Building of Biltmore House
Biltmore historians believe that originally George Vanderbilt intended to build a relatively modest house in Asheville, perhaps of less than 10,000 square feet. Several architects were involved in the early plans, but fairly quickly Vanderbilt decided on using Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), one of the great architects of the time and the founder of the American Institute of Architecture. Hunt had worked on several Vanderbilt family projects including mansions in New York City and Newport.
Hunt did not visit the Biltmore site until March, 1889, after Olmsted’s plans for the estate were well advanced. In May and June of 1889, Vanderbilt and Hunt traveled together to England and France, visiting some of the great baronial estates of those countries, including the newly built Rothschild estate in Buckinghamshire, England, called Waddesdon Manor, a French Renaissance structure constructed between 1877 and 1899. They also visited Knole, Sevenoaks, Haddon Hall and Hatfield in England. In France, Hunt and Vanderbilt visited estates near Paris and in northern France, including the Château de Chantilly, a 16th century mansion that had been destroyed in the French Revolution and just recently been rebuilt by the Duke of Chantilly.
After the trip, Hunt’s assistants began refining Hunt’s plans for a large mansion in the French Renaissance style. Sketches were presented to Vanderbilt in beginning in the summer of 1899. Hunt modeled Biltmore on the ornamented style of the French Renaissance and adapted elements, such as the stair tower and the steeply pitched roof, from several 16th-century châteaux in the Loire Valley including Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord.
Vanderbilt named Biltmore by combining two words – “Bildt,” the region in Holland where the Vanderbilt family originated, and "more," an Old English word meaning rolling countryside.
A scale model of the grand four-story house, with its towers, gables and sharp roofs, was delivered to Asheville in October 1889. Construction began soon after, in early 1890, although the first bricks and limestones weren’t laid until 1891.
During the five years of construction, Vanderbilt came to Asheville several times a year, usually for a week or two at a time. He often was accompanied by Hunt and Olmsted. They traveled in Vanderbilt’s private railroad car.
Richard Sharp Smith, an Englishman who had relocated to the U.S. in 1882, was hired as supervising architect, which meant that he was on site much of the time supervising the actual construction. When Smith wasn’t available due to illness or vacation, another associate of Hunt, Warrington Lawrence, acted as supervising architect. Attorney Charles McNamee was named estate manager.
It goes without saying that construction of the huge house was a massive undertaking. More than 11 million bricks, made at a brick factory on the estate, were used in the house. Six-inch facings of Indiana limestone covered the bricks.
By 1893, the estate employed 580 construction workers, plus another 200 workers on contract. The workforce varied seasonally and as the various stages of construction progressed. At one point, there were 200 masons and stonecutters on site.
About the same time, the landscape department employed 215. By 1893 the estate had planted almost 3 million trees and plants. Biltmore Estate, Olmsted’s last major private commission, is often cited as the crowning achievement of his career, summing up his important ideas on landscape design and forest management.
Unskilled laborers were mostly hired locally and included many African-Americans. Typical laborers earned $1 a day. Skilled masons and cabinetmakers generally were recruited from Northern cities. Stonecutters and masons earned about $3.50 a day, while cabinetmakers received up to $2.75 a day. Two schools, segregated by race, were started and subsidized by Biltmore for the children of workers.
The mechanical systems of the building were complex. The entire house was wired for electricity, with power coming from a generator driven by a gasoline engine. A switchboard channeled power to two Otis elevators, the first installed in the Southeast, to refrigerators, electrical outlets and telephones. Hot water was available in the kitchens and 43 bathrooms, generated by two coal-fired boilers in the basement. Central heat was generated by three steamship boilers, fired by either wood or coal. Even before the house was constructed, six miles of telephone wires were installed and eventually all the main parts of the estate were connected by telephone.
Hunt commissioned Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908) to construct the arched, fireproof tile ceilings. Guastavino, originally from Catalonia in Spain, later designed the St. Lawrence Cathedral in Asheville. The Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter (1867-1915) was hired to do the major ornaments on the house. Furnishings and furniture for the house were sent by the train carload from New York and Europe.
The château was the centerpiece of the estate, but many other things – barns, cottages, the plant conservatory, not to mention the roads, gardens and forest plantings and 24 homes in Biltmore Village – also had to be completed.
Completion of Biltmore House had long been set for Christmas 1895. In October of that year, George Vanderbilt moved in, but the house was still unfinished, as were other important parts of the estate, such as the gatehouse. Vanderbilt, then age 33, lived in the north wing, while work continued on the main rooms on the first floor.
Work on the estate continued long after 1895. A large dairy barn begun in 1898 wasn’t completed until 1902. The forestry school, the first in the U.S., opened in 1898 under the leadership of the German-born Dr. Carl A. Schenck.
The arboretum, with a nine-mile drive and a science museum, a key part of Olmsted’s landscape plan, was never built. Chauncey Beadle succeeded Olmsted as head of the landscape department, which continued to do major work on the estate for more than a decade after the house was completed. Buck Springs Lodge at Mt. Pisgah, an expansive Adirondack-style complex of buildings made of native chestnut logs, begun by Richard Morris Hunt and completed by his son Richard Howland Hunt, opened in 1902.
For an extraordinary history of the design and construction of Biltmore, see Biltmore Estate, The Most Distinguished Private Place by John M. Bryans. The large-scale photos are remarkable. See the Books part of the Resources section.
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