I was away without internet access this weekend, so I wrote a bit on my laptop in sections and can post it now. You may wish to read it in spurts, for it is long. But believe it or not, if I had more time, I could go into more vivid detail about all I’ve seen and felt. Ah, the frustrations of having a mind so full and fingers so sluggish – not to mention a clock that ticks too fast to fit everything you desire to accomplish in the day. Anyway, here goes:
This weekend is Mark’s Birthday. I decided to take him away – pry him out of his house-building drudgery for a short weekend of leisure. So, I made reservations and tried to keep them a surprise. However, about a week ago, he started complaining about how busy he was and how he couldn’t be absent from the worksite for even a moment or things would go wrong. He pointed out mistakes being made every time he came home for dinner or had to meet me for an hour in the afternoon. I started to panic, thinking he’d kill me when I told him I’d planned a weekend away at this crucial time in the building process. I stressed about it for days, then cracked and told him about my plans. I had prepaid the weekend so there was no canceling. Leaving the surprise until the last moment seemed as if I was inviting resentment, or at least, a load of bad temper to spoil everything. Didn’t want my romantic get-a-way to turn into an obligatory thing. I wanted it to be something special.
So, I spilled the beans. He didn’t react negatively – he actually seemed pleased, although he mentioned how hard it would be to go away without some painting being complete because the hardwood floors and ceiling were going in this week. He couldn’t bare the thought of them being accidentally stained with color before they were treated. No problem. I got up at 5:30 am and went with him to the site and painted away. By 11:00 he was satisfied that things were in order, so we could leave guilt free. That was important – you can’t relax when you are thinking of all you should be doing. Luckily, none of the workers come in on the weekend, except the stone mason, so Mark won’t miss anything important – just the chance to get ahead. I figure, he can take a weekend off for a birthday.
I’ve taken him to see the Biltmore Estates in Asheville. Staying at the Biltmore seemed a bit pricy at 500 bucks a night– as a couple we’ve never been that impressed with extravagance, we are more delighted with charm – so I picked a Victorian Bed and breakfast with all the trimmings instead. It seemed thematic. We are staying in the Beaufort House in the Dogwood Cottage. This is a beautifully restored Victorian home, complete with vintage antiques, china and old world quaint decor. They serve a formal breakfast in a gorgeous dining room, china, linen, and all, at 8:30 AM. We were greeted today with a wine and cheese banquet, having missed the high tea at 4:00. I have to tell you, I’m loving the ambiance. My mind slips away and I am in one of my romance novels, seeing my heroine walk down the grand staircase, her face vibrant with enthusiasm for the adventure I will thrust her into with my keyboard. I find myself taking notes of the details around me, the trim on the chair rail, the throw pillows, the pictures and china patterns. It is like stepping into the past. Fun.
At this moment, I am sitting outside on a small wooden deck at a bistro table while Mark is getting a massage inside with a physical therapist/masseuse. This was a service offered by the Beaufort House that I couldn’t resist setting up in advance. I figure it will set the tone of this birthday weekend – time to relax. Mark’s body has been so beat up and sore lately, he can barely function. I think this, above all else, will make his birthday perfect. I had a special mocha cake delivered to the room and a bottle of wine, chocolates and special tea bath crystals with candles. These are the kinds of luxuries you can organize in a quaint bed and breakfast – such a far cry from the average hotels bustling with tourists down the street. And all of it comes to less than half the cost of the Biltmore, so the luxury comes without guilt. That makes everything even nicer.
Tonight we will go explore downtown – or maybe just have dinner somewhere. They have a jazz club here – that always makes my knees go week. Ashville is one of the top eleven art districts in America too, so I’m betting we will spend some time in the galleries. Tomorrow we will see the amazing Biltmore Estates, home of the Vanderbilt’s in the early 1900’s. It’s the closest you can get to a castle in America (the largest home ever built in this country), with some 288 rooms. I’ll talk more about that after I see it tomorrow. We are taking a special behind the scenes tour to learn about the construction and how things worked in the house – fun for Mark because he likes to build things and for me because I like to experience things, ask questions, so I know enough to write about them.
