I really don’t remember when I first visited Asheville, but I do know that once you come here, you will be drawn back. Once is never enough. Honestly, I’m not sure there is ever “enough” when it comes to Asheville. I do know that I cannot ever come here without thinking every few minutes of my dearest of friends, Kakie, who really showed me Asheville.
But what brought us here this week was a book I read recently. Denise Kiernan’s fabulous book, “The Last Castle,” made me crazy to get back to Asheville. Rick also read the book, so it was not difficult to convince him that we needed to get ourselves up here. Logan is always on board for an adventure, so here we are in our little apartment in the village. But this is no ordinary apartment. George Vanderbilt had this building constructed well over one hundred years ago as part of his village. Somewhere back in time, somebody converted the upstairs of the building into a separate apartment. When I found out this apartment was available to rent, I knew we had to stay here. We are mightily impressed with the wooden doorknobs in our home for the weekend. The floors creak loudly with every step. Walls and doors aren’t quite straight. We love it. As an extra added attraction, the shop below our apartment is a wine salon. We found it to be a really nice place to spend an hour or an afternoon. So, all in all, we are happy happy here on All Souls Crescent for the weekend.
Let’s back up for a minute. This village was built way back in the late 1890s to support the Biltmore estate as was the style of old English manors and their country villages. Think about Downton Abbey and the little village just outside the walls of the estate. Same thing here. When George Vanderbilt built his massive estate, he needed the support of a village. And the villagers needed him. The arrangement worked out well for everyone. The chateau known as the Biltmore is 175,000 square feet in size and, at one time, it was surrounded by George’s 125,000 acre estate, so he needed a small army to keep it running smoothly. I think the surrounding property now is down to about 8,000 acres.
As it turns out, George was a very religious man. He and his architect conceived a village in which the church served as a focal point in the life of the villagers. The Cathedral of All Souls is the hub of the village; the streets of the village fan out like spokes on a bicycle from the cathedral. The streets of the village are lined with unique shops, galleries, and restaurants. Things are always changing here, so it’s fun to see what’s new and different. The creeping gentrification I could do without. Do we really need a Brooks Brothers or Chico’s here in the village? We did not come all this way to shop at chain stores. We came for the village vibe; we came to browse through the New Morning Gallery and Bellagio. We came to dine at the Corner Kitchen or Rezaz and pick up breakfast treats at the Well-Bred Bakery. I guess to some, having a Talbots in Biltmore Village is progress. Me? Not so much.
We were excited to go inside the Cathedral of All Souls for a look after reading about it in Kiernan’s book. It is incredibly unique: you are enveloped in a feeling of warm and cozy comfort while also feeling urged to soar spiritually. I can imagine that the parishioners likewise feel compelled to look inward and stay connected to their roots while reaching out in the community and the world. It’s quite a place and it is the only church of the six designed by Richard Morris Hunt that is still standing. Mr. Hunt has been called the Dean of American architecture and was the architect of the Biltmore. The original windows of the cathedral were replaced with beautiful stained glass Biblical scenes and Vanderbilt dedicated them to the people who had the most impact on his life.
Needless to say, we were not leaving Asheville without swinging by the estate since we came this far and I fancy myself a Vanderbilt expert, especially among my fellow travelers this weekend. Besides, what better way to kick off the Christmas season than with a candlelight tour of the Biltmore House? It seemed like about two million people had the same idea, but it was OK; they were all quite nice. The staff seemed up to the task somehow and we all made it through the evening unscathed as far as I can tell.
Nobody would argue that the chateau is anything less than America’s premier residence. The tour here was self-guided. Rick and I agreed that we saw much more of the “house” this time than we saw when we brought Michael and Meredith a few decades ago. Neither of us remember going to the basement the last time we were here. It was fun to see the kitchens, servants quarters, bowling alley, and swimming pool.
Honestly, for me, the big questions aren’t how many rooms there are or how much coal they burned each month or any of those easily answered queries. (But since I brought it up, I will tell you. There are 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. In total, there are 250 rooms. And speaking of enormous energy requirements, about 25 tons of coal were burned in just two weeks during the winter of 1900.) For me, the broader question is “WHY?” Why would someone feel the need to build a 175,000 square foot “home?” Is “because you can” a good enough reason? On the other hand, who’s to say how you spend your money? Do what you dang well please with it. Whatever. It probably will be debated until the end of time. I think maybe we should just let it go and enjoy this magnificent castle. There is nothing else like it in the whole country and I cannot imagine that there will ever be another home like it.