Biltmore House is a Châteauesque-styled mansion near Asheville, North Carolina, built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately-owned home in the United States, at 175,000 square feet and featuring 250 rooms. Still owned by one of Vanderbilt's descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age, and of significant gardens in the Garden à la française and English Landscape garden styles in the United States. In 2007, it was ranked eighth on the List of America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.
In the 1880s, at the height of the Gilded Age, George Washington Vanderbilt, youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt, began to make regular visits with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt (1821–1896), to the Asheville, NC area. He loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to create his own summer estate in the area, which he called his "little mountain escape", just as his older brothers and sisters had built opulent summer houses in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Hyde Park, New York.
His idea was to replicate the working estates of Europe. He commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Chateauesque style, using several Loire Valley French Renaissance architecture chateaux, including the Chateau de Blois as models. The estate included its own village, today named Biltmore Village, and a church, today known as the Cathedral of All Souls.
Wanting the best, Vanderbilt also employed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds, with the immediate gardens in the Garden à la française style, beyond those in the English Landscape garden style. Beyond these were the natural woodlands and agricultural lands with the intentionally rustic three-mile approach road passing through. Gifford Pinchot and later Carl Schenck were hired to manage the forests, with Schenck establishing the first forestry education program in the U.S., the Biltmore Forest School, on the estate grounds in 1898. Intending that the estate could be self-supporting, Vanderbilt set up scientific forestry programs, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms and a dairy.
The Vanderbilts invited family and friends from across the country to the opulent estate. Notable guests to the estate over the years have included author Edith Wharton, novelist Henry James, business magnate Bill Gates, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, and Presidents McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Nixon, Carter, and Obama.
Vanderbilt paid little attention to the family business or his own investments, and it is believed that the construction and upkeep of Biltmore depleted much of his inheritance. After Vanderbilt died in 1914 of complications from an emergency appendectomy, his widow, Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, completed the sale of 85,000 of the original 125,000 acres to the federal government. This was to carry out her husband's wish that the land remain unaltered, and that property became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest.
The estate today covers approximately 8,000 acres and is split in half by the French Broad River. It is owned by the Biltmore Company, which is controlled by Vanderbilt's grandson, William A.V. Cecil, I, and run by his son, William A.V. Cecil II,the great-grandson of George Washington Vanderbilt. In 1964, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The dairy farm was split off into Biltmore Farms, run by William Cecil's brother, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil. He converted the former dairy barn into the Biltmore Winery.
In an attempt to bolster the Depression-driven economy, Vanderbilt’s only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and her husband, John Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore House to the public in March 1930. Family members continued to live there until 1956, when it was permanently opened to the public as a house museum. Visitors from all over the world continue to marvel at the 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, early 20th century exercise equipment, two-story library, and other rooms filled with artworks, furniture and 19th-century novelties such as elevators, forced-air heating, centrally-controlled clocks, fire alarms and an intercom system. The estate remains a major tourist attraction in Western North Carolina and has over 900,000 visitors each year
The grounds include 75 acres of formal gardens, Antler Hill Village, a winery and the Inn on Biltmore Estate, a AAA four-diamond 213-room hotel.
“If These Walls Could Talk” exhibit continues to be on display in the Second Floor Living Hall, and highlights Biltmore as a private family home, as well as spotlighting the restoration of the Louis XV Suite, which opened to the public in 2009. In 2010, they debuted Antler Hill Village, as well as a remodeled winery, and connected farmyard. The Village includes the Outdoor Adventure Center, Creamery, Cedric's Tavern, and the Biltmore Legacy, which is another museum highlighting the time of the Vanderbilts. For 2011, the Biltmore Company introduced a new stop on the Butler's tour, Mrs. Emily King's bedroom, part of the unrestored Housekeepers Suite. Mrs. King was the head housekeeper at Biltmore House from 1897–1914, and led the house even when the Vanderbilts were out of the country. On display with her room, is a turn of the century vacuum cleaner, foxtail duster, and toilet bowl cleaner. Also from July–October 2011, the Tiffany collection will be on display in Biltmore’s Antler Hill Village in the Legacy Museum. Forty-five of Louis Tiffany’s renowned stained glass lamps and three windows from other Vanderbilt properties have been brought in for the summer.