This bed and breakfast has an amazing history too (I’ve been reading information provided about it out on the porch while sipping my wine). It was built in 1895 by the State Attorney General for his new young wife. It went through changes, turning into a boarding house in the 1970’s and believe it or not, Charlton Heston and his wife rented a room here for a year while they saved money to go to California – the guy had this crazy dream of becoming an actor. Ha. Maybe this place is lucky. Anyone really curious about this Bed and Breakfast can see it online. It’s a marvelous place to stay.
Ah – the massage is done. I can go inside now. I’m almost sorry… it is lovely out here and I could write much more . . . but I don’t think ignoring the birthday boy would earn me brownie points.
Mark was so relaxed after his massage; he looked like someone strung out. His eyes were all glassy and blood shot, his arms hanging limp at his sides as if it was too much effort to lift them. He said he felt great, but I think the combination of a glass of wine, a massage, and just being away made him crash. We went to an authentic pizza joint recommended by the masseuse, but didn’t eat much. We chose to return to the room and ended up laying in bed and watching a movie instead of going out – not a bad choice considering the feather quilts and pillows and the big double Jacuzzi hot tub in the room. Ha. Don’t think that is authentic Victorian décor (the hot tub) but it sure is welcome by someone all broken and beat up by trees, as Mark has been. Tomorrow we will go to the Biltmore. Can’t wait.
We gather in the dining room for our complimentary breakfast (which is why this is a “bed and breakfast”, not a “bed and bagel” stop, I suppose). They had a full house, all 11 rooms were occupied by couples so 22 people sat around a huge Victorian table set with china and adorned with flowers. A few extra tables were set up about the perimeter and we sat at one of these. It provided a beautiful view of the bushes outside and the veranda (complete with an old fashion swing). We were served juice and coffee first while we shared conversation with other couples. Such interesting people choose to stay at a place like this, it makes conversation vivid and enjoyable. We especially connected with a couple our age who have been married just a year. They are building a house now (two lives merging into one requires a new start – what better way to go about it than by building a place of their own) and they came to Asheville to purchase a piece of art for an empty wall. They were lovely.
Breakfast arrived. We were given a homemade banana muffin (mine are better) and eggs benedict (mine is also better) and a hot, crusty pear dumpling. (I never made one, but I would be hard pressed to do better. This was fantastic! Wow. You can bet, I’ll try it at home so next year, I can claim mine is better . . . maybe.) Breakfast made this stay truly special. I was fascinated by the woman who runs this establishment – she does all the cooking, organizing, checking in – etc. She was a marvel.
For years, Mark has said he would love to run a bed and breakfast. I’ve never been as keen on the idea. I love to cook, but only for the people I love. I certainly don’t want to do it on demand, as a job. And clean after others?. Thanks but no thanks. He had this romantic vision of us growing herbs in a garden and me cooking with them, people entering our lives to share our home and leaving feeling refreshed and inspired. But one man this morning was complaining about the creaky floors as if the bed and breakfast was unkempt because of the noise in the hall. I commented that when you stay in a one hundred year old Victorian home, the creaky floors are a part of the ambiance. They make it all authentic so really, they shouldn’t be offensive. The man rolled his eyes as if I was an ass. I looked at Mark and whispered, “That is why I would hate to run one of these establishments.” The point is, you can’t control the people who visit, and so much of the public is spoiled and impossible to please. If we haven’t learned that in our years of business, we’ve learned nothing.
With the lovely morning meal behind us, we took off for the Biltmore.
The Biltmore experience:
George Vanderbilt’s great grandfather borrowed $500 to purchase a ferry to transport vegetables from the main land to Staten Island. He must have been a hard worker because in his lifetime, he grew his business to a net worth of 100 million. (And in today’s time that is worth 8 billion – not bad for any entrepreneur.) He got into shipping just when the timing was right. His son (George’s father) inherited that fortune and doubled it- got into the railroads just when the time was ripe. I think that is where the work-ethic gene (and good timing) in this family fizzled out. George Vanderbilt, the youngest of 8 children, inherited 5 million from his father and 5 million from his grandfather. He devoted his life to spending it.
