November 14, 2013

Biltmore

We visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina in mid September. Several people commented they were eager to see the Biltmore, but were put off by the price. They asked if it was really worth it.

Well, yes and no. In my opinion.

The tickets were $59, more if you wanted the $17 audio tour of the house. Online advance purchase brought the price down to $44 without an audio tour.

If you are going because you want to see the house, I think that price is steep. It is a 33 room period-era showplace, operated as a hotel for the Vanderbilts and their endless guests. To me it seems overdecorated in heavy Victorian style, designed to make you gawk at what money could buy in the 1890s.

It is most impressive, but you have to be a real fan of this kind of architecture to get $60+ worth of enjoyment out of an hour and a half tour.

Or you have to be a real fan of the Victorian era, or lifestyle excesses to get a kick out of seeing it at those prices.

Many visitors seemed less interested in the history of the Vanderbilts and more into whether Anderson Cooper ever lived here (he didn't, but with his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, he did visit some of the rooms that were still available just to the family when he was young.)

Parking is free, shuttles from the lot to the house are free, restrooms and cafe food are convenient, and the whole enterprise is well run, clean and efficient. If you don't want to buy the $17 tape recorder tour, there are docents in many rooms and they were very informative.

Now, on to the gardens. Were those worth it?

I'm a gardener and I have studied Frederick Law Olmsted's career, and so I say yes.

There was much to see and appreciate, including the eye candy kinds of showy gardens -- pergola walks, a walled perennial garden, a rose garden, a tropical conservatory. There were fields of mums, blocks of annuals, all heavily maintained and in pristine condition for late in the season.


But if you are only interested in flowers and European-style gardens, the price is still steep -- even if you justify it at $30, half the ticket price (assuming half the cost is for the house tour, half for walking the gardens).

I thought the real value was seeing the designed landscape beyond the formal gardens around the mansion. This was Frederick Law Olmsted's last commission at the end of his life, and he had not just hundreds of acres to design, but hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and mountain to work with.

Originally the Vanderbilts owned 125,000 acres. This view is what you see from the house. The estate is much smaller now, but still vast.

Olmsted insisted that the forest be preserved, and not cleared out to make sweeping open lawns. While my companions (my sister and my husband on this trip) saw only trees and meadows and a pond, I recognized that what Olmsted built to look so natural was completely manmade.

He expanded a millpond to become a lake (where scenes from Last of the Mohicans were filmed. I had trouble imagining that, but ok). He cleared land for farming on the estate, and leveled hills and built paths.

He built dips in the terrain, sheltered by trees that only now, 100 years on, are mature and stately. It all looks natural, like he didn't do anything, but it is a highly designed space. Money, of course, was no object.

The bridges and man made structures are reminiscent of Central Park, but more rustic.

For a little more on Olmsted's impact on Biltmore click here.

For a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted click here.

I read about his life in the biography "Genius of Place" and was amazed. He was uneducated, barely getting any kind of elementary tutoring as a youth. He never attended a college.

He was not a landscape architect. He was first an experimental farmer, then a reporter for the NY Times writing about slavery in the south, a gold miner in California, the commissioner of the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and several other things. He fell into creating Central Park sort of by accident, late in life, and then went on to do other park commissions.

He is a native son to us -- Olmsted was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, and is buried here.

Bottom line, in this blogger's opinion: a visit to Biltmore is too expensive for the ornate house and showy gardens. You can see those in Europe and you can see those in Newport, Rhode Island or New York.

But the evidence of Frederick Law Olmsted's genius shaping the geography in subtle and barely noticeable ways is well worth it if you know what to look for.

Read the biography before you go.

24 comments:

  1. I don't know that I'll ever visit Biltmore, but I enjoyed reading your review!

    Thank you for some of the background info on Olmstead.

    And I do quite enjoy the town of Asheville, NC which is a suppose the natural jumping off point for a Biltmore visit.

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    1. Aaron, the whole area around Asheville was beautiful, and we got right on the Blue Ridge Parkway there. It's a great part of the country to visit, not just for the Biltmore.

