When the disgustingly wealthy railroad heir George Washington Vanderbilt II (or maybe the III—the family literally couldn’t decide what number to give him) built a massive mansion outside Asheville in the 1890s, he probably didn’t expect working stiff plebes to regularly traipse throughout it mere decades later. That’s the ultimate fate of Biltmore House, though. Originally built to keep George’s branch of Vanderbilts away from the hoi polloi, it’s now an architectural Disneyland—a Victorian history museum devoted entirely to how the richest of the rich lived at the turn of the century.
The 250 room mansion is the heart of the popular tourist attraction the Biltmore Estate, and close to 1.5 million guests explore the house’s four acres every year. It is truly a ridiculous house, with almost three dozen bedrooms, a large dining hall that looks like something the Knights of the Round Table would hang out in, a sprawling complex of staff quarters in the basement, and its own elevator, bowling lane, and indoor pool. (If the Biltmore is any indication, swimming pools in the 1890s were literally just big rooms full of water, with ropes attached to the walls to keep swimmers from sinking to the bottom.) It is still the largest house in the United States, almost 130 years after the Vanderbilts first moved in. It is entirely too much house.
That size is one of the reasons the Biltmore is such a great place to visit at Christmas. Paying to visit somebody else’s house is a weird notion at any time of year, even if it’s a house that nobody’s actually lived in for about 70 years. But during the holidays the Biltmore becomes more than a historical curiosity or a glimpse into Gilded Age excess. It turns into a gorgeously decorated Christmas wonderland with a style that’s so old-fashioned and traditional that it feels like the primordial Christmas—the kind the old songs are sung about, and that our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known, if they grew up with exorbitant wealth and a live-in staff to set up all the trees and hang all the lights.
How many trees are we talking about here? Over 60. Lights? Try 45,000 or so—not counting 250 candles, or the 135,000 lights found elsewhere on the estate’s grounds. This is a mansion that’s over 178,000 square feet big. It has, again, 250 rooms. It’s huge, almost incomprehensibly so, and there’s a lot of room for Christmas trees with all the fixins.
The most impressive decorations can be found on the Biltmore’s main floor, starting with a tree that stands two stories tall inside that regal dining hall. Opposite that imposing fir you’ll find smaller trees flanking the dining room’s three fireplaces, with illuminated wreaths and garlands hanging above. It’s a picture postcard of seasonal hospitality, and seeing it today makes you both yearn for the festivities that must have been held here a century ago, while also feeling sympathetic for the basement-dwelling servants who had to labor over every element of this display.
Most public rooms in the mansion reflect the splendor of this dining hall but to varyingly smaller degrees. If there is a room guests would’ve been invited to by the Vanderbilts, you can expect to find a tree with lights and ornaments, with garlands and other seasonal greenery hung in tasteful arrangements. Imagine your childhood living room on Christmas morning replicated a few dozen times at different scales and sizes, but almost always larger than what you knew, and you might get a sense of what the Biltmore is like at Christmas. Although you won’t really get a true idea of its magnitude until you’ve actually visited in person.
Beyond the spectacle of the holiday decorations, a tour of the Biltmore should fascinate anybody interested in history, architecture, or American culture. It’s an enormous reminder of the extreme inequality that defined the era in which it was built—and which many people today seem hell-bent on restoring. It’s an ostentatious and totally unnecessary showpiece of a house that is nevertheless enchanting due to its gorgeous design and our culture’s unending obsession with wealth and power. It doesn’t matter that George Vanderbilt II (or III) himself lived in the Biltmore for only 19 years before passing away, or that his widow and daughter started selling off parcels of land by the 1920s to stay afloat, and turned the house itself into a tourist attraction in 1930 to help afford the property. It took millions to build the house, and the Depression and the cost of maintenance made the estate a sizable burden barely 30 years after it was built. If you want to talk about somebody being house rich, cash poor, Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia and her family might have fit that bill better than anybody who has ever lived before or since.
No matter how much their cash flow might have struggled, the Vanderbilts always had the Biltmore. They still own it today, this gaudy, infamous edifice that represents the extreme limit of what endless money can buy somebody in America. 130 years later I’m not worth a fraction of what Vanderbilt was worth, and I walked through almost every one of his mansion’s precious rooms while dressed like some hipster bozo in a pin-festooned jean jacket and baseball cap. The 1% might still have us under the heel of their boots, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t scored some victories along the way.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.