Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
In the shadow of Biltmore House, America’s largest private residence, are some of the country’s most beautiful gardens. Frederick Law Olmsted had completed New York’s Central Park and landscaped campuses at Boston University, Yale and Stanford before he was approached by the young George Vanderbilt in the 1880s. Vanderbilt, grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, had already begun purchasing land, which would eventually total 125,000 acres around Asheville, North Carolina. Vanderbilt had also retained architect Richard Morris Hunt to design Biltmore House, a 250-room French Renaissance château modeled after the great French châteaux of the Loire Valley. While Hunt began work on Biltmore House, Vanderbilt challenged Olmsted to transform the over-farmed, over-logged land surrounding the site of the house into a country estate, the landscaping equivalent of Hunt’s grand creation.
Olmsted, Hunt and Vanderbilt worked very closely with one another, recognizing the potential grandeur, which could result in the harmony of land and architecture at Biltmore. At age 66, Olmsted began his last opportunity to create a great arboretum and park in the English tradition. Included in the plans were several formal gardens—a four-acre English Walled Garden, a 16th-century Italian garden with three reflecting pools, and a dramatic esplanade lined by an avenue of trees at the entrance to Biltmore House.
In the heart of Biltmore’s Walled Garden is an architectural treasure, almost as beautiful as Biltmore House. The Conservatory, a greenhouse designed by Hunt, was built to provide Biltmore House and the gardens with flowers and tender bedding plants. Today, more than a century later, it still fulfills that role.
Carefully placed at the lower end of the garden, so as not to obstruct the view from Biltmore House, the Conservatory consists of four main rooms. The central room is a “Palm House,” which contains a large collection of palms, ferns and other foliage plants. The annexes include a cool house, hothouse and orchid house. The total heated space under glass in the Conservatory is over 7,000 square feet.