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 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 We talked a bit on the trip about the sources of the Vanderbilt money that originally made such an estate possible; when we toured the servants' quarters we talked about the relationships between the rich and the working classes.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.