Book Review: The Last Castle

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan is about the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, and the people involved with it. I wanted this book first of all because the Biltmore has been a favorite place to visit. But Denise’s previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, about the rising up of the Secret City of Oak Ridge, TN during WWII, was so well done and enjoyable, I knew she would do an equally good job with the Biltmore’s history.

George Washington Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius, made his fortune in the railroads. He also had Grand Central Station built. I was thankful I had read Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age last year, because that book covers this era. The old-family-money folks, the Four Hundred, as they were called, looked down on the new-money people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Cornelius himself was rather rough around the edges.

But by George’s time, the family members were accepted in society. His two older brothers took over the family business, but George had no interest in it. He was introverted and liked reading, travel, and art. He kept record of the books he read and, as an adult, “averaged eighty-one books a year” (p. 126).

Diary entries from when George was thirteen years old reveal him to be a penitent, thoughtful young man: “I read my Bible this morning and began Isaiah and I think that was what made me feel so happy through the day. . . I have been reading a book this afternoon from which I ought to learn a very useful lesson of truth and gaining control over my temper, but I can do nothing without God’s help because if I rely on my own resolution I am sure to fail. . . . I don’t think I have spent today as I should have done. I have trusted too much in my own ability and not enough in Jesus (p. 12).

At age twenty-five, George visited the Asheville, NC, area with his mother, who was recovering from malaria. George himself did not have a robust constitution, and tuberculosis was a feared disease at the time. Asheville had several “breathing porches” for those wanting fresh mountain air. When George saw Mt. Pisgah, he fell in love with the area. It was common for prominent NY families to have summer homes, and George decided this was the place for his. He began quietly buying tracts of land.

Construction began in 1889. George hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to construct a home out of Indiana limestone to look like a French chateau. Frederick Law Olmsted , who constructed Central Park in NY, supervised the grounds. The land had been severely depleted, and Olmsted “was not impressed.” But he did a masterful job, considering not only what the landscape needed at the time, but how it would grow in the next hundred years.

George opened the home to family and friends in 1895, but it was far from finished. Construction went on for anther five years, but some parts of the house were still unfinished when George died.

George was still a bachelor until age thirty-five. I enjoyed hearing how George’s sisters encouraged one of his friends to arrange time for George and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser to have time alone together while on a ship to Paris. Edith was from one of the “four hundred” families, but both her parents had died and the family’s funds had greatly dwindled.

George and Edith were married in 1898. Their only child, Cornelia, was born in 1900.

Edith was the perfect choice for George’s wife and the lady of Biltmore. She “strode deftly between these two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity. She may have appeared to live the life of the elite, but to those beyond the iron gates of the estate, Edith quickly emerged as one who was decidedly of the people” (p. 156).

George had plans for the estate to become self-sustaining. That didn’t happen for decades, but he started a dairy, was responsible for the first forestry school, and had several other plans for a working estate.

George and Edith were both involved in numerous charitable endeavors. George built a village for estate workers and funded the building, upkeep, and personnel of All Souls Episcopal Church. Edith not only provided funds but actively participated in several endeavors in the area.

Though George Vanderbilt was not a statesman, his contributions to history, culture, and forestry cannot be denied as he employed some of the greatest minds behind America’s civic, private, and untamed places. Though Edith was not the wife of a president, her tireless efforts in the community changed many a life; ensured the education of those with limited access to school, books, and teachers; and fostered craftsmanship and self-sufficiency (p. 302).

Sadly, George died fairly young, at age 51, after an appendectomy. The estate cost a great deal of money to keep up. Edith sold land to create the Pisgah National Forest, eventually sold off Biltmore Industries, and took various measures to preserve George’s dream.

In 1930, Cornelia and her then husband, John Cecil, opened the house to the public. It still took several years before the estate became truly self-sufficient and then started turning a profit. The Cecils divorced, with John staying in the bachelor’s wing of the estate and Cornelia selling out her portion. The house eventually came to George’s youngest grandson, William Cecil. George’s great-grandson was the current CEO at the time the book was written. Over time, the Cecil family added new features (a winery, inn, Antler Village, etc.).

The Biltmore is still privately owned. “Private ownership means that the estate receives no government grants, nor is it eligible for any associated not-for-profit tax breaks. Property and inheritance taxes remain a financial hurdle to be cleared” (p. 298).

The book goes on to tell what happened with each of the family members and many of their friends, the effects of the Depression, WWII (the Biltmore secretly stored art from Washington, DC, in case of attack on the capital), a record-setting destructive flood, and changes of times and tastes. If you’re familiar with Downton Abbey, one of the overarching themes of the show was the family’s adjustment to the major changes of the times. Those associated with the Biltmore faced these changes, too, from Gilded Age opulence to the Progressive Era and Arts and Crafts movement. “The artificial would soon give way to the natural; that which was of the elite, would soon be of the people” (p. 156). A caption under one picture of the house says, “No home in the United States has ever come close to beating the size of the 175,000-square-foot Biltmore House. But its greatest achievement may well be the fact that it has survived into the twenty-first century while other Gilded Age masterpieces have long since disappeared.”

There are so many other tidbits from the book I’d love to share (the effects of the estate on the area, a number of authors associated with Asheville, Cornelia’s life, the associations with the Grove Park Inn, which we have visited several times, and so much more.) But this post is quite long already.

I wish we could have gotten to know a bit more about the Vanderbilt family member’s personalities: Denise wished that, too, but there were not many diaries or personal letters to draw from.

My only small disappointment with the book is the cover. While the Biltmore is glorious at night, a daytime shot with the hills behind, the esplanade in front, and the grounds is so much prettier.

