The shabby white “Union County Schools” activity bus climbed the meandering three mile road approaching the estate entrance. A few dozen fifth graders, I among the group, peered curiously out of the bus windows, catching glimpses of flowing streams and springs and pools of water, towering oak and poplar trees, and clumps of sweet-smelling azaleas and dogwoods. Suddenly, after rounding one last tortuous turn, the expansive court appeared, the massive Biltmore mansion seated gracefully at the end of a seemingly endless green lawn. In the presence of this breathtaking view, even as a ten year old on an elementary school fieldtrip, I could fully comprehend its existence as a multimillion dollar industry. I understood why tourist after tourist flocked to Asheville, North Carolina to visit America’s largest private residence.
The Biltmore legacy we know today is mainly the product of four ingenuous men. The first, George Washington Vanderbilt, took a fateful horse ride through the Asheville countryside and dreamed of creating his own self-sustaining European estate in the midst of North Carolina backcountry. By 1895, he had his chateau—and boy, was it big.
It is incredibly hard to conceptualize the sheer size and productivity of the Biltmore estate during its beginning years. The actual mansion has over 200 massive rooms, and including the stables, had a staff of 80 servants. During construction, Biltmore Village was established to provide housing and services to the numerous workers. A railroad, brick manufactory, and a wood working company were all built to satisfy the staggering demand for materials. When George Washington Vanderbilt was finished purchasing land for his dream chateau, he had accumulated 125,000 beautiful Carolina acres (Bryan 5).
Yet something was missing. An “I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it” quality was lacking. To some notable guests, the estate was too remote and did not have the homey comfort of a more modest abode. Gifford Pinchot gave the most accurate review in his book Breaking New Ground. “As a feudal castle it would have been beyond criticism,” he wrote. “But in the U.S. of the nineteenth century and among the one-room cabins of the Appalachian mountaineers, it did not belong” (48). The Biltmore Estate simply did not belong.
In the Smithsonian magazine article “Here’s the House that Lots and Lots of Jacks Built,” authors Robert Wernick and Robert C. Lautman attempt to indentify the reason behind Biltmore’s eventual decline in relevance. They write, “But Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, though they are occasionally willing enough to be serfs, are obstinate about being peasants. George Vanderbilt could never be a lord of the manor riding through crowds of faithful tenantry tugging at their forelocks. He did not belong in local society any more than his statues of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc belonged in North Carolina” (27). George Vanderbilt’s unintentional failure led to the emergence of our next ingenious man who played a role in the success of the Biltmore Estate as a hot tourism spot.
After George’s death in 1914, the estate passed through the hands of his wife and their daughter Cecelia and her husband John Cecil. However, for the most part, the local judge Junius Adams handled the legalities, finances, and complexities of a house so large with so much land. It was he who developed Biltmore into a corporation in 1930. Adams opened the house to paying visitors and thus began a huge transformation. He made the decision in an effort to pay for the increasing costs of upkeep and refurbishment, yet he had no clue that he was setting the foundation for a million dollar sensation. The Judge’s death in 1960 put Biltmore back in the hands of the Vanderbilt family and George and William Cecil, sons of Cecelia and John, assisted the transformation through its entirety. These brothers are the two remaining business-minded men of interest in our narrative.
The two brothers decided to split the estate between themselves, George taking over the booming dairy business and William the house and grounds. It was predominantly William Cecil’s ambitious vision to make the Biltmore mansion a National Historical Landmark, and he planned to capitalize on the public’s desire to live a dream for a day. He believed that tourists would throng the expansive grounds and troop through the numerous rooms simply to experience a day in the life of a Vanderbilt—and that they would pay big money to do so. William Cecil could not have been more correct. Not only does he make profits off of the high demand tours throughout iconic rooms in the mansion, William has also built a gift shop and several restaurants, spot lights the amazing winery, and often holds events “like flower festivals, horse-carriage parades, and concerts” (Wernick and Lautman 33).
The famed tour allows guests to imagine themselves as a Vanderbilt family member as a tour guide from the Biltmore’s staff guides the group of tourists from one incredible room to another. It features such attractions as the grand spiral staircase, the beautifully flowered palm court, the colossal banquet hall with fantastic tapestries, and the like (Biltmore Company 6-8).
“Paying Guests,” an article in Forbes magazine written by Edward Cone, details the financial side of the Biltmore estate, focusing on the actual revenue and profit generated by the corporation. The staggeringly high numbers prove the success of America’s favorite home and one of its most profitable businesses:
Today, Biltmore is the centerpiece of a thriving travel-and-tourism business. With revenues of about $50 million and an estimated market value of $125 million, the Biltmore Company doesn’t put Cecil, 70, in the league of his great-great-grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, nor his great-grandfather, William Henry Vanderbilt, each held to be the richest American of his era. But Bill Cecil and his son, Bill Cecil Jr., 40, who took over as president in 1995, keep adding value to the 8,000-acre property nestled in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. (2).
George Washington Vanderbilt, Judge Junius Adams, and William and George Cecil each contributed to the Biltmore we love and know today. It is America’s largest home, yet it so much more than that. The Biltmore estate is also an example of how an entrepreneurial spirit can transform a declining business and how the preservation of the past can be a fantastic money-maker. Biltmore effectively capitalizes on the tourist’s motivation for visiting a landmark—to live a dream for a day. The estate provides its guests with the Vanderbilt dream of opulence, grandeur, and beauty, and they in turn provide renowned success and financial prosperity to the Biltmore House, a house that has survived the ages.
Biltmore Company. The Biltmore House& Garden. Asheville, N.C.: Biltmore Co., 1983. Print.
Bryan, John M. G.W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate: The Most Distinguished Private Place. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.
Cone, Edward. “Paying guests.” Forbes Magazine 12 October 1998: 78-82. Print.
Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1947. Print.
Wernick, Robert, and Lautman, Robert C. “Here’s the house that lots and lots of jack built.” Smithsonian September 1992: 58. Print.
About the Author
Jennifer Jackson is a First-Year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is double-majoring in Journalism and Peace, War, and Defense, and also minoring in the Arabic language. Her hometown is Marshville, North Carolina.