Grand estates create romantic images of lavish balls, garden parties, and perfectly manicured gardens. The Biltmore Estate is no exception. The privately-owned estate encompasses 8000 acres and has been owned by the Vanderbilt family for more than 100 years. George Vanderbilt had the home constructed as a country home. He was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The house is a 250-room French chateau in gothic design. Construction of the home took place from 1889 to 1895 with around 1000 people working on it.
George Vanderbilt brought his mother to Asheville in 1888 to help her find relief from a respiratory problem. It was very common back in the day for people to come to Asheville when they had TB or other respiratory problems. There were a lot of sanatoriums here. But while here, he stayed at the old Battery Park Hotel. It was from his veranda of the hotel that he first saw the area to the south that would eventually become the Biltmore Estate.
Vanderbilt dispatched some New York lawyers to the area and they started to slowly buy up all the land. Not wanting any of the landowners to find out for whom or what the land was being purchased for, the lawyers bought each space in their own names, so that they wouldn’t drive up the prices. Once they had bought up 125,000 acres, the properties were transferred into George Vanderbilt’s name.
Once Vanderbilt came forward and stated his plans for the land, the community sighed with relief. They could see the benefits of having such a place and person in the area. In grand Vanderbilt fashion, he officially opened his home on Christmas 1895 by bringing in all of his family, relatives, and friends to Asheville in grand style. He had them escorted to the Estate by white horse drawn carriages.
The basic footprint for the home covers the same amount of ground as four football fields. Its development even included functional bathrooms, running water, central heating, and electricity. George’s vision was to create a self-sustaining working estate. While the main house was being constructed, the Biltmore Nursery provided revenue for them. The Horse Barn and Main Dairy were built soon after, and supported the estate and staff with a working farm as the house was still under construction.
The house was designed with several secret rooms, hidden passageways, and concealed doors, which blend seamlessly into the walls and décor so that the untrained eye can’t spot them. The spaces were used to provide the Vanderbilts and their guests with more privacy, or to help conceal the servant’s movements throughout the common spaces. The Breakfast Room, which is their informal dining room, has a door hidden behind the table. This door leads into the butler’s pantry, which servants would use when carrying meals. You can barely make out the doorframe from behind the Renoir paintings.
There is another secret passageway in the library that leads to the guest bedrooms. There is a wrap around balcony on the second story of the library, and on this second floor, there are two doors that bring you out into the hidden hall. There is also a Den that can be gotten to through the library. This easily missed door is hidden by a carving of St. Peter the Martyr. The mysterious room that it leads to could have been used as a quiet space to read and write.
The Billiard Room houses another hidden space. A wooden door just beside the fireplace takes you into the Smoking Room. This is where the men would often retire for cigars and brandy. There are more hidden treasures all over the estate, which includes a trap door in the floor of the Winter Garden. There is also a concealed closet in the Vanderbilt’s bedroom.
George was not into business like his siblings were, but was a patron of travel, the arts, literature, architecture, and horticulture. He was the youngest of the Vanderbilt heirs and got the smallest inheritance, only around 6.5 million dollars in the 1880s. Today, that would be around 400 million dollars. Not too bad for the smallest inheritance. Vanderbilt wanted to outdo his siblings and relatives in building one of the largest and grandest mansions. He most definitely won.
George passed away at the age of 51 in 1914. Following his death, Edith, his wife, sold a large portion of the original landholding to the government. It equaled about 87,000 acres. This was meant to help preserve a natural forestry state for the land and was what George wanted. Over the next few years, there were other areas of the estate sold, including Biltmore Village.
After the Great Depression, George’s daughter, Cornelia, opened the grounds and house up for public tours in 1930. This helped to generate some income. The house was closed during World War II and its rooms were used to secretly hide valuable portraits and art for the National Gallery.
George Vanderbilt’s grandson, George Cecil, started the Biltmore Estate Wine Company that handcrafts and bottles a range of wines from the grapes that are grown on the property. Since the early 2000s, new developments have taken place on the estate, which included the Antler Hill Village in 2010 and the Village Hotel in 2015. It has never stopped being a popular tourist attraction and event venue.
While George may have passed away, along with many members of his family, have they really left the house? During his life, George was proud of his library, and he spent a considerable amount of time there. It was common for him to retreat into the library whenever he noticed a storm approaching. It is very well possible that his ghost could still be following that old habit of his. Visitors and workers at the estate have said that they have seen a shadowy figure in the library. It is more common to notice the figure after the skies have turned dark from an approaching storm. George can also be sensed in the oak sitting room on the second floor, as well as the billiard room.
One worker of the estate has described how he met George one day at the start of the Christmas season. He was doing his normal thing and setting up the Christmas decorations late one afternoon when the house was closed to regular visitors. The Christmas decorating process typical takes about two months. While he was going about his duties for the day, he was thinking of nothing in particular when he heard his name being called from a distance behind him. He turned to answer, but he never saw anybody. Thinking he had imagined it, he went back to work. Five minutes later, he heard his name called once more, again, he turned to reply. Just like before, nobody was there.
Beginning to think that a co-worker was screwing with him, he went back to work, but this time he was waiting for his name to be called again. Just as he had figured, his name was called again, but this time he was ready, or so he thought. He spun around quickly and thought he had caught the jokester, but he joke was on him. He was standing face to face with George. He instantly recognized him from all of the portraits in the estate.
He stumbled backwards and fell over a stool. The stunned man crawled around on the floor trying to regain his footing. But he stopped trying and just laid on the floor, awaiting whatever was to come.
He said Mr. Vanderbilt came up to him with a smile on his face, amused by his antics. Once he was in front of the man, he crossed his arms and looked around, as if inspecting the work he had done. Smiling broadly, he nodded in his direction and walked out of the room.
A tour guide also met George. She was giving a tour of the Estate, and had a rather large group with her, so she was constantly checking the back of the group to make sure everybody stayed together. Towards the end of the tour, she saw a gentleman that had lagged behind the rest and was looking at some art. As she finished up her presentation, she approached the man, now about 50 feet from the group, to ask him to return. When she spoke, he didn’t respond at first. Thinking he may have hearing problems, she reached out to touch his shoulder. She was not met with the solid feel of a human. Instead, her hand moved through his body. She tried to scream, but was unable to.
The gentleman then turned around, and much to her surprise, it looked just like George Vanderbilt. This only added to her fear, and she raced for the front door, much to the surprise of her group. It is believed she left and never returned.
George is probably not the only family member that is keeping up with his old habits. Edith Vanderbilt use to journey to the library to tell her husband when he needed to come a join his guests he had over. Today, there are many people who have passed through the library and heard a women whisper the name George. It could just be Edith summoning George away from his reading and back to his party. It also seems that the party never ends. Visitors and workers have reported hearing the sounds of music, laughter, and clinking glasses echoing through the halls.
Some have even reported hearing sounds of splashing coming for the estate’s long empty swimming pool. Some people have also said they heard laughter coming from the pool drain and there is a lady in black that seems to be attached to this area. For some reason, people have also said that they are filled with an unnerving feeling when in the pool room.
Many people have witnessed spirits traveling up and down the stairs. The sounds of echoing footsteps have been heard on several occasions. There have also been strange smells, cold spots, and eerie feelings.
While the next little tidbit is not for the faint of heart, there have been some visitors who have claimed to see headless orange cats roaming the gardens.
If the Vanderbilts truly are continuing with their lavish existence in the afterlife, it could be evidence that while you might not be able to take things with you, you don’t necessarily have to give it all up.