Friday, April 15, 2011

Busting Out of the Box: Biltmore Chateau and the Gilded Peach

I pulled at the padlock to make sure it was secured and turned back to the dog waiting in the packed car.  This wouldn’t be the first time I would be living out of a suitcase nor did I expect it to be the last.  Although I had always wanted a home to call my own, I had never had one.  Just the way the cards fell.  Now, I wasn’t sure I even really wanted one. Freedom seemed to be all I did want. From things, from responsibilities, from bills and worries. To go and do what I had always wanted to without constraint or inhibitions and I now had the opportunity to do so. Before paralysis set in, I chose to put myself into motion.  So, for the third time in my life, I had given away most of my belongings and jammed the rest into a storage unit.  I really had no idea when I’d be back or where I’d end up.  I just knew I had to go. 

It was mid-day June 1, 2009 when I went, thumping the green “GO” button on my GPS directing me to my first destination in South Carolina. 

My only real plan was to return the dog my daughter had left with me a few years earlier.  She lived in San Diego, a streamlined 41 hours and 44 minute 2775.08 mile journey.  However, I’d be making a few stops and taking a month to make the trip.   For the first time in years, my time was my own.  I wasn’t about to rush.

I had crossed the country four times before. This time would be different. I wasn’t running from or to anything, nor was I in search of anything specific. There was no purpose at all to my decision other than to avoid cold weather and follow my heart’s content. Motoring west on Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay towards D.C. as I had done so often during the last ten years, I passed landmarks and memories began to flood my consciousness. This was all part of journeying, I reminded myself; the remembering had as much value as the imagining.  Like any proper Walkabout, this trip, too, would connect me with all that is, with all that was before, as well as with all that was yet to be. So, I breathed through the thick of it and before I knew it the dog and I were well out of familiar territory, plunging down virgin—for me—highways.

Yeehaw! I was on way on my way. To where didn’t matter.

The Peachoid and The Patriot

Sunny Side UpRoute 95 south through North Carolina with its rolling, pine clad hills has got to be on my top five prettiest roads to drive list.  I hit it at dusk and the shadows of the trees fell long and lazy across florescent green freshly mowed meadows. Paulo Nutini made my evening complete. Paulo and sighting Gaffney’s 150 foot water tower welded and painted to look like a giant peach. The bulbous tank includes a 60 foot leaf off to one side and a cleft off to another, making it the butt of many jokes. Before the tower increased tourism, the county produced more peaches than the entire state of Georgia.

Francis Marion and the Legend of the Swamp FoxThe nearby 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, Kings Mountain National Military Park, and Cowpens National Battlefield all fall within this rural county’s borders. This is the vicinity where Bonastre Tarleton, AKA “The Butcher”,  an Oxford educated seventh son to a nobleman who had made his fortune in human slavery, terrorized the communities of the Carolinas thought to be in support of the rebel renegade, Francis Marion.

Marion was a militia commander who practiced “irregular” methods of warfare and who thus is credited for developing modern guerilla warfare and intelligence gathering techniques. In an attempt to protect the locals, Marion did not obtain supplies from those communities. This civility did nothing to deter Tarleton from ravaging the Appalachian backcountry in search of the elusive “Swamp Fox”, however. Marion obtained all he needed directly from the British, from captured troops. Story sound familiar?

The Patriot (Special Edition)It should. Marion is portrayed in Mel Gibson’s film entitled The Patriot as a hero who struggles with his shame for having committed similar atrocities against the Cherokee during the French and Indian War. Unlike Gibson’s character who had granted freedom and land to his slaves, Marion did in fact own and abuse salves. He retired to the comforts of his plantation long before the close of the war where as his uncommissioned men, patriots before soldiers, went on fighting without pay, providing their own weapons, mount and food.

Although Tarleton himself escaped and went on to serve in Parliament, his forces famed for the Massacre at Waxhaws were finally destroyed at the Battle of Cowpens. Kings Mountain National Military Park commemorates the site where the Militia retaliated against Tarleton’s massacre and annihilated the left wing of Cornwallis’s southern army largely comprised of American Loyalists. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail preserves the path by which the rebels were able to so swiftly, and with the element of surprise, intercept and attack the British.  Kings Mountain State park includes a living history farm, as well as camping. Guided tours of the battlefield are offered at Cowpens National Battlefield.

If the term “civilized warfare” isn’t one of the best examples of an oxymoron, I don’t know what is.  The actions of these two men represent nothing but moments, really. Barbarous as all warfare is, the events these monuments immortalize were but specks in the vast face of human history. Horrors such as these men committed are repeated daily all around the world. What is considered worthy of defense and what defensive means are considered acceptable, noble or civil has been subject of constant debate over the centuries.  Makes you wonder about evolution, doesn’t it?
Blue Blood Defined

It was near midnight when I rolled into the driveway.  I’d be spending a week with a friend and while there, would visit Charleston and Biltmore Estate, (because we had gone to Longwood and Winterthur together and had promised ourselves to see Biltmore together as well).  I was eager to see the fantastic places that I had only previously read about.

