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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

What I would do to wake up to this view each morning…on this porch…in this house…ok, stopping before I depress myself. Images like this are the reason my first trip to Biltmore left me feeling both exhilaratingly inspired and extremely poverty-ridden. I had never felt so poor in my life.

We’ll be taking in all that the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition has to offer this weekend, particularly the Dock Dogs competition at Brittlebank Park.  Get out and enjoy a very spring-ish weekend, Charleston!

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An essential component of the majesty of the Biltmore Estate is the immensity of its grounds, a virtue supplemented by never-ending vistas, carefully manicured gardens, a shrine to conservation and cultivation of indigenous and non-native plant species, and the mature forests and pasture lands that cover the rolling hills surrounding the house.  But these latter features are not exactly what they seem and, for my money, constitute the most fascinating part of the estate.

What appears to be natural is actually far from the case.  Stands upon stands of trees and acres upon acres of pristine pastureland that seem to be the handiwork of centuries of natural processes are, instead, very much the vision of Vanderbilt himself, a vision that manifests itself today as the complex forestry plan devised by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It was Vanderbilt’s desire to transform a landscape scarred by the over-wrought agriculture activities of man into a glimmering emulation of sustainablity and regality so common on large estates in Europe.  Olmsted was able to translate this desire masterfully.

Being of the planning profession, I have become so accustomed to landscape plans for streetscapes, master plans, or parks containing mathematical feet-off-center calculations and rigid, almost thoughtless linear patterns for plantings that simply being immersed in such a different philosophical scheme at Biltmore completely mesmerized me.  Olmsted’s superior understanding of the life cycles of, individually, species of flora and, collectively, their natural progression into true habitat formation is evident here.  The visitor does not realize they are standing amidst the results of a large-scale landscaping plan because the execution of the plan and the thoughtfulness that preceded its culmination have guaranteed naturalization.  The forest replenishes itself and will for centuries afterward.

It was a long-term vision, one in which both Vanderbilt and Olmsted knew, if done correctly, would take decades to accomplish, well beyond their life expectancies.  It’s because of this dedicated commitment (something that in the profession can seem so rare in a day where projects approved due to their ‘sustainability quotient’ are actually not very sustainable at all) that we are able to enjoy the Biltmore’s grounds so much today.

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Visiting the Biltmore was part of my destiny.  Not exactly in the case of fated destiny, stars aligning, and all that jazz but more of a coerced destiny created by interested parties.

Like my grandmother, who, upon discovering that I had never been to this grand home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was so aghast at the notion that she threatened to ‘kill me’ if I didn’t visit.  (True story.  That really happened.)

And like Suzanne’s mother, who was similarly dismayed when she learned of my apparent transgression.  Instead of threatening to kill me like my dear old grandmother, however, she purchased season passes for us.  That seems a little more rational.

This is probably only the second time that I have had a season pass to anything in my life, the first being a swim club membership in 6th grade that I obtained solely to have the opportunity to talk to a girl from class who wrote “can’t wait to see you at Splash this summer!” in my yearbook.  Guess what?  She wrote that in literally everyone’s yearbook.  Stupid circa-1995 Chris.  Anyway, I did feel somewhat cooler holding my newly minted Biltmore identification card and was immediately filled with wonder as to what exactly being a season pass holder entails.  Turns out, it’s a lot.  And after seeing the house, I can’t wait to partake.

Suzanne’s mother wanted a photograph of my reaction when I first came upon the house after emerging from the wooded approach.  We didn’t end up snapping one, but if we had, my expression would have been somewhere between “you got three numbers and the powerball on your lottery ticket” and “that girl REALLY did want to talk to you at Splash all summer.”

The Biltmore is awe-inspiring.  The sheer size of the place is only dwarfed by the immensity of the grounds it sits upon.  It doesn’t seem real at first.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around the thought that someone actually lived in this place.  It isn’t a Disney castle.  It was a highly functioning, highly innovative working estate home, serviced by scores of maids, cooks, butlers, and the like.  The history of the inner workings of the house is legendary and I will touch upon it in good time.

There is so much to tell about our experience within the house and on the estate itself that one post cannot do it justice.  We’ll have a couple more coming this week.  For now, I just hope that the accompanying photos give at least an inkling of its grandeur. I can’t wait to experience it in the spring.

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