Today the Biltmore Estate is the reigning queen of attractions in Western North Carolina, and she’s been that way since she was built in 1895 as the largest private home in America at 175,000 square feet. But the grand estate overshadows other lasting impacts the young Vanderbilt had on Asheville and the surrounding area. The Biltmore wasn’t the only structure built because of George’s vision: there is of course Biltmore Village, and All Souls’ Cathedral, but he also built several ‘model cottages,’ or rental villas, in what was then called the town of Victoria, what we now know as the campus of AB Tech.
The town of Victoria was supposedly established when George Vanderbilt, who was looking to build a home in Western North Carolina in the late 1880s, tried to purchase Fernihurst, a large Italianate style-house that was built in 1875 by John Kerr Connally on a hill overlooking the intersection of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers. Connally wasn’t interested in selling, and Vanderbilt ended up buying all the land across the French Broad and Swannanoa River. To be fair, Vanderbilt, who started by purchasing a mere 2000 acres to built Biltmore, ended up buying 125,000 acres of Western North Carolina – so it seems his plan was to pretty much buy the western part of the state; I don’t think he bought that land in retribution for not being able to buy Fernihurst.
But, the residents on ‘Vernon Hill’ gathered together and made themselves into a town, perhaps to protect their land. Alexander Garret, who lived in the Smith-McDowell House in the 1880s, was the first mayor of Victoria, in 1887. In 1889 Garret built the Victoria Inn on the highest peak between Asheville and the future Biltmore Estate. The Inn had 80 rooms and a 30,000 gallon water tank filled with fresh mountain water that was topped with a window-filled observatory.
The town of Victoria grew to included 15 houses, and ironically six of those houses were ‘model cottages’ built in 1900 by Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of the Biltmore Estate, for George Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt used the houses as ‘Rental Villas,’ a sort of Airbnb for wealthy friends and acquaintances who weren’t friendly and acquainted enough to stay at Vanderbilt’s 250 room house. The villa’s rented for $200-$350 a month, were fully furnished, and included everything but silver, linens, and servants (although there were servants quarters, of course).
The homes were built on ‘Vernon Hill,’ a picturesque area with sweeping views of the mountains, and named Washington Cottage, Sunnicrest, Spurwood, Westdale, Ridgelawn, and Hillcote. They were Tudoresque style houses, two and a half stories house, with a gable roofs, with flaring eaves and molded tie-beams. The houses also featured pebbledash and stucco – a technique Smith became know for that is seen throughout Asheville.
The 1906 edition of Asheville Magazine featured an advertisment for the homes on the back cover, stating: “Charming homes for rent in Victoria, North Carolina, Asheville’s most attractive suburb, overlooking Biltmore and the Biltmore Estate. Furnished and unfurnished houses. Broad panoramic views of the mountains, spacious grounds artistically planned and planted.”
There is also a booklet advertising the homes, available in the North Carolina Room at Pack Library in downtown Asheville, but not much else is known about them.
The houses were later sold as private residences around 1911 – at a time when Vanderbilt was selling off other assets probably to pay hefty tax bills that had come due. The New York Times reported Spurwood sold for $20,000, it had included 14 rooms and a cellar and rented for $300 a month or $2200 a year in 1900.
Victoria annexed to the city of Asheville in 1905, most likely to take part in improvements in roads, streetcars, and upgrades to plumbing and electricity that were going on in the city.
What you can still see today:
Sunnicrest is the only Vanderbilt Rental Villa still remaining. It was sold to the Radeker Family in 1911, and remained in that family until 1990 when Buncombe County bought it for Asheville-Buncombe Technical College. Today it is the HR building. Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, reportedly rented Sunnicrest for 2 months in the winter of 1904, when it rented for $350 a month or $2500 a year (about $9,000 a month in today’s money!).
Fernihurst is still standing and in use today as part of the of AB Tech Community College. Fernihurst was built by John Kerr Connally in 1875, as a large 25 room Italianate style house – and over the years it was added on to become a “50 room monstrosity” as differing architectural styles were tacked on to expand it. In 1933 when John P Curran acquired the house he actually removed 38 of the additional rooms, reverting back to the original structure that was built from bricks hand-made from clay on the property.
The Smith-McDowell House, now a museum, is Asheville’s first mansion, oldest surviving house, and the oldest brick structure in Buncombe County. It was built in the 1840s and is home to the Western North Carolina Historical Society. Tours of the home are given Wednesday – Saturday from 10am-4pm and give you an in-depth history of the families who lived there over the years, as well as the city of Asheville and surrounding area.
The North Lodge on Oakland, located at 84 Oakland Road, was built by Robert Garrett, a former owner of the Smith-McDowell House, mayor of Victoria, and owner of the Victoria Inn, which later became St. Genieve-of-the-Pines School. The North Lodge has a good write-up of the history of the area on their website: https://northlodge.com/the-bb/history/ .