It’s not a coincidence that the Biltmore Estate is going to mount an exhibit called “Dressing Downton” in March 2015. The owners of the Biltmore, which is still in private hands and still run by members of the Vanderbilt family, are savvy when it comes to attracting tourists to their 175,000 square foot mansion/palace/castle/chateau.
Moreover, there are parallels between Downton Abbey, a fictional place and a fictional upper class/semi royal family, and the Biltmore, which is a real place owned by a real family of U.S. type royalty–the Vanderbilts. Americans who can’t afford a trip to England to see Highclere Castle, the fictional home of the Crawley family, can visit the Biltmore instead. I doubt anyone who visits the Biltmore is disappointed.
Let’s face it– we are all voyeurs. We love to read about the rich and famous, whether real or fictional. The Vanderbilts of Biltmore have all the required elements of a great story: wealth, love, tragedy and mystery.
Why did George Vanderbilt, who was one of eight children, only have one child himself? Why did he decide to build the Biltmore, which practically bankrupted him? Why did George decide to change his travel plans at the last minute in 1912, which resulted in him avoiding death on the Titanic? Why did his only child, Cornelia, divorce John Cecil, her aristocratic British husband, and abscond to England with the children, leaving Cecil, who was not a Vanderbilt or an American, to run the largest private home in the U.S.? Why was the estate allowed to fall into disrepair, and how did it regain its glory?
And which family member suffered from a chronic illness that had to be kept secret in order to avoid bringing shame to the family?
The Crawleys have nothing on the Vanderbilts. And the best part about the Vanderbilt’s story is that theirs is true.
This will be a multi-part series on the lives and mysteries surrounding the Vanderbilts of Biltmore.
Part One: Truth is Stranger than Fiction
When I visited the Biltmore recently with my family, we got the white-washed version of the Vanderbilt’s history. Inside the house, and in the brochures, there was no mention of divorce or mental illness. But the shuttle drivers told us the real story.
But first we have to back up and get some context. The reason the Biltmore could be built was simple: taxes. Or rather, no taxes. At the time of George Vanderbilt’s life, there were no income or inheritance taxes. Imagine how much more money you would have if you didn’t have to give so much to federal, state and local governments?
And imagine a time when the cost of labor was so cheap that George could afford to hire a thousand workers at a time to build and landscape the estate. And then have more than 40 servants to run it.
George Washington Vanderbilt was born in 1862, the last of eight children born to William Henry Vanderbilt. George’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, had turned a $100 loan from his mother into a $100 million fortune of steamships and railroads. When the Commodore died, he left most of his fortune to George’s father William. William increased his inheritance of about $95 million into almost $200 million in just nine years.
When William died, his fortune was divided up among the sons. The daughters got nothing. They were expected to marry into their fortunes, much like Downton Abbey. The sons did not get the same amount, either. As the youngest, George’s inheritance was the smallest, around $12 million. Poor kid. It sucks to be the youngest, sometimes.
As the youngest child, and still living at home, George was expected to take care of his mother, Maria Louisa, and he was the dutiful son. He even promised her he would not get married until she died, a promise he kept. Good thing she died before he met Edith.
Maria Louisa had respiratory problems, and as was the custom of the day, she went to the mountains for their “recuperative effects,” which as far as I can tell, was another word for vacation. Asheville, North Carolina, with its hot springs and fresh mountain air, was a popular destination for such endeavors.
George, who was not crazy about New York to begin with, fell in love with Asheville during a visit with Maria Louisa in 1888. So while the rest of his family built mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York, George set his sites on Asheville.
He started to purchase land there, eventually owning 125,000 acres. He then engaged two talented men–Richard Morris Hunt, an architect, and Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect, to help him. Hunt was a “favorite society architect.” He designed homes for George’s older brothers. Olmstead was known for designing Central Park, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, and the campus of Stanford University. The Biltmore would be Olmstead’s swan song.
With $12 million to spend, two talented men to help him, and all of his time to devote to the project, George began to create what is still the largest private home in the United States–the Biltmore. Boys and their toys.