Ready to think big? Here are seven things to see in the two-state area that take the cake for being singularly large human achievements. Each has a story. All are worth a visit.
Importance: Largest privately owned home in the United States.
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George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914) truly believed bigger is better. Heir to the fabulous Vanderbilt fortune, owner of palatial residences, he ordered a mountain retreat on the outskirts of downtown Asheville in the 1890s. The 250-room, 65-fireplace chateau has four times the space of the White House. Within its walls are the best furnishings experts could find and Vanderbilt money could buy, from 16th-century Flemish tapestries to Impressionist paintings by Renoir.
The grounds are 12 times larger than the European principality of Monaco – 8,000 acres, about a 15th of the original 125,000 acres. They were partly landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the most revered garden planner in American history.
Biltmore has been open to the public since the Depression. Movies shot here range from the starry-eyed (“The Swan”) to wild-eyed (“Hannibal”), sublime (“Being There”) to silly (“Richie Rich”). The estate, owned and operated by Vanderbilt’s great-grandson, is one of the most popular attractions in North Carolina. Various tours are offered; special events are staged throughout the year. Its holdings include a winery, an inn, a hotel and several restaurants offering produce, meat, and fish raised on the property.
Bank of America Corporate Center
Location: Trade and Tryon streets, Charlotte.
Importance: Tallest building in the Carolinas.
Since opening in 1992, the Bank of America has remained the tallest building between Atlanta and Philadelphia and a skyline symbol of Charlotte’s emergence as a financial powerhouse. It is the 32nd-tallest building in the United States. At 871 feet, it towers 4 feet over Atlanta’s Sun Trust Plaza skyscraper; it trumps New York’s Trump World Tower by 10 feet.
Up close, there are retro artistic touches: Art Deco flourishes reminiscent of the 1920s and ’30s, and frescoes by Carolina muralist Ben Long. The vibes are speed, hustle and concentrated power: 39 high-speed elevators take about 4,000 workers to and from their desks. On floors six through 60, they toil behind 5,808 single-pane windows. It takes five business days to clean them all, working from the top down. From the upper floors, you can look at the horizon 35 miles away.
Founders Hall, its adjacent, three-story atrium, has more than 20 shops and restaurants, including a Bank of America store that sells bank-logo souvenirs – but nothing that depicts the tower. Also there: The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Get the story behind the firm’s and skyscraper’s rise, in Founders Hall, at the entrance to the corporate center. The 4,000-square-foot Heritage Center museum is free to see.
Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
Location: Cooper River, Charleston County, S.C.
Importance: Longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
How does one build a bridge between historic downtown Charleston and historic downtown Mount Pleasant? With an eye toward something with as unobtrusive a footprint as possible. Thing is, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River is as elegant as it is practical. (The bridge is named for the state senator who pushed for its funding.)
Eight lanes of traffic course through its midsection, with diamond-shaped towers at each end; from atop both towers, 128 cables – up to 91 strands in each, each strand capable of bearing 500 tons – reach out and down to grasp U.S. 17 and make the bridge glow in the sun like a spider web.
The bridge, completed in 2005, is the state’s largest drive-through attraction, and the tallest drive-under-attraction, too: There’s 186 feet of clearance between the deck and the high tide of the Cooper – the equivalent of a 19-story building. Enough headroom for oceangoing ships with business at Charleston’s container-cargo port.
See for yourself: A 12-foot-wide pedestrian lane overlooks the ocean side. And during the Cooper River Run, the eight vehicle lanes are given over to joggers. Take a long look: End to end, the bridge is 3 miles long.
South Carolina State House
Importance: Beautiful state capitol defied odds and artillery.
The north and south entrances to the Palmetto State capitol are solemnly graced with 20 columns of blue granite (the official state stone), said to be the largest columns in the world cut from single blocks of stone.
Within its walls (also blue granite) are exquisite marble floors, stained-glass windows and artwork. Topping it all is an elaborate copper dome. That’s one of many reasons construction took so long – a whopping 56 years, longer than any other state capitol in the country. The cornerstone was laid in 1851; the project was finished in 1907.
