Biltmore: The rest of the story

| November 9, 2017

by Tom Campbell, Producer and moderator of NC SPIN, November 8, 2017.

Tourism is a major revenue generator in North Carolina, creating more than 200,000 jobs and contributing almost $23 billion to our economy. Our number one tourist attraction is Biltmore estate in Asheville, attracting more than 1 million visitors annually.

Touring Biltmore, one gets a glimpse into the lifestyle and opulence of the rich at the turn of the 20th Century, but to truly understand the backstories of wealth, ambition, grandeur and the personalities involved we recommend reading, The Last Castle, The Epic Story of love, loss, and American royalty in the nation’s largest home, written by North Carolinian Denise Kiernan.

George Vanderbilt, the grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, inherited $12 million at the young age of 23. Never interested in the family railroad empire George was an avid reader and loved art. George and his mother came to Asheville in 1888, immediately falling in love with the beautiful scenery, clean air and warmer climate. George was especially awestruck by Mount Pisgah and that summer purchased 661 of what would ultimately become more than 125,000 acres he amassed.

Teaming with Frederick Law Olmstead and Richard Morris Hunt the wealthy young bachelor determined to build a home to equal any in America or Europe, naming his estate Biltmore. Work begin in earnest in 1890, planting trees, constructing a rail spur, building roads and a village nearby to house the artisans and craftsmen working on the project. George scoured the globe to purchase tapestries, art, furniture, books and antiques befitting such a grand estate.

At the close of 1895, six years after beginning construction, Biltmore was sufficiently completed for the 33 year-old George to entertain for the first time in the 175,000 square foot palace more than 1,000 workers helped construct. Biltmore’s annual operating costs were estimated to be $250,000, requiring a staff of 300 for his part-time residence, grounds and farming operation.

George married at age 35 and had a daughter. They frequently traveled between Biltmore, New York, France and England. At one time Vanderbilt’s wealth was estimated to exceed $20 million, but a series of bad investments, downturns in the economy, large charitable donations and excessive spending found George struggling to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He sold off land, including his beloved Mt. Pisgah, creating America’s first national park. Vanderbilt further cut Biltmore’s expenses and continued to search for ways to stop the depletion of his wealth while still maintaining his opulent standard of living.

George Vanderbilt died in 1914 at the age of 51. His widow Edith inherited a lot of real estate in various locales but also money worries. She considered selling off the valuable furnishings, books and artwork in Biltmore to generate cash, but was unable to find experts who could evaluate their worth. Desperate to raise funds she decided to open the house to the public for a small admission fee. While many were eager to see America’s largest private residence, revenues were small, especially during the Great Depression. Biltmore finally turned a small profit in the 1960s.

Grandsons Bill and George Cecil and their family preserved Biltmore with the furnishings Vanderbilt purchased, leaving us a mirror into The Gilded Age. But even today massive inheritance taxes pose a financial threat.

We urge you to read the book and then spend at least a day inside The Last Castle.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

Comments (4)

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  1. Aubrey Dempsey says:

    Will all due respect, you desperately need a fact checker to assist you on this story.

    Just for starters, GWV was not the person who sold off Mt Pisgah and the other land included in the national park. Nor was Edith the person who opened the house to the public.

    Those are basic facts and are easily obtainable.

  2. Norm Kelly says:

    The point of this story is easy to miss. It appears as the very last sentence. ‘But even today massive inheritance taxes pose a financial threat.’
    No matter what you think about ‘the rich’, especially if you are an alt-left zealot, having gov’t steal money from someone who earned it just because they died is not just immoral, it’s unforgivable. So, for all those, especially politicians bent on class warfare, why is it that if someone works hard, saves, creates wealth (which also creates jobs for others), why is it that stealing dead peoples’ money is acceptable? Why is it that taxing during their entire life isn’t enough? Why is it that after paying taxes all their lives, libs feel it necessary to tax them even more heavily after they’ve died? Is it because once they are dead, they don’t know you are stealing even more of their money? I thought double taxation was improper, and we fought for independence for reasons such as this.
    Isn’t it time for an ‘advanced’ society, which libs always tell us we are or should be, to stop stealing money from dead people? Is there no low that politicians won’t stoop to?
    I’m embarrassed to live in a society that feels compelled to steal money from dead people. If Moochelle Obummer can be embarrassed by our nation because of whatever she claimed/lied about, why can’t I be embarrassed about something real?

  3. Bruce Stanley says:

    Fascinating! The grandchildren are developing 1000 acres now into a housing development called The Ramble.