Because his older brothers took charge of managing the various businesses begun by their grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, young George was able to devote himself to his passions: art, architecture, literature, and horticulture. Once he had decided to build in North Carolina, he enlisted his friend, architect Richard Morris Hunt, to help design the 250-room mansion, based on three chateaux in France's Loire Valley: Blois, Chenonceau, and Chambord. Still the largest private residence in the U.S., the Biltmore House with its 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, swimming pool, and bowling alley, took hundreds of workers over five years to build. On Christmas Eve 1895, George opened his home to his family. Furnished with over 70,000 objets d'art, including paintings by Renoir, Sargent, and Whistler, tapestries, porcelains, bronzes, Oriental carpets, and antique furniture, the house even contains a chess set once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte; it is truly the closest thing Americans have to a castle.
The first thing I noticed on the long drive leading to the mansion was how unusual the estate’s forest looked. While there is certainly beauty in the wildness of nature, it was obvious that something had been done on the property which served to highlight every tree in the woods. Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park in Manhattan, was employed by Vanderbilt for the outdoor design of the estate. Olmsted encouraged Vanderbilt to have “a scientifically managed forest” by removing poorly formed and damaged trees, thus giving the best trees more room to grow. To this end, Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot—1st chief of the US Forest Service and future governor of Pennsylvania—whose management plan of identifying species and selective thinning of trees continues to the present day. Other accomplishments of Olmsted’s last and largest project included planned fields, formal gardens, reflecting pools, greenhouses, and a bass pond.