A Manor Among Mountains: The Medieval Vision of George Vanderbilt
Once upon a time, there was a castle. In this castle lived a well-respected lord and his new bride. Every day, the lord and his lady went on adventures throughout their land: visiting the tenant farmers, shopping at the village, and entertaining guests with horseback riding, hunting, and afternoon tea overlooking the grand vistas that they called home. They lived an idyllic life, using the wealth provided by the lord’s forefathers to transform their little town into one of the grandest estates in the country.
Like the opening of a fairy tale, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, sprung from a dream of the Middle Ages. It was a romanticized dream, where “medieval” was interpreted to mean anything from Anglo-Saxon comitatus, to feudalism, to the more egalitarian guild towns popularized in the works of William Morris. It was also a Gilded Age dream: a reaction to fast-growing capitalism and industrialization that allowed George Washington Vanderbilt II – and his nouveaux riches family – to create an origin story in a new state, while linking the abilities of their new wealth to the beloved stereotype of a beneficent medieval manor.
Thus, George Vanderbilt’s dream borrowed freely from the medieval period, seeking to fulfill a philosophy of immortality as duplication and reassurance through imitation, in order to ensure that his family’s power would become legitimized and self-sustaining in their new home, while borrowing from yet remaining distinct from other Gilded Age barons who relied on capitalism for their wealth. Utilizing the medieval-based practices of relic collecting, architecture, and manorial structure, George Vanderbilt created Biltmore as the lasting physical manifestation of Gilded Age American medievalism.
A Quick Tour
George loved the dream of Biltmore from the start. In an 1888 trip to Asheville with his mother, he became captivated by the views and mountain air, and decided that Asheville would become his home. Its location far from the social formalities of Newport and Fifth Avenue suited his preference for solitude, nature, and gentlemanly study perfectly. Thus, George purchased over 146,000 acres – nearly 228 square miles – and founded Biltmore, named after his family’s ancestral home of Bildt, Holland.
Yet his purpose was grander than that of the elite homes of Newport and Fifth Avenue. Rather than only legitimize his power, George set out to build a self-sustaining and income-producing estate, based on an old-world agrarian model of tenant farming, overseen by George, who acted as a lord of the manor.
Additionally, George safeguarded his social status by ensuring that all who came to visit encountered nothing short of a castle: his manor among the mountains would be one of the grandest architectural projects in the country, filled with details and treasures that would evoke the historic palaces of Europe.
George began with treasures from around the world that mimicked the princely collections of Europe. George was a world traveler, and his travels focused on collecting items that would lend grandeur and history to his home. Aided after 1897 by his new bride, Edith, George sought to accumulate treasures much like Medieval Christians collected relics from their pilgrimages, believing that such pieces would bring the sanctity of European royalty to Biltmore. These treasures bestowed honor and privileges upon George while acting as supplementary symbols of his wealth and power.
The possession of many treasures – including “paintings by Renoir and Boldine, portraits by Sargent, Singer, and Whistler, Durer engravings, tapestries by the score, wall hangings that had been Cardinal Richelieu’s, Napoleon’s chess set” – gave an aura of historic importance to Biltmore that rivaled the collections of medieval lords.
A stroll through the house meant encountering countless treasures, including medieval tapestries: the Venus and Vulcan series and three of the seven Triumph of the Seven Virtues. The Venus and Vulcan series, displayed in the Banquet Hall, had been commissioned in Flanders in the mid-sixteenth century by the La Rochefoucauld family; they are likely the “peces of fine newe Tapesterie of the Historye of Vulcanus Mars and Venus lined with Canvas” that hung at Westminister and were listed in the 1547 inventory of goods belonging to Henry VIII.
There was also George’s beloved library, which held his collection of over 23,000 books, Napoleon’s Empire walnut game table with ivory chess pieces, and was graced overhead by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s early eighteenth-century “The Chariot of Aurora” that had been moved from the Pisani Palace in Venice. Other relics could also be found throughout the home: a collection of eighteenth-century Meissen porcelain apostles, a Steinway piano, Persian carpets, and seventeenth-century Portuguese walnut furnishings.
Upstairs Downstairs: Hidden Rooms at Biltmore
Styling the House
While he was collecting relics, George was also intensely focused on the house. In the summer of 1889, George traveled to Europe with his architect, Richard Morris Hunt, to visit the historic chateaus of France. Among the chateaus he visited was the fifteenth-century home of financier Jacques Coeur in Bourges, France, and the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley. The Palais Jacques Coeur á Bourges, built between 1443 and 1451, became an inspiration for Biltmore: bas-relief panels, finials, and square-topped or arched windows abound in both.
