14 March 2007

The Biltmore Estate

  • Four acres of floor space
  • 250 rooms
  • 34 family and guest rooms
  • 60 servants' rooms
  • 43 bathrooms
  • 65 fireplaces
  • Three kitchens
  • One 100,000-acre forest
  • One 250-acre wooded park
  • Five pleasure gardens
  • 30 miles of macadamized roadways
  • 23,000 books
  • Horse and dairy farms
  • Elevators
  • Refrigerators
  • One 700,000 gallon indoor swimming pool (with underwater lighting)
  • One bowling alley
  • One gymnasium
  • One state-of-the-art laundry complex
  • Three museum's worth of art dating to medieval times
  • And Napoleon Bonaparte's ivory chess set.
Cost upon its opening?

Nobody knows: George Washington Vanderbilt didn't keep any records. The ultra-modern Biltmore Estate opened its doors to guests on Christmas Eve, 1895, after only six years of construction. The youngest member of the railroad magnate family, 33-year-old George had no problem spending the $100 million (nearly two billion dollars at today's rate) of his father's money.

Even though I have no characters with access to that kind of money, I've been able to use bits and pieces from what I've learned about the platinum lifestyles of the Gilded Age. Biltmore's preservation and education programs are some of the best I've encountered, and the self-guided audio tour (each visitor is given a personal MP3 player) is packed with more information than I can retain. I've visited twice. The first time I bought the book, and the second time I took notes. And I'm ready to go again!

I love getting a strong sense of place in books, every bit as much as I love good stories and well-drawn characters. I think it's why I love the gothic novel: I get to explore houses and grounds I could never fully explore otherwise.

What are the most interesting settings in your books? What about books you've read? How do tours and personal visits affect your writing?