Big Business at Biltmore

Once upon a time I was an annual pass holder at Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt (1861-1914)’s colossal mansion near Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore, the largest private home in America, was executed in the French Renaissance style and opened on Christmas Eve 1895.

As a student of history and ardent preservationist, I loved visiting Biltmore to enjoy Vanderbilt’s priceless collection of objets d’art or to stroll lazily amid the estate’s expansive gardens. I climbed Biltmore’s back stairs and scaled its rooftops on special tours. I relished the chance to share Biltmore with friends, too, as proved by my post on the subject. Be it on a chilly January morning or a warm Sunday afternoon, I delighted in their first visit as much as they. To me, nothing else in the country rivaled Biltmore’s astonishing blend of art, architecture, and atmosphere.

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Biltmore the Beautiful?

I hadn’t been to Biltmore in several years when I finally made my way back to the estate last week. I hoped to rekindle my passion for that grand place and the Vanderbilt family story. But Biltmore has changed.

While I fully appreciate that a privately-owned historic property must generate enough income to operate and maintain a house the size of Biltmore, my feeling before last week had always been that the Biltmore Company adhered to George Vanderbilt’s vision for the perpetuation of his grand country retreat. Since the 1960s, the company has sought to faithfully and meticulously restore Biltmore House’s 250 rooms for public enjoyment. Admissions, tours, food, gifts, and wine were sold to preserve Biltmore. So committed was Biltmore to its mission that we passholders used to wait on bated breath to hear of “new” (those previously-unrestored) rooms being opened. We’d faithfully make the trek to Asheville to marvel at Biltmore’s painstaking work in restoring the house’s interiors to their 1895 appearance. We’d relish in the nitty-gritty of where the fabrics were woven, of which paint colors were original. Because that’s what Biltmore did best, and that’s what we loved.

One of my personal highlights was attending the gala celebration of Biltmore’s 75th anniversary of opening to the public (March 1930). I remember standing in front of Biltmore House, mere feet away from Vanderbilt’s descendants, as we replayed that moment seven decades earlier. A visit to Biltmore is always a step back in time, a chance to inhabit history for a while. A collection of vintage autos flanked the front entrance. Visitors were dressed in period garb. The cameras rolled, smiles and cheers abounded, and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil II signed my copy of Biltmore’s brand new history book.

Over the years, of course, Biltmore added more offerings, such as the winery (1985), carriage house gift shops (1990s), and even the Inn on Biltmore Estate in 2001. (Apparently, Vanderbilt himself considered building an inn, but never carried it out.) These were done in tasteful and limited ways, never with undue ostentation nor distracting from the historical integrity of Biltmore House.

But last week the feeling was distinctly different. I suppose it started about five years ago, when the Biltmore Company changed its logo from “Biltmore Estate” to the more marketing-friendly “Biltmore.” Internal changes also occurred: former house hosts, with whom I had developed a rapport over the years, began leaving. As one host said to me at the time: ‘the focus is shifting to profits instead of preservation.’ The real kicker came with the construction of Antler Hill Village in 2010. Unlike nearly every other structure on the estate, Antler Hill is the first construction project in Biltmore history that does not reflect George Vanderbilt’s vision. Don’t let the marketing fool you: Antler Hill was built solely for profit. It’s supposed to be this charming little farm village, except it didn’t exist until 2010, and every building is a gift shop or restaurant. More concerning is that Antler Hill completely overshadows the historically-important truck farm. On top of this, Biltmore is busy building another hotel, this time (you guessed it!) at Antler Hill.

The people who love Biltmore aren’t consumers looking for a pre-packaged “experience.” This isn’t Dolly Wood. We prize the unmistakable sense that George and Edith Vanderbilt have welcomed us into their home. Here we are invited to linger and live like a Victorian for a little while. That’s why we come to this place.

The focus has shifted from showcasing Biltmore House to selling “the Biltmore Experience.” It’s as packaged and generic as Dolly Wood. Company execs like to say that everything they do is in keeping with the goal of preserving the house for ‘a new generation of visitors,’ but will it even be worth visiting in the future?