The facades are similar, with steeply pitched hipped-roofs; many prominent chimneys, gable-roofed dormers, single balconies, and spires; and light-colored stone masonry walls featuring elaborate moldings. Additionally, the banqueting halls each feature an enormous fireplace with stone carvings and a minstrel’s gallery (in Biltmore, this gallery houses an organ).
Biltmore also bears remarkable similarities to the early 13th-century Francois I wing of the Chateau de Blois. The Francois I wing matches Biltmore’s silhouette, as both are composed of massive edifices with steep roofs and dormer windows. The staircases both project from the facade and feature balconies with carved balustrades that could be accessed through small doors; these vantage points over the courtyards. Both also possess facades decorated by horizontal moldings, pilasters, and medieval gargoyles.
Together, these inspirations blended medieval and Renaissance elements to create a uniquely American architecture: the Chateauesque style.
It Takes a Village
Finally, there was the estate: George’s manor among the mountains. Biltmore was similar to the structure of medieval manors in its staff, village, and agricultural practices. Many of the landowners who had sold land to George remained as his tenant farmers, a structure similar to that of a feudal manor. In buying the land, George then rented it back to the original owners through contracts. By the time Biltmore was ready for George to reside in, he had secured over 500 people to live and work his land. They cultivated corn and grain, maintained the Jersey cattle herds, and performed millings at barns along the French Broad River.
George also hired wage laborers, including craftspeople and agricultural workers, for specific or seasonal projects. There was also the house staff of maids, butlers, cooks, gardeners, and stable boys, plus police and rangers who patrolled the lands. Unfortunately, little information is accessible about staff life at Biltmore, as requests for further information from the archives remain unanswered, and publications about Biltmore offer little discussion of the estate’s management. However, most of these workers lived in or near Biltmore Village, for which there is abundant information.
The village also emulated medieval structures. Located just outside Biltmore's gates, in the former town of Best, Biltmore Village was a service center for George and his employees. There was a school, post office, recreation hall, hospital, stores, and All Souls' Church, all of which were constructed in a "Manorial Style" by Richard Sharp Smith. Each building featured a blend of gambrel roofs, twin dormers, mortar or pebbledash exteriors, brick chimneys, half-timbered accents, and recessed porches - all designed to evoke the feeling of a medieval village, sprinkled with Gothic accents and Gilded Age amenities. It was like taking an entire medieval village from England, upgrading it, and putting it on display.
Even in its functioning, the town was medieval. The church provided resources for the poor, including financial relief and schooling in cooking, sewing, dressmaking, and kitchen gardening. The church also ran village clubs for youth and gymnastics. The hospital was endowed by George to support care of the poor, sick, and aged. Residents also relied on a mixed economy, blending animal husbandry and crop growing to complement the resources grown by Biltmore itself. In so doing, the village was almost entirely self-sufficient - a principle integral to medieval manors. This was complemented by George's final medieval practice: scientific forestry, a Gilded Age science based on the centuries-old practice of silviculture, which sought to manage forests in order to maximize timber crops and foster future healthy growth. This reliance on timber production helped ensure the estate against crop failure, as many European estates had done to help ensure that timber could be used as capital during times of financial need.
In these ways, Biltmore remains a testament to the medieval vision of George Vanderbilt. Though distinctly Gilded Age, George used medieval principles to legitimize himself, his estate, and a new economy in North Carolina.
George filled his new home with relics of an illustrious past that didn’t belong to his country yet served to legitimize and immortalize his family’s acquired wealth and power. He housed these relics in a home that rivaled the European palaces, duplicating the grand halls, stone facades, and staircases in a new interpretation of medieval architecture: the Chateauesque style. He then surrounded his home with tenant farming and scientific forestry based on practices that originated between the days of the Anglo-Saxon comitatus and the guild towns of the early Renaissance. This Gilded Age American medievalism relied heavily on dwelling in the past: it was a medieval model that had been mended and patched in order to fit George’s need to legitimize and immortalize his family’s new power. Using the visual symbols of relics, architecture, and a manorial structure for everyday life, George could preside over his estate, keeping a constant eye on all those under his domain.
© 2020 Tiffany