George considered himself an intellectual. He read a great deal – in fact, he kept track of everything he read from the age of 12 on. It totaled about 3500 books when he died. That is two per week all his life. (I wasn’t much impressed. I may even have him beat – certainly, my MFA work has me pushing the numbers.) He traveled the world collecting art and antiques and studying architecture to plan his spectacular home in the <ST1laceName w:st=”on”>North Carolina</ST1laceName> <ST1laceType w:st=”on”>Mountains</ST1laceType>, patterned off the grand estates and castles in Europe. No one knows how much he spent, because he paid for things privately and kept no records, but I walked through the estates thinking he certainly didn’t have enough money with a measly 10 million (estimated worth today at 66 million) to build Biltmore. He must have had some investments too, because to build this house today would top 66 million for sure. Heck, Disney spent more than that on a theme park years ago.
It’s amazing – for that investment doesn’t include the art and antiques inside, which include Renoir oils and over 1600 prints by famed artists. Most of the furniture is 16th century or older, and the tapestries are from the 14th century. George acquired the table that Napoleon’s heart rested on for 5 days as they were doing an autopsy. Guess that is the kind of conversation piece you get for the man who has everything. Amazing. His library holds thousands of hand tooled leather books, antiques by their own right. The china and linens alone are worth a fortune.
We walked through this monstrosity, amazed and slightly put off. What kind of person chooses to live this way? They say this home is George Vanderbilt’s contribution to the world. I couldn’t help but think that is a pretty dismal display of a life well lived. Considering the man’s resources and family power, it all seems grossly indulgent to me. I guess if he made the money through hard work or innovation I’d feel differently – or if he left some other significant mark on the world, the house would seem a just reward. As it was, I imagined a spoiled rich kid who thinks he is important because he can buy things, traveling the world to acquire more and more, and probably not understanding or having empathy for any of the repressed people he encountered along those travels. In the lecture that accompanies the tour, they kept mentioning how kind the Vanderbilt’s were to their servants etc. but it didn’t change my gut feelings about the family much.
Biltmore, when it was built in 1890, (finished in 1895) was a marvel of modern convenience. All 288 rooms were wired for electric lights. Unfortunately, there were two systems being claimed as the route to the future, but George did not choose Edison’s. They had to upgrade to the correct system after all the electrical work was initially done. George Vanderbilt also had a marvelous new convenience that the country help they hired didn’t trust at all. Flush toilets. With some 45 bathrooms in the house, people had only to pull a chain to see their waste disappear. Amazing! The bathrooms were all identical, with plain, cream tile like something out of a prison, each sporting a claw foot tub and toilet. Sinks hadn’t been invented yet. People still used a washbasin to wash their face and hands, calling for a servant to bring them a pitcher of warm water when desired. The running water in the home was all cold, so I suspect the servants were bringing in hot buckets of steaming water to add to the bath too – “convenience” is a relative term.
Downstairs they had an indoor pool, a workout room with all the newest equipment (a medicine ball, parallel bars and a rowing machine). We toured the kitchens complete with a pastry room, roasting room, vegetable storage and other divided rooms to combat the heat. The laundry rooms were fascinating too, with a new fangled device that spun the clothes to remove the water after things were washed and a huge drying room where sheets were hung on long poles and slid into a warm oven sort of device so they dried where they wouldn’t be seen.
I especially loved our back stage tour where we saw unfinished rooms and the basement. I saw how coal was delivered for the three huge furnaces to heat the home, the air vents used to cool the upstairs, and the room devoted to electrical switches that controlled it all. We saw how the dumbwaiters worked and the small tubes set in the walls, which allowed staff to talk to each other from one level to another (like talking into a Dixie cup on a string when you were a kid).
Many of the rooms have invisible doors that you can only see when you look very carefully, because paneling and pictures are on them so they blend into the walls. This allowed servants to move about unseen and reminded me of gothic horror movies. George built a bachelor’s wing, so the men could come in late and not disturb the female guests (hummmm, guess convenience has many faces). A few nudes are hung in the hallway here. Fascinating. I loved how, when you walk by the men’s smoking room by the grand dining hall, the smell of tobacco is still pungent (or so I was told). A hundred years later and the whiff of those men is still there, like the ghost of their leisure.
