Nestled in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains, Asheville, N.C., is rich with attractions, and two of them are residences that represent decidedly opposite ends of the spectrum.
At one end is the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, which includes the 4-acre, 255-room Biltmore House built by world traveler George W. Vanderbilt, a New York shipping and railroad heir whose Carolina digs remain the largest private home in the United States.
A few miles from the Biltmore's regal gate is the Old Kentucky Home, a comparatively Spartan 29-room boardinghouse that provided early shelter to star-crossed novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina. It's the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and looks out on the surrounding summits of the Great Smokies as an equal, thanks to its elevation of 2,340 feet. From its early days, the city's panoramic scenery has attracted the vacationing rich.
And because such people require appropriate accommodations, Asheville affords them several choices, most notably the elegant Grove Park Inn, a resort with 510 rooms ($121-$285, depending on size, view and season) and a guest book whose signers have included presidents and literary lions. Over the years, in fact, the town's cultural atmosphere has grown with its clientele, and Pack Square downtown now has artistically inclined restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores.
Asheville's literary air is genuine, too, having been breathed by such notables as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reputedly whiled away many hours drinking and hitting on Grove Park's female guests while his wife Zelda received psychiatric treatment in the local hospital in which she would later die. O. Henry, a North Carolinian buried in Asheville's Riverside Cemetery, became a temporary resident after marrying a local woman. Connemara, a 263-acre farm 26 miles down Interstate 40 at Hendersonville, became home in 1945 to historian-novelist-poet Carl Sandburg.
The city itself produced noted writers, including novelist Gail Godwin. By far, Asheville's best-known literary figure, however, is Wolfe, a prolific and erratically brilliant author whose 1929 novel, "Look Homeward, Angel," brought Asheville both admiration and embarrassment. It also introduced the reading public to the world of Wolfe's mother's rooming house, which the book re-christened "Dixieland."
The Old Kentucky Home is now a state-operated landmark called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
Wolfe's mother, a local real-estate speculator of considerable ambition, operated the home over the objections of her husband, an educated tombstone manufacturer who felt keeping boarders was beneath the family's station. Touring the place, with its naked light bulbs hanging from cords, its chamber pots and wash pitchers, its beds crammed into corners and hallways, one can begin to understand the loneliness of traveling salespeople and others who stayed there in the early 1900s.
Inside the door, to the left, is a cheerless parlor with a piano, to which guests could repair in the evenings after dinner. Down the hall, on the right, brightened by a couple of lightly curtained windows, is a dining room resembling a modest small-town restaurant in an old movie. Farther down the hall is the kitchen and a small adjoining room where Mrs. Wolfe rested when she had a moment. Across the wooden porch outside the kitchen door is another door opening onto the bedroom of her husband.
Upstairs are the boarding rooms, including one now furnished with young Tom's manual typewriter and a picture of his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Tom actually had no permanent bed of his own and roamed the halls each evening looking for an empty one in which to pass the night.
My wife and I were among the earliest arrivals at Biltmore House. We presented our $25 admission tickets at the stone gatehouse and then drove three miles to a parking area facing the fabulous stone mansion, which is still owned by the Vanderbilt family (though it has not been lived in since the 1950s) and run as a private business.
Part of that business is show business. The house can be seen in the films "Forrest Gump" and "Richie Rich," as well as a string of other movies ranging from Peter Sellers-Shirley MacLaine's "Being There" and scenes from "Last of the Mohicans" all the way back to Grace Kelly's "The Swan" in the early '60s.
Getting out of the car, we faced the house across a couple of football-field lengths of manicured grass interrupted in the center by a pool and fountain.
With the sky threatening rain, we decided to first tour the open-air walled garden and, at its lower end, the conservatory, both salient parts of the master plan of Biltmore landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted.
(The eminent landscape artist, perhaps best known as the chief architect of New York's Central Park, also did extensive work in ++ Baltimore and Maryland. According to Friends of Maryland's Olmsted Parks & Landscapes Inc., a nonprofit group which surveys and catalogs 130 Maryland sites designed or planned by Olmsted and his two sons, the family left its mark on almost every Baltimore city park. Their private commissions included communities such as Roland Park, Guilford, Dundalk and Gibson Island.)
The walled garden features a 236-foot-long grape arbor dividing magnificently generous plots of flowers that vary with the season -- daffodils, hyacinth and tulips in spring; dahlias, zinnias and globe amaranth in summer; and many-colored chrysanthemums in fall. The conservatory, providing adult plants for Biltmore House itself and bedding plants for the grounds, has palm and banana trees, orchids, ferns and succulents.
There are many acres of gardens surrounding the estate to be browsed by those with the time and inclination (the walled garden alone covers 4 acres), but the impending rain chased us inside the mansion, which is an awesome monument to the skill of architect Richard Morris Hunt. Its construction required six years and the building of a mountain railroad line to transport the necessary materials. The mansion was completed in 1895.
There is no way to convey here anything but random glimpses of the luxury inside:
An entrance hall flanked by the Winter Garden, a stunning, skylighted area with exotic plants and French rattan and bamboo furniture; the 90-foot-long Tapestry Gallery, a sitting area exhibiting three silk-and-wool wall hangings woven in Brussels circa 1530; the 70-by-42-foot banquet hall, complete with barrel-vaulted ceiling and an oak table accommodating 64 people; the intimate, ornately frescoed breakfast room; the salon for women and the billiard room for men; and an awe-inspiring 10,000-volume library, which required the services of a paid librarian -- and which American author Henry James, a 1905 guest, fretted was situated at least a half-mile away from his bedroom.
The second floor is similarly grand, with the Vanderbilts' bedrooms as well as 32 guest bedrooms, maids' rooms and enough sitting rooms to ensure that the sexes could avoid breaching Victorian convention by meeting or talking in a bedroom. The guest quarters bear such furniture-suggested names as the Chippendale Room, the Old English Room, the Sheraton Room and so on.
The basement level of the house is as fascinating as the others, with a bowling alley, a swimming pool and a gym, as well as kitchens, pantries and more servants' bedrooms, which are vaguely remindful of the guest rooms at the Wolfe house. Before leaving, we enjoyed an excellent, moderately priced lunch in the ground-floor restaurant -- formerly the Vanderbilt stables -- our table made more private by its location in one of the horse stalls along a wall.
IF YOU GO . . .
Information about the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and Biltmore House can be obtained from the Asheville Chamber of Commerce at (800) 257-1300. For more detailed information about the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, call (704) 253-8304; for Biltmore House, call (800) 543-2961.
The Thomas Wolfe Festival takes place in Asheville Sept. 29-Oct. 1. This year's festival features seminars, walking tours, music and field trips.
The Biltmore Estate Festival of Flowers takes place April 7-May 7. The estate continues its centennial celebration this year by opening the third-floor suite of bedrooms known as the Tower Rooms, which have been meticulously restored. The 10th annual Festival of Flowers offers visitors entertainment, events and a display of springtime blossoms.