Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Few Impressions of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina

We live in an age where excess is both cherished and rebuffed. Of course, this largely depends on whether the bed you wake up in has a frame made of mahogany or cheap, pressed wood. It also has to do with feelings of inequity and unfair distribution of goods--moreover, the average man's capacity to earn a right to those goods. Inherently, this is the foundation of the Occupy movement which is starting to flounder as local governments have fulfilled their obligations to meet constitutional rights and have now said enough is enough is enough.

The world is too complicated, too diverse and too automated by electronic convenience for the second coming of a French Revolution--at least here in America. Here, the modern aristocracy is both celebrated and villainized. The haves versus the have nots are clearly defined by the parameters of a board room and the shadows cast by corporate towers and the bombastic Hollywood letters, both of which essentially put the common man in his place. Yet it's the middle class in an eternal struggle amongst its own ranks to keep up with one another and create a false illusion of empowerment and material sovereignty. The middle class defines its self-worth by the amount of debt-chaining gadgets and gizmos it covets. The rich thus must be amused by such hapless financial suicide.

I found myself thinking of these things when we took a holiday visit to the Carolinas with our longtime friends and they brought us to the Biltmore in Asheville as an early Christmas present. They'd even treated us to the audio tour of the gargantuan alternate residence of George Vanderbilt, who wasn't on this earth long enough to fully savor his work.

On the one hand, there's a certain pomposity that greets you around the slope from the statue of Diana, who smiles from her perch across the estate. To get to Biltmore, you first have to navigate a couple of miles of exotic backwoods of the Pisgah Forest, which are worth the trip alone. You can imagine guests of the past and their impressions of such a long trek to the estate, particularly at the turn of the twentieth century where Tin Lizzies and horse-drawn carriages and sleighs would've been the normal mode of transportation.

At the same time, you feel like George Vanderbilt had created America's Camelot with the intention of not only enhancing his life, but those he interacted with and employed. Considered this country's largest private home, the Biltmore was actually Vanderbilt's second residence outside of his equally lavish quarters in Manhattan. Veritably a palace in the merged designs of French Renaissance, Gothic, Victorian, Flamenco and Rococo, the Biltmore is perhaps one of the most astonishing buildings I've ever visited.

It's particularly fun as you're waiting in line to enter Biltmore to scope all the gargoyles and spirits carved into nearly every tier. I imagined George's future heirs having quite a few shakes and terrors from the demonae guarding the circumference of Biltmore on top of its supporting layers. Back then, it could've been quite imposing, even as George Vanderbilt's intent for the estate was to create a safe haven for his family and friends. Gargoyles are said to be protectors of the establishment. Hovering atop such an oasis as Biltmore, if you believe in such matters, you get the feeling any interloping malevolence was well-thwarted here.

Instead, the dark forces got to Vanderbilt at a pretty young age when he died from a side effect of an appendectomy. It was said his wife, Edith Stuyvescent Dresser, was as gracious a hostess as they came back in early American high society. I was intrigued to learn both George and Edith Vanderbilt were such hospitable folks to their guests, to their servants and to the community surrounding the eight thousand acres marking the Biltmore estate.

The audio tour painted George as an arts and architecture enthusiast on top of having a charitable nature. Now, I'm sure every day at Biltmore wasn't fabled nirvana. I'm sure the history of Biltmore could reveal potentially nasty stories involving the scores of employees who kept the machine running, as it were. Biltmore was one of the very first private homes to have full electricity, an indoor pool, an indoor bowling alley and a thundering pipe organ inside of its enveloping banquet hall. Side note, look for an original colonial era "Don't Tread On Me" banner in the rafters. It takes a considerable staff to keep all of that moving and more than likely there are scores of undisclosed clashes between the bluebloods and the front line help. Then again, it's been testified by many that George and Edith were considered outstanding employers.

On the other hand, you can't avoid smiling at stories of Vanderbilt generously giving away one of his prized spruces to an employee for Christmas after the employee's sons cut down the wrong tree. Likewise, the tale of Edith taking lengthy measures to ensure all the staff and their families had Christmas presents each year is unprecedented. I don't want to spoil the estate's audio tour, but there is a hilarious turn of the karma wheel involving a little girl who turned away Edith's gift of paper dolls. This led to a yearly bestowment from Edith to said girl which could've spelled a fortune in Christmas ornaments had fate not played a hand in things.

Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve in 1895, thus you can tell the Vanderbilt clan really took the holiday seriously. When you enter Vanderbilt's overwhelming library (the man had more than 23,000 books in his entire possession, 10,000 shelved in this library alone) with the dwarfing ceiling painting The Chariot of Aurora by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, it's noted that George was especially fond of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He read it repeatedly and took Dickens' haunting paradigm to heart. One of the warm legends of George Vanderbilt has him reported to have thrown the Biltmore staff many annual Christmas parties, Fezziwig-style.

Ironically, we came through the estate during its month-long "Christmas at Biltmore" which is something to behold in itself, particularly inside the banquet hall where your task will be to find an unlit ordinary light bulb on the stories-high Christmas tree. This has been a snarky tradition in the modern era of Biltmore. I recommend the white and rose house Christmas wine, while their Pinot Noir is simply divine.

Biltmore romanticizes the essence of capitalism and you're drawn in. George Vanderbilt was a major fan of Napoleon and you'll find various tributes in bust and painting form amidst the estate, but what impressed me was Vanderbilt's acquisition of Napoleon's actual chess set and oak playing table. Every room inside of Biltmore is a time tunnel into yesteryear. You can visit so many period houses and mansions throughout America and be submerged by all the wealth and prosperity igniting such grandeur. None of it compares to Biltmore, I assure you. When I say this is a living museum, I don't issue the statement lightly. I actually felt a presence inside the third floor living hall, so hello, whoever you were...

The tour takes you through 42 rooms, which tend to change invariably. We were in the estate for more than three hours just to cover this much and the outdoor Loggia, which happened to be open for our visit. I felt like we were in one of the promenades of Hogwarts from the realm of Harry Potter, much as I felt I was inside Washington, DC's National Gallery of Art with Vanderbilt's two Renoir originals and his winter garden which had festive poinsettias amidst the tropical plants and the sparkling fountain. As it was, the National Gallery actually brought thousands of masterworks to Biltmore during World War II out of fear of possible air attacks upon Washington. These were stored away from the public in the Biltmore's music room, which was only finished in 1976.

I'm fascinated the Vanderbilt family established three schools in the area, while George introduced various agricultural techniques to the region, which has long since produced food, horticulture and award-winning wine. Edith resumed her philanthropical activities after George passed away and even though she later remarried, she honored George by working with government officials to preserve the Pisgah Forest and of course, Biltmore Estate. Today, descendents of the Vanderbilt lineage operate Biltmore and it is now considered a national landmark.

At the end, you find yourself appreciating all that went into the place and the people who made it their duty to create a self-contained fantasia. It reeks less of arrogance and wafts more of a monument to mankind's capacity for imaginative wonder. It still comes down to money, naturally, but you find yourself wanting less of it once you've ventured through such a beautiful, yet cumbersome retreat.

All photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

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