The Gilded Age, Mountain Mamas, Goth Youth, and River Arts of Asheville, North Carolina

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For many years, I had heard about the majestic serenity of Asheville, North Carolina, and finally, in 2022, I got to see the multifaceted city for myself. Ashville is a city of juxtaposition. It’s a spiritual vortex and mountain retreat for those seeking solace and inspiration in the cool climate and the majesty of its natural resources. It’s also a destination for historians eager to experience life in the Gilded Age, after the Civil War, when wealthy Americans like the Vanderbilts built vacation homes to entertain their friends. Or for literary folks who yearn to experience life as Thomas Wolfe did when he grew up in a boardinghouse with his mother and was raised by the renters who came and went, his source of inspiration for one of America’s greatest 20th-century novels.

I came to Asheville because I was invited to a wedding on the grounds of the Vanderbilt/Biltmore Estate, the largest single-family home property in the United States. The estate sits at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is part of a rainforest climate zone. Built in 1895 and opened on Christmas Eve by George Vanderbilt and his wife, Edith, it was designed as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of their everyday life in New York City. Occupied by the couple and their only daughter, Cornelia, it featured 250 rooms on 125,000 acres of land. It took six years to construct with 1000 workers and artisans. The architectural style is French Renaissance Chateau, built with very little wood for fire safety. A marvel of the Gilded Age, it had 288 electric lights, 43 indoor bathrooms, and two electric elevators.

The Library is a testament to George Vanderbilt’s love of reading. It houses half of his 23,000 book collection in a two-story room. On the ground floor are ming vases he collected from the Emperor of China, which were used to hold the Emperor’s goldfish. The ceiling is adorned with a mural by Italian artist Giovanni Pellegrini, painted in the 1720s, and entitled The Chariot of Aurora.

Besides marveling at the lavish interiors and multitude of guest quarters, I was fascinated by the photographs of the attire worn by ladies who visited the Vanderbilts. Etiquette of the day dictated the correct attire for every activity. Hence, guests needed to change their clothes as many as seven times a day- different outfits for breakfast, walking in the garden, afternoon tea, swimming in the indoor pool, horseback riding, fishing, playing croquet or golf, formal dinner, etc.

The downstairs quarters of the estate included an indoor pool, gym (novel for the day), and servant’s quarters. All guests would have traveled there with ladies’ maids or butlers. In addition, the large kitchen and floral decorations facilities were also located in the basement.

While touring the estate, I learned that priceless paintings from the National Gallery of Art were secretly stored in the Music Room for safekeeping during WWII.

Today there is a winery on the property with a daily portfolio of red, white, and rose tastings offered, hiking trails, a few restaurants, and an ice cream parlor. The modern Biltmore Hotel also stands on the grounds for guests to stay in when visiting the historic property. Our room had a view of the lush summer landscape and the fog-covered peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We found out that “Biltmore“ was named “bilt” after the Vanderbilts, and “more” from the English word “moor” meaning hills in the country. In the spirit of the Vanderbilts, complimentary champagne is offered in the lobby every evening at sunset.

The wedding we attended was held on a hill overlooking the Vanderbilt estate, with breathtaking views of the countryside and property grounds. A light drizzle didn’t stop the wedding party and guests from thoroughly enjoying the magical evening. I felt like a guest of George and Edith’s, treated to the extravagance of a glorious cocktail hour, sitdown dinner, and dancing to an orchestra. In addition, I got to enjoy this event with dear friends and meet new acquaintances. The Vanderbilts would have been delighted. (On a side note, the brother/sister speeches were particularly difficult for me to listen to, knowing that my daughter would no longer get to have a speech at her wedding made by her brother, who passed away in June. At that point in the evening, my husband and I left the reception and cried ourselves to sleep.)

Waking up the next day, we were ready to explore the town of Asheville. One section is called the River Arts District (RAD), with working studios of artists and a few coffee spots and breweries. The art was a bit folksy for my taste, but many artists were in attendance and happy to talk about their work and earlier careers before retiring to Asheville. I enjoyed the street art murals, the meandering warehouse structure, and the opportunity to speak with people passionate about their work.

The local restaurants run the gamut from down-home southern food and BBQ to farm-to-table innovative cuisine. We had a scrumptious dinner at Black Bird with whole smoked poussin accompanied by warm potato salad kohlrabi slaw and mustard demi sauce, a vegetarian goat cheese corn pie, and a superb purple-colored Emperor gin & tonic. For brunch, we made our way to the crowded and noisy Tupelo Honey Cafe and grabbed the last two seats at the bar. Their homemade biscuits, sweet & spicy fried chicken atop buttermilk waffles, and roast beef debris are all exceptional. The desserts looked fabulous, but … no room left!

I’d been told that one must drive along the 193-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, reaching elevations of 5000 feet. Still, our visit included too many rainy days (remember I mentioned it’s a rainforest climate zone?), so, without visibility, we passed on the drive. However, if you get the chance, I hear it’s gorgeous. For hiking, apparently, Chimney Rock Park is the place to go.

Thomas Wolfe, the author of “Look Homeward Angel” grew up in Asheville. His “Old Kentucky Home” boarding house, run by his mother, and the setting of his novel, is open for tours. Built in 1883, the Queen Anne Victorian is decorated with the original furniture from his childhood, complete with his note to Santa.

I would feel negligent if I didn’t mention the mountain people we encountered in Asheville. The residents are a hardy group. Many dress in “mountain garb,” flannel shirts, hiking boots, pants with pockets, no bras nor high heels, etc. Some resembled nomads who had finally found their Nirvana in the hills. There was also a good representation of goth youth with multiple piercings and tattoos. In Asheville, there are 56 tattoo parlors. It’s a gathering spot for people seeking what it offers. The waitress who told us it was a rainforest (I didn’t know that when I packed) said she came to Asheville for that exact reason. Now you know.

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