Biltmore Estate: The Most Distinguished Private PlaceSet on 125,000 (now a mere 8,000) acres in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt along the French Broad River. To give you a perspective of this guy’s wealth, the expansive estate would have taken seven days to transverse on horseback. As I stood on the veranda, I heard a guide tell a nearby group that his lands extended to the hills on the horizon, then two days beyond. A kingdom, indeed. The 175,000 square foot,  250 room replica French Chateau was to become the largest of all the family's estates and is certainly one of the best examples of American Blue Blood built grand homes. Hardly surprising that it remains the largest in the country.  Besides its size, Biltmore was also the first grand mansion to include an indoor pool, heated or otherwise. It also had such novelties including multiple flush indoor toilets—as well as an alarm system and elevator.

When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded AgeNouveau Riche, newly rich, is a term that referred to America’s (although not exclusively, to be sure), aristocratic class, many of whom had climbed out of the trenches, acquiring wealth within their lifetimes with the advent of machinery during the industrial age. Blue Bloods, translated from the Spanish “Sangre Azul”, were the more refined families with pedigree who had been sitting on their stash for generations, meaning they inherited their assets. With inheritance, however, came a sense of gentile entitlement that the newly wealthy didn’t assume. And frankly, regardless of which basket one came from, it is important to understand that colonization was accomplished—in part-- by the sons of wealthy men that would not inherit, at least not the large cash cow estates or businesses.

Snobs though they may have been given they too were raised in privileged environments, these men were driven to succeed in ways first born sons weren’t necessarily. (Many of the infamous pirates of the day were also noble born lesser sons—but that’s another story). As with the rising middle class merchants and enterprising indentured servants (many of whom were paroled “convicted” thieves or traitors), these men sought opportunity, more specifically the freedom to pursue their god given right to be all that they could be without socioeconomic restrictions. And THAT’s the premise that the “New World”, the colonized lands throughout the world, were founded on.

Its long been a misgiving that status and such elevated position in society resulted from wealth, which then –it was presumed-- entitled one to power over the lives and interests of others. I think it’s more base than that even. Our collective conscience is tribal in nature. We subconsciously still operate on the instinct to preserve our own and to oust that which is different because that which is different is deemed a potential threat to our established system of survival. Seems to me that most of world history can be brought down to this—to some sort of “-ism” beginning predominantly with racism.

It is not surprising then that the term sangre azul, for instance, refers to race more than class. Aristocratic Castilian families claimed their superiority by the fact that they hadn’t intermarried with other races, the Jews or Moors for instance—those with dark versus fair skin, those whose veins didn’t show through the skin as clearly as they did on those with fairer skin. Supremacy through purity. This too should sound familiar.

The Colonial Period wasn’t the first era to confront these inequities, nor do I imagine that it will be the last. (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a sit down over a bandy and cigar with Jung on the topic of evolution and enlightenment.) Pontifications aside, the upside of all this is that many of these lesser born sons were given lesser properties to administer, generally farms or country estates rather than the bulk of the urbanized, (read, “civilized”), estates and industrial conglomerates. They were also granted leisure that the elder sons weren’t. And with wealth, leisure became unbounded freedom. Some –certainly—squandered both. Others didn’t.

Fortune's Children It was no different for George. While his brothers managed the family empire, (railroads, steamboats, etc.) he ran the farms, traveled, and studied all of which would be reflected in Biltmore and the nearby Village near Asheville that developed from the workforce and railroad brought in during the seven years of construction.  

The Gilded Age

Although I immediately adored Biltmore aesthetically, it was the landscaping that first caught my attention, and I don’t mean manicured gardens but rather the lay of the land, the relationship between that which is built on the land to the land itself. When done with a sense of spirit, it can be felt. Whether artistic or ecological in intent, it lends an undeniable sense to a place.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American LandscapeAs we drove up the narrow curving driveway, affording peak pastoral views upon gentle assent, I knew the grounds had to have been designed by the infamous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. One of my all time favorites, Olmsted’s style is unmistakable. It was years spent walking the trails on Shelburne Estate built by George’s sister and her husband on the shores of Lake Champlain that I first became acquainted with his work. His style, however, can be seen in more visible places like New York City’s Central Park and throughout the Boulevard System of Chicago known as the Green Necklace.

Expo - Magic of the White CityWhen incorporated in 1837, Chicago’s motto, City in the Garden, was meant to serve as the gateway to America’s breadbasket. The metropolis was originally planned as a garden city along the coast of Lake Michigan, encircled by boulevards and parks.  In celebration of having recovered from the Great Fire of 1871, the city sponsored the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, (named in honor of the grossly mistaken Christopher Columbus who, 400 hundred years earlier had stumbled upon the Caribbean shores thinking he had found India). For that event, Olmsted was hired to transform a 686 acre swamp into an urban park where the festivities would be held. It became known as The White City. Outfitted with Edison’s newly patented technology, the City’s electric lights afforded unprecedented nighttime viewing for its 27 million visitors. It also enabled a new era of technology and consumerism to be introduced.

