Saturday, January 2, 2010
Visiting Biltmore Estate
Someone had once told me that if I was a truly socially responsible person, I couldn't possibly love the Biltmore Estate, because it was built by many workers, who were mistreated and lost their lives in the process. I suppose, I must be truly socially irresponsible, because the same can be said about every other place I love to visit - the old portion of St. Petersburg, the Moscow Kremlin and St. Basil Cathedral, and pretty much all of Paris. Or else, I am just a person who, while not ignoring history, chooses not to ignore what these places represent today to me and so many other people - beauty, grace, mystery, elegance, even magic.
Many visitors come to Biltmore wearing jeans and t-shirts or sweaters depending on the season, but I cannot. I simply cannot bring myself to enter the great halls of the house or walk its grounds in anything other than at least somewhat dressy attire. And following the long winding driveway that leads to the visitor parking lots in a car also seems somehow out of place - approaching the house on horseback or in a carriage would have been much more appropriate.
I love Biltmore the same way I love St. Petersburg and Paris - like a person, a friend I love to be with but cannot visit very often. While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of its main entrance or the formal dining room, there are many spaces inside the great house that are very cozy and homey - designed to make you want to stay as long as you wish. I love the guest rooms, where one could wake up in the morning and watch the sun rise over the mountains. I love the library with its balcony that can be accessed via a spiral staircase and runs along the entire perimeter of this room filled with books, books, books... endless books. I love the way the sofas, tables and chairs in the larger rooms are arranged in clusters, so that the guests could gather in groups to talk, listen to the piano or play chess. I love the hidden secluded retreats inside and outside the house, where one could be alone.
I love beautiful things - from the little jeweled nick-knacks scattered around the dressing tables to the enormous Chinese and Japanese vases (large enough to hide a five-year old child) standing proudly on guard near the magnificent fireplaces or demurely displaying peacock feathers somewhere in the corner. I love the furniture of every era, every country and every style - even the elaborate straight backed turqoise velvet armchairs in one of the guest rooms that do not appear very comfortable at all. I love the paintings that adorn almost every square foot of every wall - small ones, medium ones, large ones, enormous ones; black-and-white ones and color ones; dagherrotyped copies and originals purchased by or painted per request from the Vanderbilt family members.
Yes, the Biltmore Estate required a multitude of people during its construction and yet another multitude to maintain it after it was finished. Every servant room, every service quarter tells a story: of the foods stored in the walk-in refrigerators and pantries with shelves going up nine feet; of the piles of laundry that went through what used to be a super-modern high-tech laundry room with the special mechanical driers for bed linens - the first ones of its kinds to be put to practical use at the time; of the many elaborate meals prepared in the kitchens among the steam and clamor of dishes, only to be arranged prettily on trays and be whisked smoothly upstairs by the "dumb waiters" - the electrical elevators that took the breakfasts, dinners and suppers to the serving rooms, where every dish was picked up by white-gloved hands and taken to one of the dining rooms by the expert servants.
The Biltmore house is a place where I would love to be locked up during the night and meet its ghosts, of which I am sure there are many. ...The ghosts of servant girls bustling around the flower room, picking out which vases and which flowers would go on the night stands and dining tables tomorrow; the ghosts of butlers and housekeepers poring over their accounting books or menu cards at the desk in the servants' gathering room; the ghosts of splendidly gowned ladies gliding around the music room or running their delicate fingure over the gilded spines of richly bound tomes in the library; the ghosts of gentlemen in hunting dress flying up to the main entrance on horseback from a romp around the Biltmore woods and bringing home what could be the next day's dinner. Somehow, the Biltmore ghosts do not scare me - although I am certain some of them possess quite a temper, I would like to meet them just the same.
The fact that Mozart was broke and deadly ill when he wrote his Requiem, doesn't make his work any less beautiful. The fact that many of the great paintings that grace the halls of the largest museums all over the world have been created by artists who were virtually unknown during their time and died in obscurity, doesn't make us admire them any less. So I say, go to the Biltmore Estate and love it - there is nothing wrong with that.