Monday, September 26, 2011

Field Trip: Biltmore!

N. and I recently visited Biltmore, the 1895 Vanderbilt estate outside Asheville, NC. N. has had the guidebook practically memorized for years, so he was thrilled to be able to tour the grand house in person. It was interesting to tour a site that N. already knew so much about, and to compare our experience of it with the expectations we'd formed from the guidebook. For example, he was fascinated by the asymmetrical floor plan (hard to get a sense of this from a book), some rooms were even more beautiful than they had appeared in photos, and we were both unprepared for the house's spectacular mountain setting. We loved being able to wander through Frederick Law Olmsted's various landscape designs, to enjoy the contrasts between the European-style formal gardens and the Central Park-style rambles.

The house was crowded with visitors, so we couldn't linger in each room as much as N. wanted. He comforted himself with plans for what he would be sure to do and look at on a repeat visit next year.

The occasion of our trip was the discounted admission price offered as part of the annual "homeschool festival" the Estate stages. So after touring the house and grounds, we went to the farm barns for the "homeschool festival," where artisans showed children how to dye, card, and spin alpaca fiber; how to wash clothes by hand; how to weave baskets from white oak fibers; blacksmithing; weaving; quilting; etc. N. enjoyed these demonstrations and the accompanying activities, although next year he might decide to focus solely on the house, grounds, and gardens.

The Biltmore Estate, which is still owned by Vanderbilt descendants, is a slick operation designed to maximize the visitor's expenditures. Not only is the regular admission incredibly expensive, but there are premium tours available for additional fees, as well as expensive food and shopping on site. We talked a bit on the trip about the sources of the Vanderbilt money that originally made such an estate possible; when we toured the servants' quarters we talked about the relationships between the rich and the working classes. N.'s love of architecture is both ahistorical and context-based; that is, he loves buildings as pure aesthetic objects, but he is also very interested in the history in which they are situated. In all our tours of fancy houses and our study of Gilded Age architecture, I try to resist the glamorization of the rich that can be so easy to indulge while at the same time not damping N.'s innocent pleasure in the beauty of grand old buildings.


Emily said...

It looks like such an amazing day! I would love to visit Biltmore sometime, but it is really expensive... Maybe they'll do a Groupon someday.

Mom and Kiddo said...

How interesting to know that Olmstead designed the grounds. I admit that I love a good elaborate house tour.

Thanks for linking up!

Megan D. Neal said...

So much fun! I love the architecture of this house, and the landscaping! Todd and I visited the Biltmore for Christmas the year before we were married. It's a fun time of year to visit. But my favorite was the behind the scenes tour, because you see the stark differences in classes then. (And your right; it's expensive.)