There were some odd facts that jumped out at Mark and me, for example, the family never finished the music room on the main floor (until 1970). The room is in a significant place in the front entryway, yet it was boarded off and left. Why? We speculated that the wife caught George with a female maid there or something, so she demanded it be closed off, never used. It was such an unexplainable odd thing – and no one talks about “why” today. In fact, the tour contains many such mysteries that make you wonder about the people who lived there. I think the Vanderbilt’s keep their family secrets in the closet as well raised, affluent families do. For example, George died in 1914 from appendicitis; but his wife only lived in the home for two more years. When her daughter married, she claimed that there was only room for one woman in the house, (in 288 rooms?) so she moved away and never returned again. Sounds fishy to me, as if she was looking for an escape clause. Their daughter divorced ten years later and went to Europe, never to return either -another one bailing from the family home . . why? Makes you think it may not have been the happy place history paints it to be.
The home is still privately owned by the family, only it is now open to the public as part of a “for profit” enterprise. At 35.00 a ticket and 7.00 more for the audio lecture (which you must get to understand any of what you are seeing) and 15.00 for the behind the scenes tour (that makes it 57.00 per person) I imagine they are working towards recouping their investment. Takes time with a white elephant of this size.
The grounds were spectacular – the gardens amazing. They have fishponds and mountain views, a waterfall and bass pond, some 17,000 acres to explore, much of it developed for ultimate beauty. They have a winery, of course, a carriage house and stables – just about anything you can imagine.
We had lunch in a posh restaurant on the grounds, actually it was built in what was formerly the stables. We ate in a refurbished stall on a table decked in linens and china, the windows and sky-high tile ceiling the original of this carriage house. I imagined a young stable boy sitting on a bucket right where our table was placed, flies swarming around his head, straw at his feet and horses whinnying nearby, hearing someone telling him a tall tale about how one day, a hundred years hence, people would pay 12.00 for a sandwich to sit and eat right there in the stables. That kid would laugh himself off the stood at such an absurd claim.
All told, it was a fascinating trip. I so love history and writing about it, that walking through those halls has special meaning for me. I see the faces of the people who lived this way in my mind, both the privileged and those that served them, and the many guests or the children born into this lifestyle, imagining what they thought and felt as they went through their days. It’s like stepping back in time and being a fly on the wall.
Mostly, I think the entire project was sad – doomed from the beginning. Had George Vanderbilt built his magnificent home 300 years prior, it would have been happily used by his family for years to come. Like the great castles in Scotland or mansions in England. I’m sure that was his intention, but as it was, Biltmore was only used about 40 years. Why? My theory is that it became obsolete almost as soon as it was complete. America went through such a huge leap of growth in the industrial revolution that this home, seeped in history and heritage, couldn’t keep up.
Within twenty years, the automobile was invented. Oops, there goes the main use of the carriage house and stables – and I doubt the automobiles back then could make it up the mountain – thus alienating their rich guests from visiting and sticking the family with a passé mode of transport. All kinds of new things were invented from sinks and refrigerators, to water boilers and stoves. The phone and telegraph was invented – and suddenly the tubes in the walls (designed so staff could talk to each other) had to seem old fashion – George’s original intention of building the most progressive home ever became the exact opposite. Probably a dismal disappointment to him and his wife.
Considering the impact of the great industrial revolution, you can see that this monstrosity of a home, designed in the fashion of the wealthy family ancestry homes of Europe, just didn’t fit in to the new world’s lifestyle. Even the servants required to run the home would have had other options for employment. They went to factories, or to war – got married and had their own businesses as the world suddenly offered opportunity to the common man. Women could suddenly go out in public. They could vote. They didn’t have to fold sheets and be invisible in the great house anymore, protected from the world. All people slowly became free of the strict Victorian policies and attitudes. Once that ball started rolling, it didn’t take long (imagine the roaring 20’s a few short years after this ridged old world attitude existed) Class distinction was not as powerful as it once was and everyone learned they had rights- not just the rich. And they wanted to exercise them.
I think Biltmore was simply a home built too late for it to thrive in the manner it was intended.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive and a marvel to witness. I loved every minute of the tours and the hours we spent leisurely walking the grounds. We speculated about the personal lives of those that walked this plat of earth before us, the fights they had over the original construction, the way George must have poured over plans and designs as he built his dream home. The Vanderbilt’s must have showed off at first, inviting everyone who was anyone to visit, then I bet they felt trapped by it later. I wonder how the future generations feel looking at it all today – or how his father and grandfather felt the first time they looked at the opulence, knowing their boy never worked as they did but spent so liberally. Bet they didn’t like it much, and this probably caused stress between son and father.
