Three years ago, I visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina for the first time and was immediately struck by the similarity between the lifestyle epitomized by this sumptuous estate and the one depicted on the popular BBC television show “Downton Abbey”, even writing an article about the similarities.
Apparently, I was not the only one to notice the similarities to this new television show at the time which I’m sure astonished BBC with its popularity in the United States and the Biltmore Estate because the savvy folks who plan events have put on what I’m sure is an extraordinarily popular event called “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times”.
The aristocratic British family, the Crawleys, abide in a huge home on a sprawling estate and have an entire echelon of servants to wait on them, much like the Vanderbilts of the Biltmore Estate. We “Downton Abbey” fans love each and every one of these unique individuals, wait breathlessly to find out who the writers will kill off next, and heave a sigh of relief to find it’s not our favorite.
But the real star of this show is Downtown Abbey, the lush, gorgeously furnished, behemoth of a house which will make paupers of the Crawleys if they can’t find an infusion of funds. In reality, Highclere Castle in Hampshire is used as stand-in for Downtown Abbey and this has resulted in an infusion of funds of a different kind as fans of the show are flocking to Highclere Castle for tours and to imagine how their lives might be different if they had been born a Crawley.
The Downton Abbey exhibit at the Biltmore Estate features more than 40 costumes from the show which are showcased throughout the mansion in groupings inspired by the show and by real life at Biltmore which is of the same era. For fans of the show like me, seeing actual costumes worn by our favorite characters paired with photos of the scene in the show depicting the costume, was fascinating. The outfits are complete with jewelry and hats and show an interesting view of how society has changed over the years, providing a window into history from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the Jazz Age of the early 1920s. Hemlines rise and feminism appears but the intricate attention to detail in every costume from a ball gown to a military uniform to a butler livery is amazing.
The day-to-day running of the two estates was similar with an interesting cast of characters in both locations and the costumes provide a look into the lives of both the owners of the estates and those who wait on them. The award-winning costumes were created by London costume house Cosprop Ltd. and were inspired by old photographs and historic patterns. Some are actually original pieces from the time period but all incorporate elements from the era into the overall costume design.
Much like Highclere Castle, The Biltmore Estate is a large private estate and tourist attraction today but it was once simply the home of the Vanderbilt family. The fabulous Chateauesque mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States. The house has 178,926 square feet, 250 rooms, and is still owned by Vanderbilt’s descendants.
Vanderbilt visited Asheville as a boy and loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to create a summer home in the area. This little summer getaway, with huge and lovely gardens, became the incredibly opulent Biltmore Estate. The estate included its own village for all the workers and even a church both of which still stand today. Biltmore Village is a charming area with little shops and restaurants and the Cathedral of All Souls is a small and beautiful church.
Vanderbilt employed the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who is possibly most famous for designing Central Park in New York, to create the gardens for the estate. Beyond the gardens, Vanderbilt was determined to leave the natural woodlands and some agricultural lands with a rustic three-mile approach road passing through to create the illusion of a pastoral setting. This resulted in the very first forestry education program in the United Stated, the Biltmore Forest School, being established on the estate. After his death, part of the estate was sold off to the federal government so the land would remain unaltered and that property is now part of the Pisgah National Forest.
Today the estate is a mere 8,000 acres and is controlled and run by descendants of Vanderbilt. In response to the depression and a subsequent loss of income, in 1930 the house was opened to the public for tours. The family continued to live there until 1956 when it was permanently opened to the public as a house museum.
With a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, two-story library, lovely furniture and artwork and such innovations of the time as elevators, forced-air heating, fire alarms and an intercom system, it’s truly an incredible place to visit. It’s amazing to think that a family actually lived in this castle-like structure with each room filled with even more elegant and gorgeous furnishings than you can possibly imagine.
The estate is a major tourist attraction in the state and has over 1 million visitors a year from all over the world and this spring many of those visitors are also Downton Abbey fans. When you purchase your ticket, you will be assigned a time for your tour and the tours run often. The audio tour is an extra $10 but well worth it as it’s fascinating to listen to the history of the Vanderbilt family and this proud and elegant home.
One of the nicest things about our visit was our stay at the lovely Hilton at Biltmore Park. I have actually stayed there before and wrote about our wonderful stay which included a spa visit and dinner at Roux, the fabulous restaurant in the hotel. This time was a girlfriends getaway as we are all fans of Downton Abbey and the hotel was perfect for us. Located in Biltmore Park which has lots of little shops and restaurants along with a movie theater, we were comfortable and really enjoyed our stay. We had a double queen room which was roomy and wonderful but they have lots of other accommodation choices as well.
In addition, they have free Wi-Fi (which I so appreciate), a fitness center, pool, and a spa. One of the most surprising things about this particular Hilton is that pets are allowed. Asheville is very pet-friendly and this is the place to go if you like to travel with your pet.We had a wonderful buffet breakfast at Roux the next morning before heading to the Biltmore Estate and it was a great breakfast, complete with a full buffet and an omelet bar – my favorite! The Hilton at Biltmore Park is the perfect place to stay for your Downton Abbey experience!
If you go, admission to the exhibit is included in the ticket price to the Biltmore Estate and the exhibit will run through May 25, 2015.
Full disclosure: Our stay and visit to the Biltmore Estate was provided by the Hilton at Biltmore Park, but as always, I will share my honest opinion about any travel experiences I have.
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