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Miami Herald Features Asheville

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11/25/2007 - Miami Herald Features Asheville
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as ''the commodore'' because of his investments in shipping and railroads, made $100 million before he died in 1877.

In 10 years his son, William Henry, doubled the family fortune.

His son, George W., inherited that $200 million, which in today's dollars would be a hefty $96 billion.

And that's before there were income taxes.

All that information is in the audio tour of the baronial Biltmore Estate and explains why young George could afford to walk away from the stuffy world of industry to devote his life to building the estate's 250-room French Renaissance chateau and filling it with art and furniture from around the world.

When it opened in 1895, Biltmore House was the country's largest private residence, with 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, at a time when most people used an outhouse. The home is still the largest in America, although no one lives there. The curious are welcome to tour for $38 a ticket, and a million or so do each year, which helps pay the bills.

William Cecil Jr., the family member now running the place, has a goal. He says in the audio, ``If George Vanderbilt came back tomorrow and asked for the keys to the house, we're sure he'd be very happy with how we've maintained Biltmore while he was gone.''

No doubt. The place was spotless during my two-hour walk through, not a dust bunny or cobweb in sight.

Vanderbilt, who began the project in 1889 when he was a 27-year-old bachelor, originally purchased some 125,000 acres, and that has shrunk to a mere 8,000 today. But the forests and gardens created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York's Central Park, are intact, complementing the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the French Broad River flowing through.

The cool, clean mountain air of western North Carolina was thought to have healing qualities, and Asheville attracted more than billionaires. Sufferers of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments flocked to the region after the railroad arrived in 1880. Health retreats were set up to treat the patients. Resorts and luxury inns were built to house the healthy.

Edwin Wiley Grove, owner of a pharmaceutical company that made Bromo-Quinine, came in 1900 and purchased a large tract of land on Sunset Mountain to build a magnificent lodge, using native uncut boulders. The Grove Park Inn is still magnificent, with wings added in 1958 and 1963, and a spa created in 2001.

A more modest dwelling for the budget conscious was at 48 Spruce Street, where Julia Wolfe operated the Old Kentucky Home, a 17-bedroom boarding house that charged $7 a week for a room and two daily meals. The youngest of her eight children, Thomas, lived and worked in the house.

One of the boy's jobs was to pass out cards advertising the home at the train station. The cards said, ''No Sick People.'' Later Thomas Wolfe gained his own fame as an author and alienated a lot of folks in town with his most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929.

''Some people didn't appreciate what he had to say about Asheville,'' said Barbara Mueller, who gives tours of the home for $1. ``So, he stayed away for about eight years.''

Asheville is enjoying a resurgence today. Locals in this town of 69,000 people have pet names for two groups of new arrivals, who are boosting real estate prices and driving the spread of galleries and craft shops in recycled buildings of the historic district. Even the old Woolworth's is divided into artists' booths.

''Halfbacks'' are transplants from the North who moved to South Florida and are now leaving that congestion behind to re-settle in the moderate climate of Asheville, halfway back to their roots. ''Trustafarians'' are the dread-locked droves of young artists found on the park benches and in the coffee houses and brew pubs. Most are struggling in Asheville's crowded art scene, but they're not quite starving, thanks to a little parental support.

This corner of the Appalachian Mountains always has been a hotbed for arts and crafts, with potters, quilters and woodworkers in abundance. There are at least three dozen galleries in downtown Asheville. The Folk Art Center, which features the work of the more than 900 members of the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild, is at Milepost 382 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 15 minutes outside of town.

While the lively arts-and-crafts scene is a boon to buyers and browsers, it's something of a bane to the region's overflow of artists. A front-page story that ran in the Asheville Citizen-Times during my four-day stay had this headline, ''More artists than galleries,'' and quoted several gallery owners as saying they no longer welcomed ''walk-ins'' carrying their portfolios.

Getting displayed in the Folk Art Center is even harder. Spokeswoman Ada Dudenhoffer said more than 100 artists from nine states applied last year. A jury viewed their slides, then invited 30 to bring in their work for inspection.

''Eight were accepted,'' she said. ``They're a pretty tough crowd.''

You can't stay in the lavishly appointed rooms of the Biltmore House, but there was room at the inn.

The Inn on Biltmore Estate opened in 2001 with 213 rooms for guests. Mine was lavish enough, and had a window that looked out over the wooded hills to the estate house perched on a ridge.

The inn has a gourmet restaurant that offers formal dining. I strolled down the pathway through the vineyard to the Biltmore Estate Winery below, where the Bistro restaurant was casual. Thanks to the throngs that tour the estate each year, the winery is said to be the most visited in the country with 600,000 guests.

There are several ways to see the entire estate -- drive the winding roads, hike the trails, bike the paths, ride on horseback or carriage, or float the gentle stretch of the French Broad River. The estate has a fly-fishing school and an outdoor center where you can sign up for an off-road ride in a Land Rover.

