Friday, August 28, 2009

Designer of the Month: Frederick Law Olmsted

Part 4: the Biltmore Estate

Oh you crazy Gilded Age. It was a simpler time in our country's history - when building a massive Renaissance-style mansion on a 125,000 acre estate inAsheville, North Carolina seemed reasonable.[1] Of course, if you were George Washington Vanderbilt, building such a residence because you find "the air mild and invigorating" and "thought well of the climate," is just a part of what you do.[2] Our friend Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted was chosen to design the grounds not only on the merit of his already notable reputation, but also because Olmsted was already landscaping the family mausoleum on Staten Island, advising all three of George Vanderbilt's sisters on their own country estates and working on the grounds of Vanderbilt's brother Frederick's house in Newport; Olmsted was already a good friend of the Vanderbilt family.[3]

Courtesy of Biltmore.

Yep, there she is, the regal, gigantic Biltmore house. If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit. Built over a 6-year period, from 1889-1895, the home includes 250 rooms, a banquet hall, winter garden, gym, and an indoor swimming pool.[4] This is no ordinary country house. In addition to the challenge of marrying the degree of formality demanded by the French Renaissance architecture of the place with a "natural and comparatively wild and secluded" 3-mile long carriage drive leading from the main road to the house, plus the landscaping of the entire rest of the estate, Olmsted also faced the difficulty of working with poor soil.[5] On one of his first visits to the area, Olmsted pointed out to Vanderbilt that "the woods are miserable, all the good trees having again and again been culled out and only runts left. The typography is most unsuitable for any thing that can properly be called park scenery."[6] His answer to this problem?:
My advise would be to make a small park into which to look from your house; make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly to keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure; and make the rest a forest, improving the existing roads and planting the old fields.[7]
Thorugh his suggestion of turnign most of the property into forest, Olmsted helped start one of the first forestry programs in the country, the long-term success of which was ensured when Olmsted persuaded Vanderbilt to hire a trained forester named Gifford Pinchot in 1892.[8] Under Pinchot's direction, Vanderbilt bought more than 100,000 acres of land to create the Biltmore Forest, implementing a unique management plan that was designed to improve the forest while returning a profit to the landowner; the first plan of its kind in America, and which went on to serve as a national model.[9]
The Estate Vineyards. Courtesy of

In designing the Biltmore's grounds, Olmsted worked closely with the house's architect, Richard Morris Hunt, in what would end up being one of the most congenial working relationships of his career.[10] Olmsted described his relationship with Hunt, explaining that "he has accepted every single suggestion that I have made and I have accepted every single suggestion that he has made, and I do not think that in the end there will be a note of discord in the combined work."[11] Besides the forestry program, the design for the landscaped portion of the grounds was an original and unusual combination of both the French and English landscaping traditions (combining two differetn traditions? How scandalous!) to create neoclassical lawns, a dramatic terrace overlooking both the forest and the Great Smoky Mountains, a bowling green, a long arbor of Japanese wisteria, a manicured shrub garden, a 4-acre walled garden with fruits, vegetables and flowers, foot paths that lead to a wooded glen, and a pond with a waterfall.[12]

The Walled Garden. Courtesy of

The Biltmore Estate was the vision of a millionaire, and because of it, Olmsted was offered the chance to create his very own "great and uncompromising work of landscape art."[13]

And that, my friends, concludes August's Designer of the Month. Can you all believe that it's going to be September next week? I've been kicking around some ideas about September's Designer, but haven't made a definite decision yet, and am certainly open to suggestions. I want to write about a wide range of designers, both past and present, and am always keeping my eyes open for people who've designed especially cool and interesting stuff. And if you actually read these posts, I'd definitely like to know if there are any designers who you love and might like to learn more about (I know you're out there!). Because I actually enjoy doing research, and really like writing these posts. So have at the comment section, which you'll find located just below this post!

[1] The Biltmore website, “The History of America's Largest Home,” (accessed August 26, 2009).

[2] Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), 379.

[3] Ibid., 380.

[4] Ibid., 381.

[5] Ibid., 381.

[6] Ibid., 380.

[7] Ibid., 380.

[8] The Biltmore website, “Biltmore's Lasting Legacy of Forestry,” (accessed August 26, 2009).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), 380.

[11] Ibid., 381-3.

[12] Ibid., 283-4.

[13] Ibid., 284.

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