The House of Vanderbilt

The three mile driveway into the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is – like the breathtaking palace itself – a magnificent work of art.

As it should be, since the winding road and exquisite plantings framing it were meticulously plotted by the legendary landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead.

It is indeed a long road, like the miles of rail lines laid to bring in the materials used in constructing the gargantuan mansion in western Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and when you are behind the wheel prowling through the lush forest you have plenty of time to contemplate the kind of vast wealth that could create such an estate on land that once numbered more than 100,000 acres.

A recent visit to the 135,000 square-foot pad – completed in 1895 and still billed as the largest private home in America – came coincidentally a year after our tour of the Breakers, another fabled 1890s Vanderbilt monument perched on a Newport, Rhode Island bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.[i]

The houses were built by brothers – Cornelius II the Breakers, and George Washington the Biltmore – the eldest and youngest of their line, grandsons of family patriarch and fortune-founder Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Cornelius II was the leader of his generation, chairman of the family business (NY Central Railroad) and grandfather to heiress and 70’s designer jeans doyenne Gloria, who rounds out our Vanderbilt trifecta. More on that shortly.

The mansions were designed by the same man, Richard Morris Hunt, and opened in the same year, 1895, making Mr. Hunt a very busy guy in those days.

Touring through these masterpieces and learning their history one is struck by two related notions.

First, the lives of these buildings in active duty were actually quite short. Both houses really only served their original purpose – as private family homes or summer cottages – for little more than a generation. The new 20th Century brought massive changes to the country, included among them a trust-busting president and a federal income tax that forced even the richest American heirs to be mindful of their spending.

The extraordinary costs of maintaining these colossuses threatened to make them relics within decades. Their upkeep required hundreds of servants and costly out-of-pocket maintenance. In the case of the Biltmore, George had already spent much of his inheritance on its construction, and not long after its opening his trust income struggled to keep up with the costs of keeping the place afloat in all its original grandeur. Just a few years after he died, a large chunk of the 250 room castle had fallen into desuetude and George’s wife Edith closed off a third of the home. In 1914, Edith also sold 87,000 acres of the estate to the US Government, leading to the creation of the first national forest east of the Mississippi

Sadly, both brothers died before they could enjoy the homes for very long. Cornelius suffered a stroke one year after the Breakers opened and passed away in 1899. George Washington Vanderbilt was able to enjoy his Carolina castle a few years longer but he too died prematurely after suffering appendicitis in 1914.

My second takeaway from touring these carnivals of conspicuous consumption will warm trickle-down theorist’s hearts: though these gilded, in-your-face symbols of extraordinary wealth were meant to separate the very rich from the rest of us, from the beginning the mansions have been job-creation factories. Huge amounts of labor went into their construction; a veritable town sprung up in North Carolina to house all the Biltmore workers. And the homes of course were staffed with scads of chefs, footmen, maids, groundskeepers, etc.   Today, both spots (and many like them) are tourist meccas, with millions of folks like us who will pay good cash money to marvel at how really rich people once lived. The Biltmore Company employs more than 2,000 at all levels across multiple businesses – a winery, hotels, and the house and gardens themselves.

Ironically, it is only through this tourist income that the two homes continue today to be used by the Vanderbilt heirs. Along with dozens of other grand summer cottages in Newport, the Breakers is owned by the Newport Preservation Society, which has brokered a deal that allows family members use of the third floor (an arrangement that has come under some duress). The George Washington Vanderbilt’s family never left the Biltmore, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren the Cecils have built the place into a multi-faceted business enterprise.

Back to Gloria Vanderbilt.

Weeks after our Biltmore visit we happened up on Nothing Left Unsaid, a documentary of her hard-to-believe life framed around unvarnished conversations with her son, the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Vanderbilt first came on the national scene as the famed “poor little rich girl” at the center of a vicious custody battle that was the OJ Simpson trial of its time. It was a case that set the tone for so many others that would follow, bringing accusations of the decadent, debaucherous lifestyles of the super rich into mainstream public view.

Vanderbilt is an American original, someone who over nine decades has constantly reinvented herself. She is profane, catty, thoughtful, wistful, wry, reflective, mordant, unbowed. She is a talented artist, with that transatlantic, Grace Kelly-Katherine Hepburn-upper crust throwback accent that used to be a staple of 1940s cinema.

Left fatherless as a toddler and with a mother who had little to do with her, somewhat predictably she became a wild child, an exotic young beauty who ran off to Hollywood at 17 and married a much older, abusive rogue whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. That was the first of four times she’d walk the aisle (husbands included the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the director Sydney Lumet and Cooper’s father Wyatt).

Vanderbilt comes across as proud, but profoundly alone. She’s had more than her share of tragedy and failure: estranged to one son for 30 years, another committed suicide, leaping from the balcony of their 14th story NYC apartment in her full view. Who could endure that kind of nightmarish image?

Endure she has, just as those mighty steel-framed gilded-era homes persist, reminders that great bricks and mortar usually outlast the cash and that only the human condition – pain, joy, hope – is truly timeless.

[i] By way of comparison, the Hapsburg’s Hofburg Palace in Vienna weighs in at 2.5 million square feet. Buckingham Palace in London is 828,000 and Versailles is 721,000. Locally, Henry du Pont’s Winterthur (1932) comes in at a formidable 96,000 square feet, although it was the product of several bolt-on additions over the years. A.I. du Pont’s Nemours is 47,000.   On a related note, TSD readers must see the 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” the compelling, kooky, quintissentially American story of David and Jackie Siegel’s ambition to build their own 90,000 square foot Orlando homage to the Sun King, Louis XIV.


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About the Contributor

Michael Fleming

Michael Fleming

Wilmington resident Michael Fleming is a marketing and communications executive.

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