'World's Largest' Private Home in North Carolina

Times Staff Writer

Large houses, and I mean "large" houses--50,000 and 72,000 square feet--have been the topic of some items in this column in the past few months, but West L. A. appraiser Frank Ashby says he can cite the "world's largest private residence."

It is, he says, the 125,000-square-foot home built in 1895 for George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius, the 19th-Century railroad and steamship industrialist.

Still in the Vanderbilt family, he notes, it is in Asheville, N. C. and has 250 rooms--one room with a 70-foot-high ceiling; a bowling alley, and "the finest English gardens in North America."

Ashby telephoned North Carolina real estate broker Harold Debruhl and found that it took 1,000 men five years to build the house at a cost of $3 million, plus $1 million for landscaping and other buildings, and that the replacement cost today would be $55 million.

What makes this timely is that the place is called The Biltmore House--interesting, since the Biltmore Hotel in L. A. is celebrating its $40-million renovation today (please see story on Page 1).

Seems the Biltmore House got its name from the Dutch town of Bildt, where the Vanderbilts' ancestors once lived, and the English word "more," meaning rolling, upland country. This per Marge Cook, director of public relations and advertising for the Biltmore Hotel, who had some research on the subject.

The hotel is not related to the house, she said, and although there were rumors that the hotel's name stemmed from a combination of the names (Cornelius) Vanderbilt and (J. P.) Morgan, who were friends of John McEntee Bowman (a renowned New York hotel man who headed a company that managed the Biltmore and other inns of the same name), this was "never proven," she emphasized.

Incidentally, there were, at one time, an estimated 19 Biltmore hotels or country clubs throughout the world that were managed by Bowman's company.

The word is that actor Marlon Brando has closed escrow on a house off Laurel Canyon with a spectacular 360-degree view of the city of Los Angeles and a fascinating past.

It was the site of a bunker during World War II, where the U. S. military watched for possible Japanese invaders. Toward the end of the war, the house was used as a radar station.

Then, in the '60s and '70s, it was a communications center, where antennas were leased for relaying messages, such as taxicab firms.

Planning to dine at Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills? There will be about a two-month wait. The landmark restaurant, one of 21 in a worldwide chain, is getting a face lift that started a little more than a week ago, and it won't reopen until the end of May.

It's the first time the restaurant has been closed for any period of time since it opened in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, at 9876 Wilshire Blvd., in 1955! When it reopens, it will still have a Polynesian flair, but its style will be more nautical, and it will have a new party room, bar, lounge and Captain's Cabin Dining Room.

The renovation is expected to cost about $1.3 million. Lun Chan Associates Architects of San Francisco is handling the design.

The same architects do work on all of the Trader Vic's, which are still in the Bergeron family, though the Trader--Vic Bergeron--died in 1984. He remained chairman of his chain and wholesale fine-foods company until his death but he had relinquished the daily operations to his children more than a decade ago.

Bergeron began his multimillion-dollar restaurant empire in 1934 with a hole-in-the-wall, Oakland food joint named Hinky Dinks, which was renamed Trader Vic's in 1937. The name was suggested by Bergeron's first wife for his penchant to swap meals for supplies and services.

He admittedly stole the South Pacific theme from another restaurant, saying once, "I got the idea . . . from a couple of guys who said Don the Beachcomber was selling a lot of food and booze in Los Angeles. I looked over his place and decided I could build a better mousetrap."

Trader Vic's became famous for Bergeron's lifelong habit of inventing his version of South Seas food and drinks, including such well-known rum concoctions as Missionary's Revenge and the Mai Tai. Mai Tais and hors d'oeuvres prepared by the Trader Vic's chef can still be ordered daily from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the library lounge (lobby) of the Beverly Hilton--"to keep the Trader Vic's spirit alive while it is closed," a spokeswoman for the restaurant said.

Jockey Chris McCarron, the 31-year-old winner who--as one of nine kids growing up in Boston--had to scrape to get $45 together to buy a broken-down Volkswagen, has joined a number of other entertainment and sports celebrity homeowners at The Summit Above Beverly Hills, where 20 of the 93 home sites remain. (Prices: from $290,000). The private enclave is reached from Mulholland Drive just east of Coldwater Canyon.

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