For us, seeing Biltmore was not just about seeing Biltmore – it was imagining the stories behind those walls. Fun!
The family still owns the home, and they certainly have family pride, evident in how they present it all to the public. The grandson’s voice introduces the home on the audio tape, making it all sound so romantic and whimsical, as if George Vanderbilt left this terrific accomplishment behind for all of mankind. But knowing history as I do, and having studied America’s culture from 1850 and on, helping me understand the realities of life back then, I came away with a very different feeling from the tour than intended by the presentation. On the surface it is beautiful and amazing – a virtual museum of artifacts and living history. But underneath –the reality of the project, ah, it makes a history buff/imaginative girl’s head spin with the possibilities.
Word has it that in the depression they charged a dollar to see the mansion. But it was a huge drain of the family resources, losing 250 thousand dollars a year just for upkeep (in today’s dollars, just imagine how much that was). It fell to disrepair, unused, but in the 1970’s it underwent a huge restoration. The family actually had companies make copies of the original wallpaper and fabrics so what you see today is the original mansion. They planned to turn it into a tourist attraction – which worked beautifully. There were busses and busses of people being carried from the parking lots to the house like it was Disneyland or something. We were a bit off-put by the crowds, but at least when we walked the grounds we found some solace and could imagine that was what it was liked a hundred years ago for guests.
For all that Biltmore is a successful tourist attraction today, I imagine a wealthy great grandson’s dilemma now of making a business out of this family land just to keep it from draining them dry. He is wrestling with state taxes and all kinds of financial red tape that George Vanderbilt never had to deal with. This man probably has a very different work ethic, an empire of investments to run, much like his ancestors that ran the shipping empire to build the family fortune. The day’s of inheriting wealth and being a gentleman of leisure (those that worked were considered a poor excuse for a gentleman in the pre-Victorian era and many a family’s estates were lost through the excess gambling, drinking, and spending done in the name of gentleman’s leisure in Europe) are gone.
Business rules the world now and success in business is admired foremost, even in the world of wealth and privilege. As such, a home like Biltmore is an investment, and in the tradition of the 21st century American way, the family has found a way to make it profitable.
Historically, Biltmore is a gift to the world. George intended something different, for sure, but he left a legacy in a historical home that, due to it being made of stone, copper and marble, has permance, not to mention a collection of authentic artifacts preserved for generations to come. Anyone with a healthy bank account balance can enjoy them… um…. not to be confused with state run museums or libraries that are a true gift to the world, available to all. It all goes to show something good lies in everything . . . you just have to be patient until time reveals the true value to mankind. And perhaps, more time must go by before the true legacy of the Biltmore estates is revealed. Until then, it is great fun for a visit if you can afford it.
I need to sum up this weekend, so I will end by just saying we spent the late afternoon browsing through art galleries (I’m becoming ever-more convinced we could run one of these successfully, so I look at them through different eyes – summing up the business potential, artistic integrity and such.) Then, we were so tired and still full from our stable lunch that we decided to have a picnic in our room rather than go out. We stopped at this amazing fresh market deli/grocer and bought apples and gouda cheese, crusty bread, shrimp, a chicken, watermelon and crab and artichoke dip and took it back to the room, where we ate in bed watching another movie (I swear, we never watch TV – but it felt decadent and lovely for some reason to lay around – totally lazy). We polished off the rest of the wine and Mark’s cake. Indulgence seemed the theme of the day.
The next morning we had another wonderful Victorian breakfast with Cranberry muffins, fruit salad and blueberry waffles. Yum. We then went to a huge art festival at the convention center to browse the high-end craftsmen and their goods. We were lucky it happened on our weekend in town, for this is a well-known exhibit in North Carolina – one we have often said would be nice to attend. We talked to a woman who makes quilts that we have admired at other events and saw some other unique work. Fun. Then, we went home to gather the family for the real birthday celebration. We went to dinner and saw a movie, “My Super ex-girlfriend”. Ha. Guess we reached our intellectual quota for the weekend, so a mindless movie was all we could face. Kids liked it best.
And now . . . I am home. Behind on my work (the theme of my life) and hustling to get on top of things. But somehow, stepping away, removing yourself from your life for a short while, gives you great steam to tackle it once again. So now, without excuses – I must get to it.