ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA — There’s something familiar about the largest private residence in the United States.
Not that it looks like any house I’ve ever been inside nor even the grandest hotel I’ve ever stayed in on my travels (or ducked into to find a public washroom while pretending I was a guest).
It was the Downton Abbey connection.
Watching Downton Abbey before my arrival in Asheville, North Carolina where George Vanderbilt built Biltmorereminded me that there were families who lived in places that are elaborate as castles. Besides the family living upstairs and their continuous rotation of guests, dozens of servants were required to maintain the house.
The difference with Biltmore and the manor houses in England is a few centuries. Some of those manor homes had artwork and furnishings passed down from generations. Vanderbilt spent years in Europe accumulating the furnishings and decorations for his house.
The house was finished in 1895 and opened on Christmas Day to members of George Vanderbilt’s family. If family gatherings with the Vanderbilts are anything like mine, I imagine there was a lot of affiliations and alliances plotting and shifting. But on a much grander scale.
Cornelius Vanderbilt and his sister Emily may have thought, “Is that mother’s vase in room 219? She was supposed to give that to me.” or “How come Frederick got the bedroom with the French Renaissance paintings?”
For the record, my family is decidedly not like that. There may be arguing about who got the bigger slice of pie.
On the day of my visit, just as the house was preparing its Christmas decorations, the sweet tour guide mentioned a number of Vanderbilt’s descendants were in Biltmore at that time leading tours of their own to friends and family.
Among the hundreds of visitors there that day, I was trying to figure out who was a Vanderbilt and who was not. No one swept through in elaborate tuxedos or shimmering ballgowns dripping in jewels. Everyone looked like everyone else. Even a Vanderbilt can hide in a crowd.