I’m always tempted by a bargain, but I don’t always read the fine print carefully. So it was that my husband and I found ourselves on a rooftop tour at the Biltmore Estate a few weeks ago: we’re passholders, and January and February offer numerous perks to the season passholder. Turns out that the additional discount for passholders was on the Upstairs-Downstairs Tour, not the Rooftop Tour. Oops!
The nice woman on the passholder line did tell me there was no special passholder discount for the Rooftop Tour before I bought the tickets, but I decided to go for it—mostly because we went on a tour similar to the Upstairs-Downstairs one a few years ago. The price of $20.00 per person was a little steep (pun intended, I’m afraid), but I was not disappointed in my choice. Viewing the estate from the rooftop is an experience that I heartily recommend, if you don’t mind a little stairclimbing.
While the sun quickly disappeared behind some clouds, it wasn’t raining, and the weather was mild for February. Happily, my husband had the day off, so I had company for the tour. Despite February being off-season for the Biltmore, there were at least 10 people in our tour group, which was shepherded up the stairs by an excellent guide.
Aside from the breathtaking views of George Vanderbilt’s large estate, I appreciated the opportunity to go into areas that are not on the regular tour, such as the room with a skylight and a winding spiral stair that leads to the viewing platform on the roof. Who knew that the massive iron chandelier, which hangs from the top of the house into the entrance hall, is held in place by a single bolt? I also had no idea that the shingles on the roof were wired on by hand; fear of fire was a motivation here. Perhaps I should have guessed that gold leaf had been used on the roof tiles—truly a sign of the Gilded Age!
I enjoyed the Rooftop Tour so much that I’d like to go back with my teenage son: he doesn’t get excited about wallpaper or furniture, but he would enjoy going up on the roof of such a magnificent building. It was fun to see the details not only on the roof tiles but on the gargoyles. Our guide, who shared some facts about George Vanderbilt and the house that even this seasoned veteran of the Biltmore Estate hadn’t heard before, drew our attention to her favorite decorative carving on the exterior: a bear who seems to be eating honey from a pot!
Until last fall, I hadn’t realized that financial worries were plaguing George Vanderbilt before his untimely death in 1914 from complications following an appendectomy. In September, my husband, son, and I visited the Cradle of Forestry, the birthplace of America’s first forestry school, which was headed up by Carl Schenck, one-time employee of George Vanderbilt. Schenck had been hired to replace Gifford Pinchot, Vanderbilt’s original forest consultant, but Vanderbilt and Schenck eventually began to disagree: as I understand it, Vanderbilt needed more income from his vast woodlands than Schenck thought was good for the forests. When my husband and I heard that, we wondered if maybe George was running out of money. Construction costs aside, the Biltmore Estate was not designed with a view to economy—quite the contrary! Maintaining the house was a huge expense, and the reinstatement of income tax in 1913 was just one of several unexpected setbacks for the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
A couple of weeks ago, I started reading Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home. While the book is rich in historical detail, it’s not a page turner, although I’ve mostly enjoyed the first part of the book. Midway through, I foolishly put down The Last Castle when interlibrary loan provided me with the sequels to Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka. Recently, my son and I listened to O’Hara’s well-known tale about a daydreaming boy who longs for a colt of his own; once I finish Green Grass of Wyoming, I plan to dive back into Kiernan’s possibly unauthorized chronicle of the Asheville Vanderbilts. I say “unauthorized” because we didn’t see a copy of The Last Castle on sale at the Biltmore Estate. Also, I’ve noticed that the letters quoted in Kiernan’s book are from associates of the Vanderbilts such as Edith Wharton, Gifford Pinchot, the wife of architect Richard Morris Hunt, or George’s personal friends William Osgood Field and Paul Leicester Ford. Missing are letters or journals of the Vanderbilts themselves. Hmmm.
I get the impression that Kiernan doesn’t have much use for George Vanderbilt himself: “What to do with such a sum [12 to 13 million, with an annual income of about $500,000] when one had not lifted a finger to earn it? This was the enviable dilemma of many in George’s class” (13). Ouch! Kiernan does seem impressed by Edith Dresser Vanderbilt, George’s wife. I admire Edith, too: George’s choice of an intelligent, kind, and practical spouse was perhaps one of his wiser decisions. Still, I have more sympathy for George than Kiernan does. Sure, he could have used his large inheritance in a more compassionate way than in devoting it to the construction of a veritable American castle, complete with grounds, village, and church, but he was a charitable man, for his time. I, for one, am thankful that he decided to construct what Kiernan describes as “an architectural albatross.”
If you’d like more specifics about the Rooftop tour, I recommend seeing it yourself or, if that’s not possible, reading Bob Vila’s account of the Rooftop Tour. My photos don’t do justice to the architecture or the views, but that didn’t stop me from seeking to chronicle our experience with my iPhone.