Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

The Hunt for a Vacation Home

The Hunt for a Vacation Home

Hey Swarthmore! Come for dinner! The banquet room at Biltmore Estate.  Photo by Linton Stables.

Hey Swarthmore! Come for dinner! The banquet room at Biltmore Estate. Photo by Linton Stables.

The idea of a second home — at the shore, on a lake, or in the mountains — has a certain appeal. But my husband Greg Brown and I have studiously avoided purchasing such a place, thinking that once we do, we’ll be stuck going to that same place over and over again instead of travelling. However, that doesn’t keep us from checking out the real estate in fun places we visit! This summer we made a car trip to western North Carolina where we did look at some homes, in case we ever change our minds.

In Winston-Salem we were unimpressed with the possibilities in Old Salem (emphasis on “old”). It’s a Moravian settlement of the mid-eighteenth century that has been partially restored. The Single Brothers House—where Greg and I no doubt would have been consigned, had we lived at the time—was built in 1769 and was way too plain and, horrors, not air-conditioned. Plus, we’re not really ready for the co-housing thing anyway.

We also checked out 2250 Reynolda Road, also known as Reynolda House. According to Zillow “this property is not currently on the market” but we took a look anyway. It was built between 1912 and 1917 by Katharine Smith Reynolds and her husband R. J. Reynolds, the founder of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The original 1,067-acre grounds include a lake which the Reynolds had built, along with an accompanying “model farm” and a small village with a church and a school. Turn-of-the-last-century rich people who knew nothing about farming had a propensity for building “model farms” to show farmers how it should be done. The main purpose (other than hubris) for this farm was to provide milk and eggs to the Reynolds family, surely the most expensive milk and eggs ever produced. Thomas W. Sears, a Philadelphia landscape designer, laid out the grounds with Mrs. Reynolds providing most of the guidance.

Architect Charles Barton Keen, also from Philadelphia, designed the 33,619 square foot “bungalow.” The “bungalow” aspect appealed to us, because otherwise 33,619 square feet might seem excessive. This bungalow is quite cozy, with eight bedrooms for family and guests, many having attached sleeping porches. The house has 60 rooms, and the thought of buying furniture for all of them started to weigh heavily on us. But if they would include the art collection in the sale, that would make the deal a lot more attractive. The collection of American art is pretty spectacular, and worth a visit all by itself. I would say that the kitchen and bathrooms could use a little updating, but other than that it is pretty much “move-in ready!”

In Asheville, a couple of hours down the road, we looked at 1 Lodge Street.  “Now we’re talking!” we both exclaimed, nearing the end of the three-mile-long driveway. We weren’t the only ones, as the entire busload from the parking lot had the same reaction. Curb appeal is important, and with its 375-foot façade this home certainly has curb appeal. Alas, this one, too is “not currently on the market,” but who’s to say that if the right offer were made…?  This place is known as Biltmore, though if it were in Swarthmore it would be forever called “the Vanderbilt house,” even if Greg and I bought it and moved in. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and with grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate was built between 1889 and 1895. It is 178,926 square feet which is about four acres of floor space. Yikes! Think of the heating bills! There are 250 rooms in the house, including 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and three kitchens. ALL our friends could come visit! In fact, all of Swarthmore could come for dinner—but only if you don’t call it the Vanderbilt house, OK?

The original grounds included 125,000 acres of rolling piedmont, with 75 acres of formal gardens. The weeding, alone, gave me pause until Greg reminded me, “They have staff.” Oh yeah, staff! (Do they come with the place?) Of course, Biltmore had its own “model farm” and its own village! Early on it had its own railroad spur, but once all the building materials had been delivered it was dismantled. Over the years much of the estate has been dismantled, as well. Now there are “only” about 8,000 acres. That is a little less than 10 times the area of the entire Borough of Swarthmore, including the College.

I try to imagine our lifestyle in a house such as Reynolda or Biltmore. I’m not up for seven-course meals every night, or running a model farm. But I could see us having a nice dinner on the veranda with all our friends, watching the sunset over the Great Smoky Mountains, and later slipping a music roll into the player pipe organ. (Both places have player pipe organs!) The downside? Those heating bills! No trips to Europe—or anywhere else.

Besides, we like our home in Swarthmore, where we returned to our half acre of… weeds! Where’s the staff?

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