I had the occasion over Christmas to visit Biltmore, the largest property ever constructed in the United States as a single family home. It sits on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, on 8,000 acres, and on the fringe of the property is “Biltmore Village” a collection of worker houses, contemporaneous with Biltmore, now a neighborhood of Asheville.
Built in the 1890’s, Biltmore contains 250 rooms, an indoor pool, home gym, multiple eating areas, more lounges than I could count, a bachelor’s quarters separate from the rest of the house, on site servants quarters (in addition to the Village), a laundry, a walk in freezer, a walk in pantry, a library, an indoor garden, numerous bedrooms some with en suite baths, and a basement rec room with wall murals painted by long-term guests during the Halloween season back in the 1920s.
The Vanderbilt family ordered the construction of Biltmore, and while no member of the family has claimed it as a primary residence in over 50 years, they still use much of it as a family retreat. Of course, part of it is open to the public—no, I do not know the entail of the Vanderbilt legacy, I got into Biltmore the way most visitors do, I purchased a ticket and showed up at the appointed time for my one-way self-guided tour. The family opened the house to visitors in the 1930s to help Asheville and the surrounding communities develop tourism.
It truly was a stunning experience. The place is larger than many hotels I’ve visited and many conference centers as well. Much of the public portion has been restored to the original conditions or remodeled to something like it to give the visitor the understanding of Biltmore when it was more central to the lives of the family and their friends. (What the modern portion of the house currently used by the family looks like, the visitor is given no indication.) There certainly is a room for everything—a smoking room, a birthing room, a breakfast room (apparently not used for breakfast), a staff dining room, guest suites—of course. (And I haven’t even started on the grounds.)
Even a dweller in and proponent of tiny spaces that I am, I found myself seduced by the space. Ooh, look at that Winter Garden atrium entrance! Look at those wood moldings 18 inches wide. Look at that fireplace, it’s big enough to stand up in and three adults could stand fingertip to fingertip and not touch the sides. An indoor pool, gymnastic equipment. Heck, even the servants quarters looked appealing, with custom cabinetry and single beds = have your own room.
Unlike many of the other great Stately Homes in the United States that are open to visitors—Mount Vernon, Monticello, even the White House is not identified as associated with some historical set of events or broader public purpose. It is simply (if that word could possibly be used) a very large, well-appointed, private home. It is, as well, a testament to the social inequity of the time—where one family lives in a property that rivals European Palaces, supported by individuals and families happy to have a roof overhead, a uniform on their back and food a few times a day.
And that all seems very historical and theoretical, until you find out how people are living these days in Hong Kong, renting cages with a mattress and calling it home, while others live in palaces that look like Biltmore rip offs.
Which brings me to January. At some point shortly after the holidays, I contracted The Plague. Stuck at home, among other things, I watched some Netflix, including The Queen of Versailles, that recently showed up on the live stream queue. For those who might not know, The Queen of Versailles, is a movie about the Siegel Family—a wealthy timeshare magnate, his much younger wife and their seven children, as they struggle with their own financial crisis a few years back. They were in the middle of building a home about half the size of Biltmore, inspired by the Palace at Versailles. Their 26,000 square foot property just didn’t seem big enough. When they sat down and sketched out everything they wanted, it came out to 90,000 square feet. The movie charts the family’s retrenchment—ceasing construction on the half-built dream home and making a lot of lifestyle concessions—in an attempt to keep the dream alive and keep body and soul together.
In the end, the Siegel’s manage to pull their financial situation out of the fire, and restart construction on their dream home. The part I thought that was really interesting about the movie, is at the very end, it is revealed to the wife just how bad their financial situation actually was, how close they came to losing the “smaller” house. I honestly believed her prostrations that she would have changed her ways if she had any idea how bad their financial situation was. I honestly believe that push aside all the money and the materialism, this couple really loves each other and would stick together through anything.
Do we really think the turn of the 20th Century Vanderbilts didn’t know how to love? Do we think the Siegels don’t? No, I don’t. Do we really believe that somehow it evens out and there is something fundamentally worse about their lives than ours that makes everything equal? I’m guessing not really.
So, what to make of social inequity. Have we really progressed that far from the heydays of Biltmore? I think our image is that we have. I think we’ve made a lot of scientific progress that gets passed around. Have we progressed on wealth and well-being distribution? That I’m not convinced of. I think it is one thing for the one percent to share out the toys, it’s another thing to share the room, its contents, the dinner table.
What I do know is, whoever said Biltmore, Versailles (Fla.), etc, is the American Dream, well, I am an American and it is not my dream. 26,000 square feet is 26 apartments, 1,000 square feet each. Think about it. I like feeling safe when I walk and knowing that adults and children in my community have some place to live and food to eat and basic medical care and community facilities and personal items and the space to express themselves.
May you have enough.