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Destinations: Step into the Gilded AgeDestinations: Step into the Gilded Age

Visit Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina

We were charmed by Downton Abbey, the gracious England home depicted in the television show of the same name, but the United States’ East Coast has its own awe-inspiring family home.
Pilot Briefing July 2020

Biltmore House in Western North Carolina is the largest privately owned house in the United States. It has 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, four floors, a rooftop observatory, and a swimming pool in the basement—and that’s just the highlights.

George Washington Vanderbilt II was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and he spent his vast inheritance building Biltmore House on 125,000 acres in Asheville, North Carolina. He began the project in 1889 at the age of 25, enlisting the talent of renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. The pair—along with landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted—would transform the little town of Asheville, employing more than 1,000 residents and even creating a three-mile spur off the railroad to bring in materials. Because the house has existed as a museum open to the public since 1930, its history is documented throughout the 178,926-square-foot structure for visitors to marvel, learn, and absorb.

You can take guided tours or tour on your own; the staff recommend you plan for at least two hours. They must have been on speed trials. No way can you get through this amazing place in two hours. For one, the basement alone is massive and so interesting. In addition to kitchens and servant quarters there is the 70,000-gallon swimming pool, bowling alley, and then-state-of-the-art gym. You’ll get lost here easily.

On the main floor is the grand staircase. It has 107 steps and climbs circularly up four stories, overlooking the 70-foot-high banquet hall and gazing down on the many rooms. The fourth-floor rooftop is where Vanderbilt could gaze out at the rolling hills of his estate. There are two elevators, among the many technological advances in the house. It had electricity, which Vanderbilt’s friend Thomas Edison installed.

Vanderbilt nearly spent his fortune on the estate, especially on his travels to Europe with Hunt to furnish and decorate the house. Vanderbilt brought home Napoleon’s chess set and gaming table, Flemish tapestries from the Middle Ages, Ming Dynasty bowls, and 24,000 volumes of books. The paintings are art gallery-worthy, from Renoir to Whistler to Sargent. Vanderbilt only enjoyed his home for 25 years; he died at age 52. But his children and grandchildren have kept the home in beautiful condition and continue to welcome visitors.

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Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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