At Biltmore, the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted hides in plain sight

March 10, 2018
  • By Tray Butler
  • For the AJC
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted desisgned the grounds of Asheville’s Biltmore House. (Photo by John Warner)

Story by Tray Butler

To grasp the immensity of Biltmore Estate, you can’t think small. Everything is bigger at Biltmore.

The palatial and imposing 250-room French Renaissance chateau — America’s largest private residence — features 34 bedrooms, three kitchens, 65 fireplaces, and a 70,000-gallon indoor pool. More than a million tourists each year visit Asheville, N.C., to experience this 8,000-acre pleasure park, which in recent decades has added an interactive farm, hotels, restaurants, shops, an outdoor sports center and the most-visited winery in the country. (Take that, Napa.)

Guidebooks tend to credit Frederick Law Olmsted with designing the formal “Home Grounds” gardens abutting Biltmore House, yet curiously neglect to mention just how big of a role the venerated Father of Landscape Architecture played in the property’s development. The estate may have been conceived and bankrolled by George Washington Vanderbilt III, but it was Olmsted’s vision that helped Biltmore take root and flourish.

In 1888, Olmsted was 66 years when he journeyed to Asheville to meet Vanderbilt, who was 25 and had inherited a fortune of $13 million. The architect had a long history with the famous family: Vanderbilt’s father, William, had given Olmsted his first landscaping job back in 1848.

It wasn’t Olmsted’s first time visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains. Working as a journalist before the Civil War, Olmsted was dispatched to report on the South, writing that’s collected in his travelogue, “The Cotton Kingdom.”

Returning three decades later, he was dismayed to find once-mighty forests wrecked by clearcutting and farming.

“The land here at that time was equally rough and poor as the land that later became Central Park,” says Bill Alexander, Biltmore landscape and forest historian. “George knew that Olmsted was the right person to transform this landscape.”

Vanderbilt had quietly acquired more than 100,000 acres along the French Broad River. He shared vague ideas of creating a public park, but Olmsted convinced him to undertake a showcase for forestry renewal.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt drew up plans for Vanderbilt’s lavish 250-room chateau having never set foot on the property. Olmsted, on the other hand, undertook the 24-hour railway passage from New York to Asheville several times during the following years, despite his ill health. The house was eventually complete in 1895.

“Landscapes move us in a manner more analogous to the action of music than to anything else,” Olmsted once remarked. “Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when and how.”

In looking at his body of work, it’s important to look at “the edges, nodes, patches and corridors,” says Jim Connelly, an Atlanta urban landscape designer and Olmsted admirer.

Visitors to the property enter via the three-mile Approach Road, a narrow and curvy path that slopes gently uphill. Alexander notes that Olmsted planned the entryway as a pleasure drive passing through a “natural” forest. He hired an engineer to place the water features to complement the drive, setting the stage for bubbling streams and naturalistic vistas. Clusters of trees purposefully block any long views so that visitors can be wowed once the curtain lifts and the mansion appears.

“Olmsted intended for visitors to be overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by the formal lawn and esplanade,” Alexander says. “He believed that natural scenery had the most powerful and profound effect on people, especially those who needed to relax and unwind.”

For an up-close examination of Olmsted’s naturalistic aesthetic of landscape design, the estate offers a popular Legacy of the Land Tour three times daily. Around 20,000 guests take the 90-minute tour each year, says Biltmore publicist LeeAnn Donnelly.

Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1963. Key elements such as Deer Park and the Approach Road haven’t changed, though roads designed for horse carriages have been widened.

New construction has been handled with care, Alexander says. “We’ve strived to stick with the spirit of Olmsted’s vision.” Alexander says the current owner, Vanderbilt’s great-great grandson, Bill A.V. Cecil Jr., has doubled down on his forefather’s commitment to the environment.

“To me, Olmsted’s work in Biltmore’s forests is much more important than the formal gardens,” Connelly says. “The tree and forest restoration management that he did at Biltmore was world class, and perhaps the first project of its kind in the entire United States.”

Olmsted considered Biltmore the most important job that he had ever undertaken for a private client, calling it “a great work of Peace we are engaged in and one of these days we shall all be proud of our parts in it.”

When asked about his personal favorite spots on the vast property, Alexander demurs. He mentions the serenity of the bass pond, the sense of intimacy found near water features. “But when that question comes up, I always say, ‘I can’t tell you, then it wouldn’t be special anymore.’”

1 Lodge St., Asheville, N.C. 800-411-381. biltmore.com

Insider tip

Save $10 per entry to Biltmore by booking online at least a week in advance. Visitors should also call ahead to reserve spots on the Legacy of the Land Tour, which explores parts of the property not normally open to the public. Sundays tend to have more capacity.

TRAY BUTLER is a freelance writer and illustrator, and the author of the city guidebook “Moon Atlanta.”

This land is your land: More Olmsted sites in the South

Cherokee Park. This 409-acre greenspace is the largest of three flagship parks (along Iroquois and Shawnee parks) that Olmsted designed in the early 1890s. After his death, Olmsted’s firm continued developing projects for Louisville for decades, eventually creating 18 municipal parks. 745 Cochran Hill Road, Louisville, Ky. 502-574-7275. olmstedparks.org

Plaza of the Americas. In 1925, the University of Florida commissioned Olmsted’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., to reimagine the campus green next to University Auditorium. The majestic, tree-lined quadrangle was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. 333 Newell Drive , Gainesville, Fla. 352-392-3261. ufl.edu

The North Carolina Arboretum. The 434-acre public forest and 10-mile trail system honors Olmsted’s dream of creating a research arboretum in the area, a project he never completed. In 2016, the arboretum unveiled a statue of Olmsted by artist Zenos Frudakis. 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, N.C. 828-665-2492. ncarboretum.org