My mom always liked visiting historic houses. I’ve been to bucketloads of them, from homes owned by former presidents, to homes owned by captains of industry, to homes owned by famous authors. I remember some, and even liked them, but the only one that I ever really loved, and wanted to go back to again, is Biltmore.
The Vanderbilts were once the richest family in the world. The family fortune began with a ferry across New York Harbor, which Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased for $100. By the end of his first year in business, he had earned $1,100, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000 in today’s money. He wasn’t fabulously wealthy. Yet. That would come with time. He used the profits from his first ferry to buy more boats and his wealth grew exponentially. Eventually he moved into shipping in a bigger way, and then into railroads. Vanderbilt owned the New York Central Railway, the hub of which was Grand Central Terminal, and which later had a spur which is now the High Line park. And his wealth didn’t all come from doing business in an aboveboard way. Some came from corruption, such as building cartels with other companies that should have been competitors in order to control prices. He also undercut the competition in price in such a way that his competitors would actually pay him off to keep him out of their territory.
Cornelius’s grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt II, understandably fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and decided to build a summer home in Asheville, North Carolina. He named his summer home “Biltmore.” Biltmore was more than a summer home, however. It was also a working farm and also something of a laboratory in agriculture and forestry.
The centerpiece of the estate was a 250-room mansion which is still the largest private home in the United States. This is the part that first captured my attention. The two rooms that I remembered forever and always were the winter garden and the library. This makes a lot of sense when you consider my personality. Two of the things I love best are books and plants.
The first time we visited Biltmore, I was very young (I think I was seven) and I was convinced that it was a palace. We didn’t see much of the house on our first visit (the owners are restoring the house one room at a time and opening them up to the public as they were restored), so I figured that the part of the house where we didn’t get to visit is where the royal family’s quarters. The winter garden was, of course, the throne room.
The gardens of the house are lovely, as well, with arbors and ponds and a conservatory. But the outside of the estate is not just gardens. George built an entire village for his employees. Many of the house employees lived in the house itself (some of those rooms are now open to the public), but the employees of the farm and George’s scientific experiments lived in the village.
Unfortunately, George was not much of a businessman. The story is that he spent most of his inheritance on the estate and failed to recoup his investment. As a result, in 1930, 16 years after George’s death, George’s daughter Cornelia and her husband opened the estate to the public in order to raise the funds to hold onto the place. And, except for the duration of World War II, the house has been a tourist attraction.
After Cornelia’s death, her two sons split the estate. Her elder son inherited the farm and village and her younger son inherited the house. They have split the property into two entities accordingly, though both are accessible upon payment of the entrance fee.