A Tale of Two Houses: Biltmore Estate and Carl Sandburg Home

While in the Asheville/Hendersonville area, we toured two historic homes. The Biltmore mansion is enormous, opulent, and designed to impress. The Carl Sandburg home is simply that – a home; cozy, warm and intimate. They were as different as they could be, yet equally fascinating.

The Biltmore mansion is known as America’s Largest Home. The 250 room mansion, built in the French Renaissance Chateaux style, was constructed by George Vanderbilt in 1895 as a country retreat. Quite modern for its day, the estate is equipped with 33 guest rooms, 45 bathrooms (at a time when indoor plumbing was rare!), opulent public rooms, an elevator, and the very latest in high tech (for the time) amenities. There is even an indoor heated pool, bowling alley, and gym. The place is just enormous!

Outside the mansion are the extensive gardens and grounds. We tromped all over them, exploring the beautiful conservatory, rose and azalea gardens, and down to the bass pond, waterfall, and boat house. We walked miles exploring it all. But wait, there’s more! Hopping back into our vehicle, we drove several miles to the winery and associated village area where we sampled the estate wines. (Drinkable, but nothing special). We literally spent all day exploring different aspects of the estate.

The Biltmore is unusual in that it is still family-owned. Most gilded-age mansions were ultimately sold off as rising taxes and labor costs made the expense of maintaining such a beast unsustainable. However, the Vanderbilt family managed to hold onto it, developing the estate into a slick, diversified money-making operation. There are multiple shops, restaurants, winery, hotels, conference center, and of course, the mansion museum. Special exhibitions, tours, and events keep even locals coming back for more. And the cost of admission isn’t cheap at upwards of $70 per person!! But, impressive it is, most certainly.

At the other end of the spectrum is the unpretentious former home of Carl Sandburg, known as the Poet of the People. Already an award-winning author, poet and biographer, he purchased the existing home and its 245 accompanying acres to live in for the last 22 years of his life, from 1945 to 1967. It was a writer’s retreat, a family home, and a working farm for breeding Mrs. Sandburg’s internationally-known prize-winning goats. When Carl died, his widow sold the farm to the government to become the Carl Sandburg National Historic Home – the first historic site to honor a poet.

When the family moved out of the home in 1967, they took only their clothes and a few personal items. Everything else – furniture, books, papers, décor — was left just as they had lived there. Walking into the home is like entering a time capsule. TIME magazines are stacked along the staircase, the dining room table is set for dinner, and working papers are stacked on their office desks. Although comfortable, the furnishings are nothing special. We were told that Mrs. Sandburg bought a lot of it at garage sales! What is impressive is the sheer number of books in the house. There are book cases in every room, in the halls, in the basement …. everywhere! 12,000 books!! As an author, Carl used these books extensively for research purposes, plus he subscribed to a number of newspapers and magazines. While touring the home, one feels that the family has just left for a walk in the garden and could return at any time.

The grounds are equally unpretentious, yet scenic. Trails lead around a small lake and up to a scenic overlook at the top of the small mountain. Another trail leads to the barn and dairy complex, where the National Park Service still breeds a small herd of goats descended from Mrs. Sandburg’s famous prize-winning line. It was very peaceful. A guided tour of the home costs a nominal fee ($5), but walking the grounds is free. In fact, we saw several people walking or running the trails for exercise.

Two estates that couldn’t be more different. The imposing Biltmore, built by a wealthy industrialist, has been developed by its heirs into a slick diversified operation, requiring hefty fees for entry. The Carl Sandburg Home, owned by the unassuming “Poet of the People”, was sold for a modest sum by his widow to create a national historic site, open to all.

It seems fitting.

“The secret of happiness is to admire without desiring” ….. Carl Sandburg

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