VanderBILT built MORE
May 28, 2009
|Livin’ large in the shadow of the Blue Ridge - Thursday, May 28
Today we headed out to see the Biltmore House - a local attraction that everyone says you do not want to miss. I was mildly interested, but I’ve seen ostentatious displays of wealth before and I don’t find them all that exciting. Hearing how some robber baron stripped the castles of Europe to adorn his mansion in the states doesn’t ring my chimes half as much as seeing - well, ducks on a pond. But we are here to experience as much as we can of east coat culture, and this is the Carolina equivalent of Hearst Castle in California. So off we went.
From our campground it is a 14 mile drive through the outskirts of Asheville - a green and forested area in the eastern shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The route is well marked with signs, as this is a very big attraction. The route takes you through Biltmore Village, a planned community developed in 1890 to be a harmonious prelude to George Vanderbilt’s estate. From the entrance gate you drive half a mile to a second gate where your tickets are scanned, and then it’s a three mile drive through the ‘woods’ to the house itself.
How to begin? Well, some history and comparisons to the Hearst venture in San Simeon are one way. Let’s start with Hearst.
Hearst Castle was built by William Randolph Hearst, born in 1863 and the only son of multimillionaire miner George Hearst. In 1919 Hearst inherited his father’s estate which totaled some 250,000 acres of California’s coastal range. He was already successful in his own right, having taken ownership of the San Francisco Examiner after his father won it gambling. Hearst made the newspaper successful, but he did it in ugly and unethical ways. Hearst was sympathetic to the Nazis, hated Communists, and hated minorities. He used his newspaper to stir up racial trouble, and Orson Well’s classic movie Citizen Kane was openly based on Hearst. The movie is considered one of the best ever made, but many of Hearst’s Hollywood friends rallied around Hearst and tried to get the movie destroyed.
Hearst married and had five sons with his wife, but he lived much of the time with his Mistress, actress Marion Davies. In 1919 he hired architect Julia Morgan to build him a home on his property at San Simeon. Construction started in 1922 and the house was ready for occupancy by 1927, although work on the other buildings and features would continue until 1947. Hearst Castle and it’s satellite buildings enclose some 90,080 square feet of area and contain some 165 rooms. The buildings are decorated with Hearst’s art collection which contains few American works and is mostly comprised of articles imported from Europe. While Hearst’s family used the house in some ways, it was primarily a getaway for the rich and famous, and the ‘home’ of Hearst and Marion Davies. Hearst died in 1951 at the age of 88.
Now for some background on George Washington Vanderbilt ll. George was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the Vanderbilt fortune. Cornelius started a ferry business with $100 he borrowed from his mother. It became the Staten Island Ferry and the fortune began to amass. Cornelius went into steamship lines and then railroads, ultimately founding the New York Central. When he died he left to his son William a fortune of 106 million dollars. In a few years William doubled the fortune, and while most of his fortune went to his sons who were running the businesses, his son George, born in 1862 inherited approximately 10 million dollars.
George was interested in intellectual pursuits, and had little if anything to do with the family businesses. In 1888 he traveled to North Carolina with his mother and he liked it so much that he decided to build a home near Asheville. He hired an agent to begin purchasing land, and he eventually acquired 125,000 acres, or about 228 square miles. At one time he owned Mt Pisgah. He hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to design and build him a ‘chateauesque’ home similar to the chateaus of France, and he hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the ‘father of American landscape architecture’ to design the grounds.
He named the home Biltmore, using the end of his surname and combining it with ‘more’ for moor. The home opened on Christmas Eve 1895 and it was, and still is, the largest privately owned home in America. It enclosed 175,000 square feet under one roof, and it boasted 250 rooms. Three years later George met and married his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser with whom he lived happily until he died in 1914 at the age of 52. They had one daughter Cornelia. Biltmore House truly was a family home, and Cornelia and later her two children were all born here. While this family knew and entertained many of the rich and famous themselves, the primary focus of the house was to be a family home.
Both Hearst Castle and Biltmore House had water systems designed to deliver mountain water without pumps and relying only on gravity feed. Hearst Castle is today owned and operated by the California State Park Service, while Biltmore House remains the property of the Biltmore Company who’s primary owner is William Cecil, George W. Vanderbilt’s grandson. In a poll taken by the American Institute of Architects to determine America’s favorite architectural structures, Biltmore House was voted number 8 after the Lincoln Memorial. Hearst Castle was voted number 41 after Grand Central Station in St. Louis.
While there were ventures at Biltmore designed to bring in some revenue, the project was financed primarily by the ten million dollars George inherited. While that does not sound like much today, in 1880’s money it made him the equivalent of today’s billionaires. Still, the project seriously depleted his inheritance, and there were rooms in the house that were never finished until recent times. In 1914 George’s widow Edith sold 85,000 acres of the original estate to the federal government, and today it comprises the land of Mt. Pisgah National Forest. In 1930 she opened Biltmore House to the public.
Today the family is still involved, and still devoted to protecting and preserving the ‘legacy of the land’ that so preoccupied their grandfather George. When George Vanderbilt bought the land it was mostly depleted farmland and it took him, with the help of Olmsted, decades to restore it and make it productive again. Hundreds of cows were brought in to generate manure, thus creating the most profitable business on the estate, a successful commercial dairy. Olmsted planted millions of trees, and the grounds he designed are today still a joy to see and be a part of.
Our first tour was a ‘legacy of the land’ tour by bus with a very fine guide. It took us over the remaining grounds and he treated us to stories and facts that made the history come alive. By the time we returned from that tour it was 1:00 PM and raining, so we rented audio guides, and embarked on a self guided tour of the house that took us from the first floor to the fourth, and then from there to the basement. We spent a good two hours on this, and it was richly rewarding and time well spent.
By the time we finished the house tour and had a bite to eat in the ‘Stable Café’ we still had time to walk the gardens before the grounds closed. The gardens are exquisite and they were a wonderful way to end the day.
Some final thoughts on why we liked this place so much:
For all it’s grandeur and show of wealth, there is a warmth to Biltmore House that is missing at Hearst Castle. Not only was this much more of a ‘family home’, it was home to a very fine family. Much of this had it’s foundation in the character and personalities of George Vanderbilt and his wife Edith. From the time George started acquiring land for the house, he told his agent to treat people fairly. When members of an African American settlement were reluctant to sell their land because their relatives were buried behind their little church, Vanderbilt promised them if they sold to him he would build them a new and better church, and would pay to have every grave exhumed and relocated to the new churchyard. Under these conditions they unanimously sold, and George was good to his word, even importing stained glass windows from Europe for their new church.
The only holdout was the pastor who wanted an exorbitant price for his parcel. The agent recommended not paying it, but Vanderbilt did, and he and the pastor later became good friends. One day years later they were talking and the pastor said to Vanderbilt, “I could have held out for a lot more money, couldn’t I?” Vanderbilt told him he could have. Both men were happy with the ‘good deal’ they had made.
On the house tour a maid told of dropping a whole tray of food and dishes while serving a big dinner party on her first day of employment. George got up and helped her pick up everything, and she was overwhelmed with his kindness that night, and over the years she worked there. At Christmas the family would throw a party for all their employees, and there would be presents for each employee's children.
George was very generous to the local communities, and especially to the black community where he spent a lot of money on philanthropic projects. When Edith left the estate and eventually moved away, she remained close to the employees and still returned every year to visit them. Seldom do the rich and famous live so gently and generously on the land, and when they do it makes them special. This is the charm and allure of Biltmore House, and this is why we loved going there so much.