Last weekend, we took a long-awaited trip to Asheville in order to visit Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s mansion and estate in the heart of the western North Carolina mountains. I had been anticipating a trip to Biltmore for years, and I had heard a lot about it beforehand. I also love historic house museums, and Biltmore seemed like it ought to be the grandfather of all historic house museums. So, needless to say, I was very excited to finally see it. In this post, I will share my thoughts about Biltmore from the perspectives of both a museum professional and a tourist.
Although we planned to visit Biltmore during the day, we realized too late that the group tickets through Mike’s work that we had purchased would not allow us to make reservations for the house, and house tours sold out on Saturday. Tickets were still available for the evening Candlelight Tour though (house tour starting at 10 pm!), so we opted for that (we really wanted to see Biltmore!). There are no two ways about it – Biltmore tickets are exorbitantly expensive. They are priced in the range of theme park tickets, not tickets for a museum, which I could not reconcile in my mind until I visited and better understood what appear to be Biltmore’s priorities (more on those later).
We arrived for the Candlelight Tour before dark so we would have a chance to see the exterior of the house and grounds in daylight. No doubt about it, Biltmore itself is impressive, and its setting is just gorgeous. It was very cool to see the sun set behind the house. After dark, we had dinner at the Library Lounge at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, which was delicious, elegant, and much less expensive than the other table service options on the estate.
Then we spent a couple of hours walking around Antler Hill Village. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that Antler Hill Village, which is about five miles away from the main house, was a recreation of the gathering places of the community that lived on the estate. I was hoping to learn a lot about the tenants and servants who worked for Vanderbilt. But, alas, Antler Hill Village is made up of modern shops, restaurants, and the Biltmore winery. Most of the structures, with the exception of the winery which is housed in an old dairy barn, are not historic. It felt much more like a theme park recreation of a village than a real historic village; the latter may not have been the intention of the designers anyway.
There is a relatively small exhibit in one of the buildings at Antler Hill Village that discusses George and Edith Vanderbilt and their life on the estate. Highlights of the exhibit include their family life at Biltmore, their travels, their charitable work in and around Asheville, and their decision not to sail on the Titanic at the last minute. The exhibit is very well produced and has some fascinating artifacts, including several very rare ones from the Titanic. (Although the Vanderbilts sailed on another ship, one of their footmen sadly did sail on the Titanic and perished.) Although I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, by this point in our visit, I sensed an absence of any kind of interpretation of the community that lived on the estate, except as they existed as objects of the Vanderbilts’ charitable efforts. The exhibit ended with a film narrated by a Vanderbilt descendant who still lived on the estate grounds and, we later learned, worked for Biltmore. The realization that Biltmore is still family-owned made the site’s interpretation make a little more sense; those who run the estate appear to be primarily interested in preserving the legacy of their ancestors, certainly an understandable and worthy goal.
And it is quite a legacy. After a quick break for coffee to fuel us for our night tour, we headed to the house and spent a little over an hour winding our way through Biltmore’s long halls. The house was well-lit, and there were candles everywhere (they were artificial, but with very realistic flames). In several locations in the house, musicians played or sang holiday carols, which created a great deal of warmth and ambiance. I do wish that it had been less crowded because we felt at times as though we were being herded around, which rather detracted from the experience. The house itself is just exquisite – opulent to the extreme. And we did get to see the servants’ quarters and the working sections of the house, so we were able to get some sense of the lives of people who were not the Vanderbilts, although interpretation of their lives was still mostly absent. Biltmore does offer an Upstairs-Downstairs tour, which might very well help to remedy this deficit.
If it had not been so late, we probably would have spent more time in the house, but after about an hour, we were ready to head back to our B&B. The house is just a little overwhelming, and it is difficult to take in it all at once. Our Candlelight Tour ticket allowed us to come back to the grounds the next day, which we did. We walked some really lovely, and apparently little used, trails near the Bass Pond, where Mike rescued a heron which had gotten its foot caught in a wire fence (the most exciting part of our visit!). Then we went to the barn and barnyard; I thought that here we would learn about the people who lived on the estate. We did, to some degree, but it required us asking very specific questions of the interpreter in the barnyard. A film was running in the barn which incorporated oral histories from tenants/servants, but the focus still seemed to be on what the Vanderbilts did for them (teaching trades, teaching literacy, etc.). Edith Vanderbilt in particular appears to have done a great deal, and her efforts are an important part of the story of Biltmore, but I still would liked to have learned a little more about the people on their own terms.
Overall, Biltmore felt more like a resort than a museum. Although interpreting history clearly comprises an important part of its mission, I also sensed a great deal of institutional emphasis on providing a luxury getaway, an approximation of the vacations the Vanderbilts provided for the guests who stayed with them at Biltmore. There is nothing wrong with this goal in itself, but at times it seems to work at cross purposes with preserving and interpreting the complex history of the estate. But perhaps Biltmore would not have survived, splendidly intact, were it not for this shift towards amenities and hospitality, which may serve to draw more visitors. Still, Biltmore ought not to underestimate guests’ ability and willingness to challenge their minds with the complex and sophisticated history of all of those who called the estate home.