This world fair went beyond simply showcasing a post arson modern world class metropolis in that it also set the precedent for showcasing American ingenuity and trend setting products and technology that would serve to define future markets.  The Fair ignited American Consumerism with the introduction of electricity, the Ferris wheel, chewing gum, hamburgers and carbonated drinks (to name but a few) that would become the foundation for Americana.

Pre-EPCOT, the Fair merged big business with entertainment and turned a pretty profit.  While Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show provided spectators a glimpse at the vanishing frontier, the introduction of machines, particularly those that modeled the wonders of electricity, would set off a timeless worldwide competition for bigger, faster, fancier techno-gadgets. Furthermore, it included participation from and exhibits by women artists from all trades, thanks to the suffragette movement.

As progressive as the Fair aimed to be though, it was still a victim to its times and received ample criticism for –go figure--being elitist and racially exclusive. None the less, Olmsted’s work in this one project would serve to influence urban planning for the next half a century and the Fair was such a bang, a national holiday was created in its honor (Columbus Day).

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (mobi)As with other Gilded Age mogul families, the Vanderbilt Empire was established during an unprecedented industrial economic post war boom that saw the rise of corporations, (some large ones even ironically if not outright comically referred to as “trusts”). We were a nation in motion, westward, upward, you name it—we were on the move, aggressively. Progressive advancement and modernization was the name of the game. The turn of the century United States became the global leader in applied technology, issuing more patents than ever before. Transportation and communication industries became the core of the American market and the original industrialists became the bank behind the gold, financing what became known as the Second Industrial Revolution. (Interestingly enough, Nikola Tesla grabbed a few patents right alongside Thomas Edison in the electronics field, which would later earn him the prestige of having an electric high performance roadster named in his honor). This pack of gilded boys also endowed the green behind modern philanthropy.

Biltmore and the Bohemian

But, money comes and money goes. Although not the only Blue Blood to lose his fortune, George’s pile dwindled and after his death, his wife ditched acreage that, in part, became the Pisgah National Forest. His second born grandson, the one who inherited the money pit of a house instead of the income producing agricultural estate lands, put his elbow to the grindstone, restoring the house, opening it to the public and developing a few satellite businesses, such as a vineyard.  Unique in that it is a National Historic Landmark supported entirely by private resources, Biltmore attracts more than a million visitors per annum.

Go. You’ll know why the minute you set foot on the grounds. After taking the house and rooftop tours, hiking the extensive trail system and dining at the Arbor CafĂ©, I didn’t want to leave. I could have easily spent a highly enjoyable week here, taking horse draw carriage rides along the miles of forested lanes and canoeing the meandering river. If you go though and prefer accommodations that will give you more of a feel for the place over the more plush ones offered by the ten year old “Inn”, try to grab a few nights at the historic Cottage. Although not as quaintly decorated as it could be, the setting is private and convenient and perfect for a family or several couples traveling together.

You could also book a room at the Grand Bohemian located in historic Biltmore Village just outside the estate’s gates and on the outskirts of Asheville proper, which is to die for. I fell in love with Kessler’s Collection of luxury inns the moment I set foot into the glass entry hall adorned with beaded chandeliers and purple velvet cushions that absolutely scream for you to lie on them. Coming down off the Estate after a full day, we had thought to just cruise through the quaint village with narrow streets lined with glowing boutique shops and welcoming restaurants. Then I saw it. A red leather wing backed chair aglow in the soft light cast by a Middle Eastern looking lamp set against a carved wooden bar. Once he saw it too, it didn’t take much convincing to park and join me for a drink in the Red Stag Lounge (where that chair lived). Irish coffee laced heavily with Jameson cupped possessively in my chilled hands, we then moved on to sit in the paneled Lobby with a square stone central hearth open to clusters of well appointed chairs and sofas on all four sides.  

Explorer's Guide The Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains (Third Edition) (Explorer's Complete)If you venture to North Carolina, in particular towards Asheville, and DO choose the Bohemian, anti-up for the Biltmore Escape AND Picnic on the Parkway Packages—stay a while and absorb the essence of the area. Design future trips around his other inns. It’s not just that these historic properties have been perfectly restored with attention to detail, sustainable design and modern comforts, but that they’ve been exquisitely decorated with antiques and authentic looking replicas, and with fine art.  Art is everywhere…in the fixtures, furniture, textures, ornaments, tapestries, paintings, sculptures. This Tudor style boutique hotel even has a rooftop ballroom, complete with crystal chandeliers. Really scrumptious. The price tag is extravagant for the average Joe, but if you’ve got the bread, lay it out…be good to yourself. You deserve it and I truly doubt you’ll be coming back to me with a single regret.

The Festival of Flowers is going on now at Biltmore through May, but there are events year round that attract visitors. The evening Concert Series runs from July through October and Biltmore at Christmas is something out of a fairytale. First opened to his family at the Yuletide, the house and grounds are decorated with “miles” of garland, and thousands of glimmering candles. Roaring fires are lit in hearths throughout the chateau and dozens of shimmering trees create a seasonally festive and memorable experience. Doesn’t matter when you go but that you go.

As we drove south east later than evening towards Charleston, I was ever glad I had stopped dreaming and had begun living.

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