ASHEVILLE, NC -- Biltmore House, the extravagant mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt's grandson in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, makes the White House look like a gardener's cottage.
George Washington Vanderbilt opened his new home -- the largest private residence in the U.S. -- in 1895 with what must have been a resplendent Christmas party. Guests dined in a medieval-themed banquet hall complete with thrones, flags, and ancient tapestries. A 40-foot Douglas fir Christmas tree completed the decorations.
The French chateau-inspired residence boasts 175,000 square feet, 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a library holding 10,000 of Vanderbilt's 23,000 books (as well as Napoleon's chess set), three kitchens, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, stables, and sumptuous gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. When it opened, the Biltmore estate (the name is a contraction of the owner's original Dutch name, "van der Bilt," and "more," an old English word for rolling hills) also encompassed 125,000 acres of land.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century visitors were agog at the modern conveniences. The mansion was equipped with central heating, electricity, running hot and cold water even to the upstairs baths, a fire alarm, cold-storage mechanical refrigeration, an elevator, an electric communication system for calling servants, and, perhaps the real mindbender of 1895, underwater lighting in the swimming pool.
But while the many bathrooms had hot and cold running water, those in the guest suites lacked something that even the poorest hovel now has -- a sink. Members of the upper class wouldn't think of washing their hands and faces in the bathroom. When they needed to wash, they simply rang for a servant who arrived with a towel, a bowl, and a pitcher.
That detail more than any other suggests how much attitudes have changed in a little more than 100 years. America continues to produce its mega-rich, of course -- more than ever -- but that sort of languid dependency has very much gone out of style. Bill Gates built a mansion in Washington worth an estimated $147 million. But when he and his guests get their hands dirty, they doubtless manage to manipulate the handles on the sink and would be appalled at the idea of having someone do it for them.
Similarly, the changing rooms near the pool at Biltmore had call buttons for servants so that the ladies and gentlemen could get assistance changing from their clothes into swimsuits and vice versa. A modern person, one suspects, no matter how rich, would snort at the idea of being helped into and out of a bathing suit.