Over the Christmas holidays, I — and thousands of others — visited the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Built by George Washington Vanderbilt in the waning days of the nineteenth century, it is America’s largest privately-owned dwelling. Mr. Vanderbilt’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have dedicated themselves to preserving it and opening it to the public. When decorated for Christmas, the effect is stunning.
After returning, I found myself reflecting on the popularity of Biltmore. What is it that draws all of those thousands of people?
No doubt, many are drawn by a general interest in history. Others come for architecture and art. Located in the Smokey Mountains, the natural setting is striking. The numerous Christmas decorations are pleasant to behold. However, one can experience all these things in other places for far less than the rather high admission price — between $79.00 and $99.00 during the Christmas season.
There has to be something more — the need of each human being for a life of beauty and order.
Beauty — One of the Great Universals
The appeal of beauty is not difficult to understand. Biltmore has an ethereal quality to it. The broad expanse of lawn in front of the chateau and the mountains beyond make the building appear to be almost suspended between earth and heaven.
The works of God in nature are marvelous to behold. Soaring mountains, the massive oceans, the trickling sound of a creek, and so many others cause us to marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.
Human works of beauty also inspire a sense of awe. These, too, come to us from God through the inspirations and abilities that He has given to architects, painters, sculptors, carvers, weavers, and so many others. They are inspired to conceive of beauty in their minds and render it through the works of their hands.
Perhaps none of Biltmore’s many rooms express the best of God’s gifts to us as the library does. Richly paneled and furnished, it is two stories in height. A mural crowns the room. Arranged on its three tiers of shelves are beautifully bound books — some over three hundred years old. Here is a place that thoughts and aspirations can soar heavenward.
The Appeal of Order
The need for order is less obvious — but it is genuine. Order presupposes the hierarchies all around us. They allow us to see harmony and contrast without chaos or monotony. Without hierarchy, society falls apart.
Every human being craves order, even those who loudly deny it. No people are so happy as those who have found a place in which their talents shine. Such people use their God-given abilities and inclinations to bring glory to God and help all society.
Biltmore exudes order. First came the visionary, Mr. Vanderbilt. Then there were the two creative geniuses, Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the house, and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmstead. They determined how the vision could become a reality. Then, hundreds of gardeners, masons, joiners, finish carpenters, upholsterers, and too many others to list implemented Messrs. Hunt’s and Olmstead’s plans.
Without a hierarchy, such people never find their places. They are frustrated wanderers, who have skill but lack a context for those abilities. The doctor needs a hospital; the teacher requires a school; it is imperative that the gardener has a garden, and so on.
There are two groups of people who fight against the idea of hierarchy.
The first type is the opportunist, continuously seeking chances to gain more while giving less. They discard God, family, friends, reputation, and so much more for minor gains. They never experience peace or real joy, and often die alone and unmourned.
The other end of the disorder consists of those who only value ease. They do not seek to gain much or help much. The goal is only to expend themselves as little as possible. They, too, die unhappy because the world refuses to give them what they are unwilling to produce for themselves.
Both groups reject beauty. The search for beauty is a waste of time for the opportunist. The lazy find it to be too much effort. Neither would see the point of places like Biltmore.
The Magnificence of Beauty and Order Combined
Biltmore — and many other places like it — represent order. They start with someone who recognizes beauty. That person patronizes (in the best sense of the word) those who create the beauty. The available resources bring together the designers and craftspeople. Once the setting is in place, they complete it through decoration and art. The final result has the potential to lift the souls of thousands.
That lift is the thing that I and all of the others who visited Biltmore found there.
The scoffers might say that anyone could create a Biltmore if he had the assets of George Washington Vanderbilt. That is not so. Many have tried to build monuments to themselves. The results are often garish and in poor taste, destined to be destroyed or ignored.
At the same time, one need not have vast resources to create a place of beauty.
A few days before the trip to Biltmore, I attended a gathering that took place in a rather commonplace ranch house. Unlike many such homes, this one had beauty. The furnishings were both elegant and comfortable. The inexpensive framed prints on the walls displayed the owner’s tastes and added to the sense of elegance. The food on the buffet was not expensive — but was well prepared and attractively arranged. The others at the gathering were polite and well dressed. The conversation was elevated. This gathering had much of the beauty and order that I later saw at Biltmore.
This combination of beauty and order are called ambiance. Each of us can create such ambiance in our homes, and many of us can create it in our workplaces. By its very nature, beauty brings with it the other two great universals — goodness and truth. Surrounding ourselves in such an atmosphere goes a long way toward a virtuous life oriented toward God, the source of all beauty and order.
However, building such an ambiance is a life’s work. We can be grateful that George Washington Vanderbilt spent his entire adult life creating it. We can be equally thankful that his descendants recognized, preserved, and embellished it. Above all, we must worship God, who created both the setting and the people who so nobly used it.