Monday, April 9, 2007

The Biltmore from another prespective

Like Leigh, I also grew up in North Carolina. My family used to go out the Biltmore almost once a year - one year we'd go out for the Festival of Flowers, which is going on around now, and another we'd go either in the Fall or Winter to see the fall colors or tour the house. However, I didn't have that same sense of conflict in the juxtaposition of the house and the gardens. To me, it was almost a seamless flow between them. Although I was surprised to realize the conditions of the land before the gardens and planning, you can still see how much work goes into shaping the landscape now. I guess I always thought the gardens were carved out of nature, but now, they are just as fabricated as the house itself.

The Biltmore House is imposing even from a distance (if anyone has seen the terrible movie "Richie Rich" with Macaulay Culkin, they used the exterior of the Biltmore mansion in the movie). But I felt that it was not as overwhelming once I was inside - half of what I remember from the tours was the entertaining spaces that obviously proclaimed the wealth and social status of the owners - imported cultural artifacts, elaborate tapestries, 4 completely outfitted dining rooms - but the other half was the secret passageways, kitchens, and service staff quarters in the lower portion of the building. It was nothing grand, but I always thought it was interesting how even a house like that needed things like people doing the laundry.

Like the house, the gardens demand extensive support staff. Even now on the busiest days of the year, you cannot walk through the gardens without seeing at least a few people working in them. There are secluded paths, but there are also the green houses which contain a collection of plants whose diversity rivals the nick-knacks in the most cluttered rooms in the house. Orchids, topiary, and all manner of things scream elegance - and once you've been there enough, you realize that this image is completely crafted - as soon as the flowers start to fade, they pull the plant and put in a new one. Once you move farther away from the house, it feels as though you are more in touch with nature - the landscape starts to look natural. But then you look up a hill and realize you are looking at 15 species of Azalea.

But the landscape fits the house. Even though it is a monstrosity, it matches the grandeur of the landscape. Especially near the house, the gardens are so perfectly manicured - not a twig is out of place. In my memory, it feels very much like the Gardens in Versailles, if you've ever been there. They always told the stories on the tours about how the road leading up to the house was made windy on purpose, so that when visitors finally saw the house after coming out of the trees, they'd be awestruck by the sight of this massive house situated in the middle of a view of the North Carolina mountains, and as a visitor, I'd say they achieved this.

I am not saying that this connection between the manufacture of the gardens and that of the house should be negative. To me, that was part of the greatness about the Biltmore. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful, and I saw the connection between the landscape and the house. Each interested me separately, but it was great to wander out on a patio in the house and look off into what is now Pisgah National Forest. And it was fun to be running around in the gardens and look up and realize how much garden there was between you and the house - I used to feel like I was playing near a castle. Especially now knowing what Olmstead did to craft the land to what it is today, I am even more impressed with the elegance of landscaping that they managed to achieve.

It's interesting how the same place can evoke such drastically different responses... But if you are interested in the Biltmore should check out their website: This has all sorts of information about the house, the gardens, and the history, including a virtual tour of the gardens...

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