Take my tour of Biltmore. Granted, I’ve been through the house more times than I can count, but things were limited, lackluster, and lifeless. For the first time I can remember, the house looked bare. Perhaps this was due in part to the considerable restoration projects that have been carried out in recent years, such as the return of the original French Empire gilt furniture to the Salon. While it is impressive to finally see the right furniture in the right place, it looks too new. I felt like I was walking through Ethan-Allen, not Biltmore. Plus the other objects which used to greet visitors are gone. Napoleon’s chess set, always a fan favorite, is now locked away upstairs. And Cardinal Richelieu’s tapestries, which adorned the Salon’s opposing walls for decades, have been removed to storage. The Second Floor Living Hall is even more stark. In its quest for historical accuracy, nearly every furnishing object has been removed from that prominent space. It looks dark, unwelcoming, and temporary.

What always set Biltmore apart is that it was a home. I always had the distinct impression that the Vanderbilts were still in residence. Fresh-cut flowers from the garden graced table-tops. Windows opened wide to the mountain breezes and mid-afternoon sun. It seems the company has forgotten that: the chairs, sofas, bric-a-brac, and paintings have been banished. Doom and gloom hang on the Biltmore Terracotta-toned walls. While I can appreciate that George Vanderbilt never saw these spaces fully-completed during his lifetime (he died unexpectedly in 1914), what about his descendants? How severe does Biltmore wish to be in returning the house to its 1895 appearance?

This is the slippery slope of preservation: the more evidence we remove of the living, the less home-like places become. An historic structure like Biltmore only comes alive—and is only really worth visiting—if it feels like people actually lived there. Without that personal touch, a house on Biltmore’s scale soon becomes a hollow masoleum. Does Biltmore want to be a home or a museum?

I was even more troubled by the interesting coincidence being played out at Biltmore House: this renewed commitment to historical accuracy has signaled the removal of many of the most-prized and popular pieces in the Biltmore collection to rooms that aren’t open to the public. Nearly half of the rooms previously on the general house tour are now only featured on specialty tours. So now you have to pay more (on top of the $60.00 admission) to see that chess set that belonged to Napoleon. Really? How convenient it must be that you discovered the set actually “belongs” in a closed room! It seems as if Biltmore has strategically arranged things to maximize profit, all in the name of “historical accuracy.”

But it’s not merely the chintzy clutter at Antler Hill that has changed Biltmore, or even its none-too-subtle attention to the bottom line. The air of gracious, rarefied hospitality, long the hallmark of any visit there, is gone. One no longer feels like a special guest, welcomed to linger in Biltmore’s evocative respite. Instead, visitors are merely a consumer to be milked dry. Get in and get out. Even the complementary guide book, known for its detailed accounts of rooms and objects, has been cut in half. The rest of the guide now focuses on—you guessed it!—Antler Hill and the new hotel.

Biltmore has made a very critical and consequential decision: rather than adhere to its century-old commitment to historical preservation and education, the company’s focus on “the Biltmore Experience” has reduced George Vanderbilt’s legacy to big bucks. Just because the general public today has very little knowledge of the past does not for a moment suppose that we ought to stop trying to educate it.

M B H
July 2015

Update…

My letter to the Editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times was published on July 31st:

Letter: Not happy with specialty tours, other changes

Western North Carolina would not be the major tourist destination it is today without Asheville’s famed Biltmore House, constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 19th century. Indeed, Vanderbilt’s summer home caused the rest of the country to take notice of our region. I myself am a former pass-holder and have enjoyed visiting Biltmore frequently for the past two decades. However, on a recent visit to Biltmore, I noticed none-too-subtle changes. It seems Biltmore has changed its focus from preserving America’s largest private home to clearing as much profit as possible. While I appreciate the need Biltmore has to generate enough income to preserve and maintain the house, visitors there are no longer treated like welcomed guests, but consumers to milk for every extra dollar. Roughly half of the rooms previously open are now on separately-priced “specialty tours.” Ticket prices continue to soar. And Antler Hill Village is nothing more than a dressed-up tourist trap. I am saddened that the crown jewel of our region is quickly being overshadowed by corporate greed. I hope Biltmore will reverse this troubling trend and return to the tradition of uncompromising hospitality and historical preservation, which was forged by Vanderbilt himself.

Mark B. Horner, Bryson City

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