When Lady Dunmore first came to Williamsburg and was shown the Governor’s Palace, she must have said, “You’re putting me on”—in 18th C speak, that is. Compared to the great houses of Britain, let alone its palaces, it must have seemed like, oh, the dairy building. It was too small, certainly, to be a stable. Yet it was quite grand for Colonial America.
It would take a while for rich Americans to start building houses dedicated to showing off their money, but then they did it with a vengeance. Most of the Gilded Age mansions to me epitomize Wretched Excess—ostentatious and unappealing. But I did fall in love with Biltmore. Maybe because the man who built it, George Washington Vanderbilt II (that's Whistler's portrait of him above left), was a man of imagination. And maybe because he put his palace on a vast piece of land—100,000 acres in the North Carolina mountains--as the aristocrats of England did their country houses. And maybe because he and his wife did interesting and useful things with their money.
He was 28 years old when he “decided to build the largest private house in America, establish a model dairy farm, revive the forest, and establish a forestry school and an arboretum.” The Pisgah Forest took up 80,000 of those acres. “Although it had an extraordinary range of species of trees, the forest was in a deplorable state, ‘burned, slashed, and overgrazed.’” He also created Biltmore Industries, “furniture workshops set up…to train local North Carolina craftsmen."
He built a private railway spur to carry the materials from the main railroad to the site. He had the country’s premier talent working for him: landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, architect Richard Morris Hunt, and forester Gifford Pinchot.
The house has about 255 rooms. “In London, he astonished a rug dealer by purchasing at
one time three hundred Oriental rugs for his new house.” I could go on and on: about the John Singer Sargent paintings and the system of heating and cooling the house and the beautiful elevator and the gardens and the views and the fascinating servants’ quarters and more--but a visit is worth many thousand words, and if you can’t visit, there are video tours available at the site, and numerous books.
The opinions expressed here are my own. The facts, figures, and quotes come from a wonderful, sumptuously illustrated book, The Vanderbilts, by Jerry E. Patterson. The black & white photograph is courtesy the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-71822.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.