What is our fascination with the lives of the rich and famous? Is it envy? Incredulity? Wishful thinking?
My wife and I recently held a mini-reunion with family members in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Hankering also to see friends in Tennessee, we resolved to rent a car in Norfolk and drive it, after the reunion, to Chattanooga. This made a perfect excuse to stop in Asheville, North Carolina—a pleasant enough town in its own right, but most famous as the site of Biltmore, “the largest privately-owned house in the United States.”
It’s hard for most of us to envision a house with 178,926 square feet of floor space. Louis XIV’s little place at Versailles is only four times larger. Here in America, Biltmore would comfortably engulf the White House, the Hearst Castle, and Graceland combined.
It was built between 1889 and 1895 by George Vanderbilt, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. George’s grandfather, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, started in 1810 as a boatman ferrying passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan and through entrepreneurship in the shipping and railroad industries amassed one of the largest fortunes in American history. At his death in 1877 his estate was estimated at $100 million—equivalent to $2.8 billion today.
The Commodore’s grandson, George, visited Asheville, in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, with his ailing mother in 1888. He fell in love with the place and began acquiring land—125,000 acres of it. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds, Gifford Pinchot to manage its forests, and Richard Morris Hunt to design the house.
A thousand workers, “ranging from local laborers to internationally known artists,” spent six years building the house, a French Renaissance château of 250 rooms. George and Edith Vanderbilt moved in and were soon joined by their infant daughter Cornelia. It took thirty servants to meet their domestic needs. Of course, the Vanderbilts did not live there alone. They entertained lots of guests. In luxury.
To walk through the four-story mansion requires energy and stamina. The rooms are large, the halls are long, the stairs are steep, and there are no elevators. But it’s worth the effort: You will see a concatenation of private rooms, public spaces, and connecting corridors arranged to offer a life of comfort, ease, elegance, and luxury beyond anything in your personal experience (unless your name is Rockefeller!). The 70,000-gallon heated pool in the basement, for example, had to be drained and refilled every three days to meet guests’ needs; chlorination to keep the water fresh had not been invented yet. But who cares how much water you need to run, and heat, if you are among the super-rich?
After George’s death from complications of appendicitis at 52, his widow took over the running of the estate. She sold off approximately 86,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains at $5 per acre to the U.S. Government, which established it as the original core of the Pisgah National Forest. Later, daughter Cornelia and her husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore to the public, “to increase area tourism during the Great Depression, and to generate income to preserve the estate,” according to the official Biltmore brochure.
The house and its remaining 8,000 acres—including extensive gardens, the famous Biltmore Winery, the Antler Hill tourist village and hotel, and a number of on-estate restaurants and “light bites” venues—continue to be owned and managed by Cecil family descendants of George Vanderbilt. The paid staff numbers 2,700. The cost for a tour ticket is around $65, and there is no shortage of visitors. It’s a good example of an overly-ambitious project that has been saved after the fact by prudent management.
Considering George Vanderbilt’s own personal resources, it’s amazing he managed to execute as much of his grand plan as he did. George’s share of the Commodore’s $100 million only came to about eight million, plus the income from another five million. Money went a lot farther in those days, of course. Even so, the size and scope of Biltmore boggles the mind.
My wife had visited Biltmore years ago so she stayed behind, enjoying a day of leisure at our hotel. My sister, however, accompanied me. The two of us toured the house but did not have the stamina to see the gardens as well.
Before starting our tour, we had an excellent lunch at the Stable Café, a large restaurant adjacent to the house. As the name suggests, it was originally the George Vanderbilt’s stable. A huge barn, it is unlike any stable you may have seen. The walls are of glazed porcelain tile in a warm golden tone. The floor is of staggered red brick, also with a heavy glaze. A high row of arched casement windows sports an elaborate framework mechanism to open or close all of them at once. Diners sit at tables placed in former horse stalls—the straw bedding has been removed—with walls of laminated planks, topped by ornate metal grilles.
I would like to have been one of Vanderbilt’s horses.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author