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  2. I am not all that interested in house interiors. If I were close by this estate, I would hesitate about the price. It is steep, but then all the stuff you said about seeing Olmstead's legacy is persuasive. He certainly deserves credit for not creating a vast English park land of grass dotted with large trees. In the end I would probably give in and see the garden, but certainly skip the house.

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    1. Jason, I went just for the gardens too, but once I was there, I had to see the house!

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  3. I have been there twice. I enjoyed all of it. I will have to read up on Olmstead before I return...if I ever return.

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    1. Lisa, Since you have already been there, it would be interesting for a comparison to see if you look at it differently after reading about Olmsted.

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  4. I've been to the NC mountains many times but never to Biltmore. When I told DH about the price of entry he agreed with you, that's a lot of money to see the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the 19th century!

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    1. Sweetbay, the estate runs completely on private money, no state or park funding, so I guess the price has to cover a lot. But wow, the tickets were steep.

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  5. Frederick Law Olmsted sounds like a very interesting man and the fact that he fell into these projects is just mind blowing! I would pay to see the gardens just because I like to see gardens! The backdrops in your photos are spectacular...they really frame the gardens nicely. Thanks for sharing lady and I hope you have a great weekend!

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    1. Nicole, I was surprised to learn about the chaotic life and varied careers of Olmsted. I had no idea!

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  6. Biltmore gardens are wonderful, I love all your photos, Laurrie! I've read the story of Olmsted, so talented man!
    It's very far from me and I'll be never able to visit this garden, thank you for sharing your tour with us!

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    1. Nadezda, I'm glad to know Olmsted is well known in all parts of the world!

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  7. Interesting post. I will probably skip the Biltmore (again) when I go back to Asheville. But Olmstead is a really interesting guy. I used to work for the Central Park Conservancy and people were always amazed when they found out that Central Park was entirely man-made.

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    1. Sarah, how great that you experienced Central Park up close and got to know about it in detail!

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  8. These gardens are wonderful. Fantastic photos !

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    1. Ela, thank you -- and thanks for visiting : )

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  9. I learned two facts here that I didn't know: that Olmstead wasn't an educated man, when I assumed he must have studied landscape architecture extensively, and second, that Anderson Cooper's mother was a Vanderbilt:) Seriously, Olmstead sounds like a fascinating person, someone I'd like to know more about--his biography sounds like interesting winter time reading.

    I always thought the price to see the Biltmore was pretty steep, too, but when I saw it last spring, I loved it and thought it worth every penny! Yes, it's all excessive, but the attention to detail in the architecture was just amazing. I didn't pay for the audio tour, but the docents were just as informative, and I thought the Vanderbilt story fascinating. I think of them and this house whenever I watch "Downton Abbey." We saw the gardens another day, otherwise I think I would have been overwhelmed in just one visit.

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    1. Rose - I am always glad when people tell me they learn something from my blog : )

      I'm glad you got to the Biltmore and enjoyed it (and felt the price was worth it). You're right, it reminds one of Downton Abbey, doesn't it!

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    1. Sharon, I hope you get there some day -- or just to the mountains of N. Carolina, the area is beautiful.

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  11. Hi Laurrie, I visited Biltmore Estate a few years ago in the dead of winter when the house was decorated for Christmas and most of the gardens were asleep. The Christmas decor was outstanding, and I enjoyed the tour of the house. I loved walking the lawns and admiring the garden structures and the sweep of lawns and forest. Even in winter it was beautiful. I vowed to come back in the spring one day, though I haven't made it yet. I saw some people on a Segway tour, and I think that would be a great way to see the lawn and gardens.

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    1. Deb, it must have been remarkable to see the Biltmore house all dressed up for Christmas. A Segway would have been great for my sister, she has issues being able to walk very far. We could have used one : )

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  12. I always enjoy visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, I would agree with you I think it is pricey too! Since I live in the upstate SC mountains I have had the opportunity to visit there 4 or 5 times and only had to pay once because tickets were given to me. The gardens are spectcular int he Spring.

    You did a great job writing about your visit and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Check out my blog sometime. Sunset and Icicles

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    1. Michael, like any great garden or house, several visits are really needed in order to get the best experience -- you are lucky to have seen it several times, and especially in spring!

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