On Sunday I was lucky enough to visit Biltmore Estate with my family. Located in Asheville, North Carolina, Biltmore is the largest private residence in the United States. Opening in 1895, it was constructed by George Vanderbilt as a retreat for his family and a place to entertain guests. As we walked through the opulently decorated rooms, I was struck by how much this grand American house resembled English Country houses like Chatsworth—or its fictional cousin Pemberley. The house itself is designed like a French chateau. The architecture is wonderful, and everything is tastefully decorated. You can imagine what it would be like to live as a member of the aristocracy (or the American equivalent), when money truly is no object.
The Biltmore library (below) housed 23,000 books, all selected by George Vanderbilt himself (something I could picture Mr. Darcy doing) —and was
designed to accommodate a huge classically inspired painting on the ceiling. The house has a “bachelor wing” with a gun room, smoking room, and billiard room (with its own secret passage back to the guest quarters so single male guests could stay separate from single female ones). Each of the 33 (!) guest rooms had little name tags on the door so that guests would recognize their rooms.
The main dining hall (left) is seven stories high and boasts three fireplaces and a pipe organ. The “intimate” breakfast room looks like it could seat about 15 people. The words “sitting room” suggest something modest and cozy. However, at Biltmore the sitting room (below) between the master’s and mistress’s bedrooms could easily hold about half my house. The grounds include a formal walled garden, a conservatory, and trails to waterfalls—much like the estate of an English country house.
It wasn’t hard to picture a member of the Darcy family (or one of their guests) inhabiting such rooms. As I wandered through the house, I was easier to imagine such a lifestyle—dressing for dinner or to go riding, listening to instruments in the music room, writing letters in the enormous library, or enjoying a stroll through the gardens.
To be sure, there are many differences as well. The Vanderbilt family acquired its wealth from railroads, not from the land they owned. So Biltmore is surrounded by forest, not farmland. The basement houses a bowling alley, gymnasium, and a swimming pool; it’s hard to imagine something similar at Pemberley. And, of course, Biltmore was constructed in a much later era. It has 43 bathrooms (a huge luxury at that time), was wired for electricity, and has an elevator. It also enjoyed a much shorter life as a private residence, only a little over 30 years. In the 1930s, Vanderbilt’s descendants opened it to visitors as a way to help the local economy during the Great Depression.
Still, visiting Biltmore was a very visceral lesson in what it would be like to live surrounded by luxury and opulence every day. I’m not sure I could get used to such a lifestyle even if I had the opportunity, but it’s a lot of fun to imagine!