Imagine building the biggest home in the United States. Not exactly an easy feat. However, George Washington Vanderbilt completed this gigantic task in just five years. The Biltmore Estate is such a majestic place and is referred to as the “legacy of the land” because of the Vanderbilt family’s history, the house’s unique construction process, and its history of guests and events.
George’s grandfather, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt started out his career at the age of sixteen by ferrying people and goods across the waters of Staten Island and Manhattan. After years of hard work, Cornelius created a vast system of shipping and railroads and left the family with about 100 million dollars when he died. George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt followed in Cornelius’s footsteps and became the president of the New York Central Railroad company. After his death, the Vanderbilt family was worth about 200 million dollars. They were one of the richest families in the country (Rickman 10).
George Washington Vanderbilt was born in 1862 and grew up with tutors and a well-rounded education. He was one of eight children in his family. Because of family money, he was able to travel to different parts of the United States and Europe and experience historic sites, museums, and theaters (Rickman 9). He was known for his love of travel and different cultures. Vanderbilt even knew eight different languages. This young appreciation for the arts developed further as he grew older. At the age of sixteen, he attended the Columbia University and graduated with high honors (Covington 19).
Vanderbilt came to North Carolina to investigate the well-known beautiful scenery and climate in the beginning of 1888 and returned with his friend Charles McNamee on May 1st. They rode their horses around the mountains of Asheville and it was during this visit that Vanderbilt first told anyone of his wish to build a home in these mountainous surroundings. Vanderbilt was not the first to consider this land as a place for a vacation home because as the railroad was built through these mountains in 1880, the popularity of the place increased significantly (Rickman 7). Another factor that added to the attractiveness of these Asheville mountains was their healthy healing climate. What many do not know is that Vanderbilt was considering this land to build a home as a place for his mother to stay since she was often ill with chronic malaria. In addition, he faced the fear of tuberculosis throughout his whole life, so this kind of climate would be very beneficial to him as well (Covington 19).
After a short time, Vanderbilt actually hired McNamee, an attorney, to begin buying tracts of land for his new home. A first, about 2,000 acres were purchased by this attorney, but by the time Vanderbilt died in 1914, he owned about 125,000 acres. His original piece of land overlooked the summit of Mount Pisgah and the ridgeline around this magnificent peak. This land covered about four counties in North Carolina. As McNamee acquired more and more land, he bought out small farmers and their “unsightly” cabins (Covington 20).
There was no way that Vanderbilt could design his getaway home on his own so he hired Richard Morris Hunt as his building architect and Frederick Law Olmsted as his landscape architect. Both of these men were well known at the time for their works and would gain even more popularity due to their great work on the Biltmore Estate. Olmstead had recently designed the thirty acres of grounds that Vanderbilt’s other house was located in Bar Harbor, Maine (Rickman 8).
Vanderbilt’s estate was modeled after two other impressive houses. One of these was a manor in Buckinghamshire, England called the Waddesdon Manor. This magnificent house was also a place of escape and rest for its owner, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Furthermore, Vanderbilt wanted to make his home a place where he could display many works of art and many styles of furniture just like in this famous European manor. Interestingly enough, the architects of the two houses were friends and discussed their plans for each house with each other. This is why there are many similarities between the structures of the two houses, such as the spiraling staircases (Covington x). The Waddesdon Manor was a model for the great estate that Vanderbilt aspired to build, but the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley in France was also an inspiration for him and his designer.
Even though his siblings got a bigger share of the family’s wealth, George Vanderbilt seems to have built the most memorable of the homes. This is almost ironic because George was always the most humble out of his brothers and sisters, yet he is the most remembered. He chose the name Biltmore for his new estate from his family’s ancestral home in Bildt, Holland. Because of the great detail that went into planning the estate, Olmstead called the home and surrounding land “the most distinguished private place, not only in America, but in the world, forming in this period.” This comment has definitely taken meaning in the Biltmore estate and is still true to this day (Covington 21).