On a free guided tour, you’ll learn about delays prompted by changing plans, defective work, financial funny business, cash shortages, and of course, the Civil War.
Start to finish, construction cost at least $3.5 million.
On Feb.15, 1865, Gen. William Sherman’s federal army moved on to Columbia. Union artillery on the heights west of Saluda River was ordered to fire on the unfinished capitol. Six shells smacked the west exterior.
This is the only state capitol used as target practice by the U.S. Army. The west-facing exterior is studded with six bronze stars, each placed there to cover a hole made by Sherman’s gunners.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Location: Cape Hatteras.
Importance: Tallest brick lighthouse in the world ... and moved, in one piece.
A glance at a map will show you just how precarious this historic beacon is – on a small island 13 miles off the Atlantic coast, with Pamlico Sound at its back and a wild, wind-driven sea in its face. Cape Hatteras has long been feared by mariners – the treacherous Diamond Shoals are off its shore – and a lighthouse was first built at the cape in 1803. The fury of nature is such that its ruins were swept into the sea in 1980.
The one operating today was built after the Civil War and went into operation after 1870. Top to bottom: 198.49 feet. Its light officially burned whale oil; the beam is now electrified and automated (triggered by a photocell). In clear darkness, ships at sea can see it 20 miles away. It has withstood about 40 hurricanes and two earthquakes. Erosion of the land has been a constant and serious threat. The lighthouse was mothballed for that reason in 1936, reopened in 1950 and in 1999 was physically moved.
The complicated $11.8-million relocation eased the beacon onto a sturdy base 2,900 feet inland. Carefully? You bet. The move took 23 days – the aged brick giant cruising at 0.110 mph.
Just as it was when it was new in 1870, it is 1,500 feet away from the beach.
It’s part of the National Parks Service and one of the most visited attractions on the Outer Banks. Every year, from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, thousands of visitors climb 257 steps to see the waves and feel the wind from the balcony.
Linn Cove Viaduct
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway.
Importance: Engineers of the 1,243-foot section overcame unusual challenges to complete the Blue Ridge Parkway.
By 1967, all 469.1 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway had been completed ... except for a 7.5-mile section that would entail 12 years of head-scratching and five more of inspired construction. The stretch, at what’s now Milemarker 304, was high (elevation: 4,100 feet), scenic (on iconic Grandfather Mountain) and remote (in Beacon Heights, in Pisgah National Forest, near Blowing Rock).
Engineers opted to snake the road along the mountainside to lessen building costs and scenery scars. At a nearby site, huge concrete segments – each weighing 50 tons – were cast and moved into position by a crane. They started at the south end of the gap and worked north and downhill; to go easy on Mother Nature, the only road to the construction site was the parkway already in place.
A total of 153 segments went into the viaduct. Each peak-hugging piece fit just fine, cast to match the one before it, each to the accuracy of 0.0001 feet.
Still not amazed? Consider this: Of all the precast sections, only one – the final piece, the one at the lowest elevation – has no bend.
The scenery you view from the viaduct makes this one of the most popular stretches on the parkway.
Location: Murrells Inlet, S.C.
Importance: The largest sculpture garden in North America.
In spring 1929, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington visited and fell in love with the old-rice-plantation country just north of Georgetown, S.C. He was a tycoon looking for a place to winter; she was one of the foremost sculptors in the country.
They bought the old Brookgreen place and more – 9,100 acres in all. They built a mansion and a studio and wrapped their sprawling getaway in elaborate gardens that would showcase Anna Hyatt Huntington’s own work, and pieces by artists she admired and patronized.
The Huntingtons had no children. Who to share their treasures with? The public, starting in 1932. Archer Huntington died in 1955; Anna in ’73. Their land between U.S. 17 and the coast, including their Spanish-style mansion and studio, Atalaya, is now Huntington Beach State Park. The gardens west of U.S. 17 are now the nonprofit Brookgreen Gardens.
It’s where you’ll find their passion: more than 1,445 figurative sculptures on the grounds and themed galleries – with works by Frederick Remington, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and other “names,” including 85 by Anna Hyatt Huntington.