By Regina Lynch-Hudson
Sometimes we travel to scratch that itch of wanderlust. Then there are times when we’re drawn to sites that reflect the world’s rich history, or a more intimate history of our own. History and heritage inspired journeys unlock the doors to magical places of days gone by, and lure us into neighborhoods and buildings that shed light on the thick layers of our past.
I discovered a treasure trove of family history inside the fabled Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned historic house in the United States — a national landmark that’s three times larger than the White House. Located in the resort town of Asheville, N.C., the spectacular 175,000-square-foot castle draws nearly 1 million visitors annually, from all over the globe. My great-great grandfather, George Washington Richard Henry Lee Payne, was a prominent blacksmith at the 250 room mansion, during its construction (between 1889 and 1895).
When research uncovered letters (circa 1895-1902) that my ancestor penned to his lofty employer, I became emotionally tied to the house. However, there’s something for everyone at the Biltmore Estate. It’s America’s story — the fascinating saga of George Washington Vanderbilt II, the illustrious scion of one of the wealthiest families of the 19th century, who plopped a French Renaissance château into the Blue Ridge Mountains during the height of the Gilded Age.
The 8,000-acre estate is open 365 days a year. Tour options encompass select rooms: including servants’ quarters, gardens and conservatory, horse stables and the winery. www.biltmore.com
Country Castle: I saw tangible reflections of my great-great grandfather’s life as I toured the legendary Estate for the umpteenth time. Picturing the son of a former slave and a Native American midwife plying his trade at a palace that hosted presidents and dignitaries made my imagination soar. I envisioned him sweating from the heat of the flames, as he forged iron to craft and repair horse shoes, gates, door hinges, light fixtures, and other metalwork in the opulent antique-and art-filled manor. As I marveled at the house’s magnificent hand-forged architectural features I couldn’t help but wonder which masterpieces passed through my great-great grandfather’s skilled hands. Decorative wrought -iron was everywhere, against a backdrop of lavish furnishings, medieval tapestries, and extravagant artwork by the masters. Designed by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt, the estate (with its 35-bedrooms, 43-bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces) ranked eighth in “America’s Favorite Architecture” by the American Institute of Architects.
In the servant’s quarters, the most riveting aspect of the tour, I became obsessed with learning more about the maids, butlers, cooks and domestic laborers who were crucial to the day-to-day operation of the estate. While the blacksmith’s role was one of higher status, I pondered my great-great grandfather George’s relationship with “the other George W.” — the proprietor and man of the house.
Storied Stables: According to vintage newspapers, the estate’s stables were far head of Queen Victoria’s royal stables. Vanderbilt’s prized horses bunked in a 12,000-square-foot compound and an adjacent carriage house stowed 20 carriages, in addition to carriages for houseguests. Today, the stable area houses gift shops and the appropriately dubbed Stable Cafe. I enjoyed a hearty lunch at the cafe, and took delight in being seated in a makeshift horse stall. Later, at the Equestrian Center, I saddled up for a leisurely trail ride, and fantasized about my forefather’s earlier connection to the land.
Grand Gardens: The palatial gardens of the estate were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the reigning father of landscape architecture, and co-designer of New York’s Central Park. As his last and largest project, Olmstead carpeted the estate in 75 acres of colorful flora – tulips, chrysanthemums, roses, azalea bushes, and subtropical plants like bamboo and more. The Biltmore’s Festival of Flowers is a sight to behold.
Sip and Savor: An old dairy barn was transformed into the Biltmore Estate Winery, the most visited winery in America. The winery welcomes 600,000 visitors per year.
Where to Stay: The four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate mesmerizes with its mountain views and luxurious rooms. A sumptuous spa and the finest dining in the area made for yet another unforgettable visit. A free shuttle transports guests to Biltmore attractions. 866.336.1245 AT