Believe it or not, Vanderbilt’s project to build his house helped to boost the small economy of Asheville. He needed “hundreds of laborers and craftsmen in stone and wood” to build such a magnificent house so he was able to supply people with steady jobs and wages. Also, a three- mile railroad track was specifically built to connect the main line to the location of the house in order to ship in needed materials, such as limestone. The construction of this track cost about $80,000 by itself (Covington 21). Vanderbilt did not only supply jobs in the construction of his house but in the construction of the track as well. This project also helped pour money into the local economy. After the building process was completed, the people of Asheville still used the track to import goods into the town.
Vanderbilt desired his house to be something unique and different than the rest of the vacation homes of the rich at the time. It is for this reason that Vanderbilt wanted his home to follow the traditional agrarian model, which included a main manor house with tenant farms, a small town, a church, and a school. He put so much work into the building process because he wanted the estate to be self-sustaining and produce its own income. In order for the Biltmore Estate to be independent, it had its own herds of sheep, swine, poultry, gardens, and nurseries. One thing that caught people’s attention early on was Vanderbilt’s own personal dairy farm with 200 cows brought down from the family farm in New York. Also, the first managed forests were located on Vanderbilt’s land. These forests were designed by Olmsted, but taken care of by Gifford Pinchot (Covington 20).
It is important to note that at first Vanderbilt did not intend on his house being a museum and open to the public. This was going to be his home in which he would entertain private guests (Covington 20). Vanderbilt hadthe comfort of guests in mind when designing his home. For example, although he could not swim, he built a swimming pool in his house for the enjoyment of his guests anyways. Also, he built a gym and bowling alley. There was central heating that circulated throughout the house through boilers and cool air moved through the chimneys during the summer time. Elevators and electricity allowed life in the house to be easy and carefree as well.
Olmstead worked just as hard on the outside of the house as Hunt worked on the designing the inside of the house. He created a nine- mile drive through Vanderbilt’s land that eventually ends up at the front doors of the house. However, during this drive, visitors can see many different kinds of plants, herbs, and trees. It is a true masterpiece (Covington 22).
The estate was finally finished and was open to family and friends on Christmas Eve of 1895. George’s mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt lived there with him and helped him host when guests came to visit the grand estate. However, three years after the opening of the Biltmore, Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898. Edith came from a very prominent background and was quite wealthy herself. They were both part of the same prim and proper society and they both liked to travel between America and Europe quite often. They began their courtship on a boat ride from New York to England in 1897 (Rickman 12). Vanderbilt and his wife had a little girl, Cornelia, in 1900 at the Biltmore Estate. At this time, George had attracted national attention and it was a big event when his child was born (Rickman 14). Throughout the years, the guests were always plentiful at the house and the grounds always kept beautiful (Covington 27).
This still holds true today because even though the Biltmore Estate has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, it is still open to the public for tours. Vanderbilt’s grandson, Cecil, takes care of the estate now and makes sure to keep things running smoothly. Not only does the house help the state’s economy and tourism, but it reminds the people of the beauty that George Vanderbilt enjoyed and cherished. His home is almost like a museum today in that tourists are able to walk through and experience these lives and the building process that were so extraordinary. It is easy to see why people still refer to this home as the “legacy of the land.”
“Centennial Celebration: Biltmore Estate.” Asheville Citizen-Times. 1994: 1-26. Print.
Rickman, Ellen E. Biltmore Estate. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2005. Print.
Covington, Howard E. Lady on the Hill. New Jersey: Jon Wiley and Sons Inc, 2006. Print.
Bryan, John M. Biltmore Estate: The Most Distinguished Place. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc, 1994. Print.
Richards, Constance E., and Kenneth L. Richards. Insider’s Guide to North Carolina Mountains. Connecticut: Morris Book Publishing, 2006. Print.
About the Author
My name is Kelly Hennessy and I am a freshman at the University of North Carolina. I am currently undecided in my major but I am really interested in Anthropology. I chose to research and write about the Biltmore Estate because ever since I visited the home when I was younger, I have been fascinated by it. I think that the story behind the house is so unique and needs to be shared with others.