There are gift shops at the gate house, main house and winery. And if you're really inspired by Biltmore's design, you can go to www.biltmoreforyourhome.com and see a whole line of indoor and outdoor furnishings inspired by George's worldwide collecting.

Biltmore Estate is an experience for all seasons. The Azalea Garden contains one of the country's largest selections of native azaleas, 15 acres that glow each spring. By summer, the 250 acres of gardens are in their full glory, and the surrounding hills add to the color show in autumn. Beginning in November, the chateau is decorated for Christmas, and open for candlelight tours.

George Vanderbilt, who had booked passage on the Titanic but canceled the trip at the last minute, died in 1914 of complications following an appendectomy. He and his wife, Edith, had one child, Cornelia, who was born in the house. Cornelia and her husband, John Cecil, opened Biltmore to the public in 1930 at the request of city officials, who hoped it would boost tourism during the Depression.

Today, the estate employs some 1,600 people, and is said to contribute $350 million annually into the Asheville economy.

All those Asheville artists, starving and otherwise, need studio space, and a lot of them are setting up shop in the old warehouses along the riverfront in a burgeoning area known as the River Arts District. Some of the studios are open daily to visitors, some are open only by appointment. Most are open to the public during scheduled ''studio strolls,'' which are advertised at www.riverartsdistrict.com.

''People can go into the buildings and walk around,'' said Barbara Lepak Perez, a sculptor and president of the district. ``Knock on a door if you hear a radio.''

During a whirlwind tour, we visited:

The Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts, which holds nine-week workshops with national artists.

Pattiy Torno, who makes quilts that sell for up to $10,000.

Mark Olson, who was using a 1936 letterpress to emboss wedding invitations with a delicate dogwood blossom.

Marty and Eileen Black, who fire pottery with the difficult ''copper-red'' glaze.

Genie Maples, who does large, colorful abstract oils that she calls ``visual poetry.''

Painter Skip Rohde, whose political satires included a painting of conservative commentator Ann Coulter wearing only a Gestapo jacket and knee-high black boots.

I also saw some of nature's art at Chimney Rock Park at the end of a 25-mile drive through twisting Hickory Nut Gorge. The park's main feature is a towering rock spire, which was reached by a 26-story ride inside an elevator shaft blasted into the mountainside. The rugged landscape has been featured in several movies, including Last of the Mohicans.

The 1,000 acres had been owned by the Morse family of Missouri for 104 years, but the state of North Carolina in January announced it was buying the land for $24 million, which appeared to be a deal. ''It was appraised by Sotheby's auction house at $55 million,'' said Megan Rogers, who led me on a short hike to the park's 404-foot-tall waterfall.

All that touring and hiking made me weary, so I finished the evening in a white van with Mark Lyons at the wheel and his wife, Trish, sitting shotgun. The couple takes small groups on ''brews cruises,'' and we visited three of Asheville's five microbreweries, where we learned the art of turning barley, hops, yeast and water into beer.

Our first stop was Highland Brewing Co., which Mark said was owned by Oscar Wong. ''He's a Chinese gentleman, born and raised in Jamaica, now selling a Scottish-style ale in North Carolina,'' he explained.

An American success story.

IF YOU GO:

BILTMORE ESTATE: The estate is open year-round. Admission starts at $45 online, $55 at the gate, then drops to $25 and $29 Jan. 2, higher prices on Saturdays. Guided and behind-the-scenes tours are available. For tickets -- or room rates at the Inn on Biltmore Estate: 800-624-1575, www.biltmore.com.

WHERE TO STAY: The Princess Anne Hotel is a lovingly restored boutique hotel with 16 rooms, in a residential area a mile from downtown Asheville. Room rates start at $129. 828-258-0986, www.princessannehotel.com. The Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa has 510 rooms, with room rates starting at $199. 800-438-5800, www.groveparkinn.com. The Asheville Renaissance Hotel is next to the Thomas Wolfe House. Room rates start at $159. 828-252-8211, www.renaissancehotels.com/avlbr.

CHIMNEY ROCK PARK: The park is 25 miles southeast of Asheville, near the intersection of U.S. 64 and Route 74A in Chimney Rock, N.C. 800-277-9611, www.chimneyrockpark.com.

GREAT GALLERIES: Grovewood Gallery, behind Grove Park Inn, at 877-622-7238, www.grovewood.com. New Morning Gallery, in historic Biltmore Village, at 828-274-2831, www.newmorninggallerync.com. Mountain Made, Morning Star Galleries and the Arts & Heritage Gallery, all in Grove Arcade, www.grovearcade.com, in downtown Asheville. Blue Spiral 1 at 38 Biltmore Avenue, 828-251-0202, www.bluespiral1.com.

ASHEVILLE BREWS CRUISE: The cruise is $37 a single, $70 a couple, with stops to sample beers at taprooms. 828-545-5181, www.brewscruise.com.

FOLK ARTS CENTER: The center is at Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 15 minutes from Asheville; 828-298-7928, www.craftguild.org.

INFORMATION: The Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau is at www.exploreasheville.com.

 

BY TOM UHLENBROCK St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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