The Biltmore Estate: an American palace

If you were thinking of visiting the opulent mansion of the movie ''Being There'' on your next trip to Washington, D.C., you would be headed for the wrong place. North Carolinians - and thousands of appreciative tourists from other states - know that when the limousine carrying Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellers leaves the capital it is headed for Asheville, N.C., home of the mansion known as the Biltmore Estate.

But for those bound for this year's World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, Biltmore, only two hours away on Interstate 40, would make an easy side trip.

The movie was filmed on only a small portion of the property and in only eight rooms. The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1930, however, and today people can wander through 54 rooms and many acres of gardens.

This beautiful home has an appropriately lovely setting. In the 1880s George Washington Vanderbilt, riding in the hills during a visit to the area, stumbled on one of the finest views in Asheville. Vanderbilt was so impressed that he eventually bought 125,000 acres of the land. Its rolling quality gave Biltmore the second part of its name (''more'' is an Old English word for upland country); the first syllable comes from Bildt, the Dutch ancestral home of the Vanderbilts.

Vanderbilt patterned his home after the 16th-century chateaux in the Loire Valley in France, particularly Chambord, Chenonceaux, and Blois. He was involved in every aspect of the estate, traveling all over Europe and the United States to purchase the furnishings and art pieces for what became his favorite home.

The house and landscape are excellent examples of the artistry of two famous American architects. Vanderbilt employed his friend Richard Morris Hunt to design his home. Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to lay out the acres of gardens and parks surrounding the house.

The visitor approaches Biltmore via a three-mile drive which winds along brooks and through sun-drenched forests, until it opens upon an enchanting chateau, cradled in mountains at the end of an expansive courtyard.

The marble entrance hall leads into the Palm Court, a sunken area, also of marble, filled with ferns, flowers, and palms. But the visitor is about to enter even more palatial surroundings: the vast, medieval Banquet Hall, not exactly a setting for a cozy dinner. This room has bearskins sprawling across the floor, a triple carved fireplace which an entire tree could fit in, and a 70 -foot, arching ceiling; but its most memorable feature is its five exquisite, 72 -by-42-foot tapestries, for which it was expressly designed.

The Music Room, on the other hand, has a quiet charm that invites the visitor to linger over the Albrecht Durer prints, Meissen (Dresden) porcelain, and many other works of art.

There are no organized tours of the estate, but questions can be directed to the guards.

As a tourist attraction, Biltmore did not become a moneymaking proposition until 1968, when the present owner, William Cecil, felt challenged by a passing remark from a friend on the impossibility of making money on such a project. ''Anyone who tells me it can't be done,'' Mr. Cecil says, ''gets my goat.''

Today, Biltmore employs 200 people and is open year-round. In fact, it is one of the biggest attractions in a state where tourism is the third-largest industry. Continual maintenance, refurbishing of rooms, and upkeep, however, runs a substantial $7 million yearly. But because Biltmore is a privately owned historical site, the owners have more freedom to find creative ways of defraying these expenses. Leasing out the property for large advertising campaigns and to movie companies has allowed Mr. Cecil to accomplish needful restoration, though not necessarily adding significant income to estate coffers.

TheLibrary, one of the rooms in ''Being There,'' underwent some renovation in 1980. The magnificent ceiling painting, ''The Chariot of Aurora,'' attributed to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741), was restored by a team of leading artists from England. There had been a leak in the ceiling, causing the canvas to bubble and pull away. For years, repairing this problem was simply done with hammer and nails. Scaffolding filled the entire Library for three months while the canvas was removed inch by inch from the ceiling and then replaced.

The energy crisis, which dealt a blow to the tourist industry all over the nation, also caused Mr. Cecil concern. 1978 had been a very successful year financially, and 1979 had promised to be as successful, if not better. But the uncertainty on gasoline kept tourists away. In 1980, in hopes of sparking some interest in first-time tourists and even attracting some repeat visitors, the downstairs was opened to the public for the first time.

The downstairs tour reveals the underpinning of what had made the upstairs work so smoothly. The tour begins by entering through the ''Porte-Cochere,'' a covered carriage entrance. This section of the house is known as the Bachelors' Wing, and the rooms catered to the gentlemen's activities. It includes a Gun Room. The kitchen complex includes the Main Kitchen, where most of the cooking was done; the Rotisserie Kitchen, where game caught on the estate was roasted for elaborate dinners in the Banquet Hall on the floor above; and, down the hall , the Pastry Kitchen.

The kitchens make way for the guest recreational area, which contains a gymnasium, a two-lane bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, a lounge, and 17 dressing rooms. Each activity of the day, whether it was swimming, riding, or eating dinner, had its own dress code, and it was not unusual for a 19th-century lady to change clothes five or more times a day.

The Halloween Room is the last one the visitor sees. In the 1920s a pre-wedding party for Vanderbilt's daughter, Cornelia, was given in this room, and guests were asked to paint a design on a section of the wall. ''It was not until 1980 when this part of the building was opened,'' says estate spokesman Michael K. Smith, ''that we found out the story was true. A man who had attended the party as a 12-year-old came to the house and asked to take a picture of the cat he had drawn.''

The many gardens and acres of forests are excellent for leisurely strolls. The four-acre Walled Garden is patterned after gardens in Northern Europe and Great Britain and is a flower garden in the fullest sense, with no statues or fountains. The Rose Garden is enchanting, with 3,000 varieties, while the greenhouses ensure cut flowers and plants for the mansion in every season.

North Carolina is famous for its native azaleas, and Biltmore has one of the most famous collections in America. A superintendent of the estate, Chauncey Delos Beadle, gathered samples of azaleas from hills, swamps, and plains for more than ten years; in 1940 he had collected the largest and only complete collection in the world, which he gave to the Biltmore Estate. Practical details

The Estate is open all year (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's) with a special attraction of period decorations at Christmastime. Although the price for entrance seems rather steep - $12 for both upstairs and downstairs tours, and $8 for a single tour - the enjoyment gained from this attraction justifies the outlay. Special prices are offered to students ($9), and to children aged 12 to 17 ($6); children under 12 accompanied by an adult can enter free. An Ambassador Pass has been developed to encourage local residents to come back with guests. If you have kept a pass from a previous visit you may get in free the next time.

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