Biltmore Estate was a site of joy for Vanderbilt and his family. They hosted parties and had many distinguished guests, including Edith Wharton, Henry James, John Singer Sargent. According to Vogue, Wharton enjoyed the Biltmore Estate's massive library, and wrote in letters about how she'd strolled its grounds under an "Ionian sky."
But in 1914, tragedy struck. George Vanderbilt died suddenly after an emergency appendectomy at the age of 51. Encyclopedia Britannica reports that his wife sold 87,000 acres of the Biltmore Estate's land to the U.S. Forest Service, starting a gradual shrinking of the property that continued until just 8,000 acres were left.
Still, the Biltmore Estate remains a grand piece of property to this day. The Biltmore Estate photos in the gallery above are certainly proof of that.
The Biltmore Mansion Today
In 1930, the Biltmore Estate opened to the public. And it's been one of the top tourist destinations in Asheville ever since.
As Explore Asheville notes, there's much more to the Biltmore Estate than the house itself (though the house is certainly one of the main draws). Visitors can also visit the estate's gardens, trails, and the Biltmore winery, which is the most visited winery in the nation.
And though the grounds aren't as sprawling as they once were, there's certainly still plenty to explore. Visitors can ride horses, kayak in the waters nearby, and go bird watching.
In the gallery of Biltmore Estate photos above, virtually explore the history and grounds of this exquisite mansion, perhaps the grandest house in American history.
After perusing these Biltmore Estate photos, discover the story of Hearst Castle, the sprawling mansion built by the 20th century's biggest newspaper tycoon. Or, enjoy these beautiful photos of Boldt Castle — and learn the heartbreaking story behind its construction.