ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Floral displays manager Cathy Barnhardt has been decking the halls at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville for 36 years — and boy, are there lots of halls to deck. This historic, 250-room French Renaissance chateau nestled in western North Carolina's picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains is America's largest home.
It operates as a museum, and during the holidays, 300,000 visitors tour this architectural marvel designed by Richard Morris Hunt for Gilded-Age tycoon George W. Vanderbilt. It's Barnhardt's job to orchestrate extravagant Christmas displays befitting the baronial, 175,000-square-foot mansion.
Even after more than three decades, it still feels like a Christmas miracle when Barnhardt sees it all come together.
Fifty-seven Christmas trees sparkle inside the mansion and another 50 plus are spread across the sprawling estate. More than 5,000 feet of fresh garland is artfully draped throughout the house. At least 1,000 blooming plants, including poinsettias, amaryllis and Christmas cactuses, add pops of color to virtually every nook and cranny, especially to the elegant Winter Garden, a round room surrounded by graceful arches.
It all ties into this year's Christmas decorating theme, “The Nature of Christmas.” Barnhardt said the theme not only refers to the decor, but is also a nod to how Vanderbilt and his wife, Edith, embraced the true meaning of Christmas.
“We not only have nature in the literal sense of evergreens and holly berries and pine cones that we can bring in from outdoors,” said Barnhardt, “but we also speak to the spirit of Christmas. We are telling the story of family and children and what went on in George's time.”
On Christmas Eve 1895, Vanderbilt hosted the first of many Christmas parties at his new country retreat. The upper echelon of New York society gathered in the cavernous Banquet Hall to admire the 40-foot-tall Christmas tree — awe-inspiring even to those accustomed to having the biggest and best of everything. The Vanderbilt family crest, prominently displayed above a trio of Gothic fireplaces, imparted the romance of a medieval castle.
The Vanderbilts were known for their generosity to the community, especially at Christmas. It's worth noting that they hosted the annual employee Christmas party in the Banquet Hall.