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Art, crafts, one monumental 'house' set Asheville, N.C., apart



4/14/2007 - Art, crafts, one monumental 'house' set Asheville, N.C., apart
by St. Louis Dispatch

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.

All that information is in the audio tour of the baronial Biltmore Estate and explains why young George could afford 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 nation's largest, but no one lives there now. 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."

George Vanderbilt began building the Biltmore Estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, N.C., in 1889. He was then a 27-year-old bachelor.

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.

Art and Crafts

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.

"Halfbacks" are transplanted Northerners leaving the congestion of South Florida to settle in the moderate climate of Asheville, halfway back to their roots. "Trustafarians" are the young artists in dreadlocks 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 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 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 carried this headline: "More artists than galleries." It 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 Biltmore House, but there was room at the inn. The Inn on Biltmore Estate opened in 2001 with 213 rooms for guests.

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 casual Bistro restaurant was found.

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.

River Arts District

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 to visitors daily, some by appointment only. Most are open to the public during scheduled "studio strolls," which are advertised at

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

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.

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, April 14, 2007 By TOM UHLENBROCK
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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