The historic Biltmore Estate has a unique place in the heritage of the United States. Its centerpiece, the Biltmore House, is the largest private residence in America. The House, along with its many other unique and awe-inspiring features, has become one of the most visited historic tourist destinations in the nation, welcoming more than one million visitors each year. The most visited winery in the country is not in Napa Valley — it is the Biltmore Winery.
George Washington Vanderbilt completed the Biltmore House in time to accommodate its first guests for Christmas 1895. Built of massive limestone blocks and incorporating numerous architectural details, the home represented the wealth of the Vanderbilt family and the opulence of the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century.
Richard Morris Hunt, the period's most renowned architect, styled the mansion after a French Renaissance Château in France’s Loire Valley. Perhaps even more outstanding than the Château itself are the elaborate grounds and gardens designed by America's most honored landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted’s credits include New York City's Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds. Olmsted called the Biltmore Estate, “the first great private work of our profession in the country.”
The Biltmore Estate consists of 8,000 acres of land, a swath of land that is massive by today’s standards. But consider that the property once consisted of nearly 125,000 acres of land. To manage these extensive holdings, George Vanderbilt had to hire experts. Thus was born the practice of modern American forestry.
Gifford Pinchot, the father of modern forestry in the United States and the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, first managed these lands. His successor, Dr. Carl Schenck, did something that has become common in modern forestry, but was revolutionary at the time — harvesting less timber than was available and leaving trees for future regeneration.
Today, about 86,700 acres that were once part of the Estate have been incorporated into the adjoining Pisgah National Forest Visitors and residents alike enjoy hiking, biking and other forms of outdoor recreation in the very same lands where George Vanderbilt himself once hunted.
It is remarkable that through the years the Biltmore Estate has been preserved without any public funds. There is no comparable story of the preservation of such a property for public use and enjoyment in our country.
The remarkable story of how this has been done is told best in the book, The Lady on the Hill by Howard E. Covington, Jr. The book is an engrossing saga of how the estate has been held together over the generations.
It is most interesting in chronicling the energetic and innovative efforts of William A.V. Cecil, who began in 1963 to transform what David Rockefeller called a “white elephant” into a thriving tourist attraction. Now, the Biltmore Estate is not just among the most visited historic attractions in the country, it is one of the largest employers in Asheville.
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