Denise has done tremendous amounts of research—there are over 50 pages of end notes. Yet she has managed to weave all this detail into a flowing and fascinating story.

One of the things I love about the Biltmore is that the whole house is a work of art. Every aspect was crafted with thought and taste. And, as Denise says:

Though it may be necessary to look past a sea of Bermuda shorts and ball caps and navigate legions of audio-tour zombies, a walk through the house today can transport you. . . . Walking the halls of Biltmore House for a day is a journey back in time (p. 297).

If you have an interest in the Biltmore House, the Vanderbilts, or this time in history, you’ll love The Last Castle.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

The Biltmore Estate and Downton Abbey Exhibit

My husband and I have visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, a handful of times. I believe the last time we went was for our 25th anniversary fifteen years ago. I had pretty much decided there was probably no need to return—once you’ve seen it in different seasons, there’s nothing new to see, I thought.

And then I heard they were going to have an exhibition of the Downton Abbey television show at the Biltmore!

Then the question was—how should I go about seeing it? My daughter-in-law and I loved the show, but my husband and youngest son had never seen it. I think Jason, Mittu’s husband had seen at least some episodes, but I don’t know if he was as into it as I was. So should I go by myself? Should I see if Mittu wanted to take a day trip with me? Should I ask a friend? Should I ask my husband even though he wasn’t familiar with the show?

The dilemma was solved when Mittu asked if we could go to the exhibition in lieu of presents for her birthday this year. We went last Saturday.

We got into Asheville around 11 and ate lunch at Farm Burger, as its online menu showed it had gluten free options for Mittu and Timothy. I didn’t want anything heavy or greasy, so I tried the build-your-own chicken burger. It was pretty good. I also snagged a few of Jason’s garlic parmesan fries, and they were great.

Unfortunately, the DA exhibits were in two different buildings and not in the Biltmore house itself. You have to choose a time when you buy tickets, so we needed to go in to see the house when we first arrived.

If you’re not familiar with the Biltmore, it’s the largest home in America, built by George Washington Vanderbilt. He had visited the Asheville area in 1887 and liked it so well, he began buying up land to build a home. Construction began in 1889. He was a bachelor at the time and planned to being his mother to live at the house and to host family and friends. He didn’t marry until 1898, when he was 35. The estate wasn’t even entirely finished then, but it was livable.

I’m reading The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan about the Biltmore House. I had hoped to finish it before visiting, but was only halfway done. Still, what I read enhanced the visit, and and I am sure that the visit will enhance the remaining reading.

One of the things that impressed me the most was that the land had been fairly depleted before building began. Frederick Olmsted, a landscape architect whose long list of credits includes Central Park, was asked to do the landscaping at Biltmore. He had to take into account not only what the land would like like at the time, but how things would grow over time.

The second impressive thing about the estate, besides the sheer size, is the detail in every single aspect. This is the right half of the house as we’re coming from from where the shuttle dropped us off:

Biltmore estateI have many more pictures that one post will hold, but this is what is called the Winter Garden, just inside the front doors and to the right:

Biltmore Winter GardenOne of my favorite rooms is the library. Vanderbilt was known for being well-read, even buying unbound manuscripts so he could have them bound the way he liked them.

Biltmore Library

You can see a bit of the painted ceiling. One of my favorite moments occurred when we were all exclaiming. “Look at the painting! Look at all the books! Look at the spiral staircase in the corner!” And Timothy (almost age 6) said, “Look at the security camera!” 🙂

My second favorite room was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. I didn’t like the black bedcoverings so much, but I loved the ceiling. We didn’t get a picture, but you can see a glimpse here.

We got to go up an elevator that was original to the building. Unfortunately it only went between the first and second floors. The design was all wrought iron, but at some point they put plexiglass behind it for safety purposes. We didn’t get pictures of it, but someone else’s video is here.

One room I didn’t remember seeing before was called the Halloween room, painted by George’s daughter Cornelia. There they offered a photo opportunity with George and Edith. 🙂

The tour includes the downstairs area, where the bowling lanes, kitchen, laundry, and servant’s rooms are. Another funny moment here: we tried to explain to Timothy what the chamber pots were for. When he heard someone else commenting on them, he called them “Thunder pots.”

Just outside the house is a group of little shops and eateries. We enjoyed a snack before heading down to the DA exhibit. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the little shops if we wanted to catch the DA exhibits before they closed.

The first part of the exhibit was in a new building called Amherst at Deerpark. While waiting to get in, we asked what the building was normally used for. The attendant said that once the exhibit was over, the building could be rented for special events, wedding receptions, etc.

This part of the exhibit was called interactive, but that’s probably because there are life-sized videos of Carson speaking to the guests as if he can see them. There are also some artifacts behind glass or in drawers covered with glass. When you first walk in the hallway, there is a massive picture of the DA cast in costume. Then there is a stop to watch a video. Then we stepped into a room where we saw larger than life-sized pictures of half the faces of the cast (not half the cast—half the face of each cast member).

Just to show you a couple of representative displays, pictures and text like this were on walls and tables discussing all the characters and different aspects of the times.

Downton Abbey exhibitOther displays held letters, props, jewelry, etc.

This is where I have a wee bit of complaint. This area was extremely crowded, and there was not a direct flow of traffic. It was very hard to get around to look at anything, much less take time to read the displays. I got around the whole room and glanced at almost everything, but was so claustrophobic, I just wanted to get out as soon as possible. This would have been better in a larger area, or even scattered around in some of Biltmore’s more open areas.

The next section was a lot more fun. It included sets from the show. I didn’t see any information which specified, but I am assuming these were the actual sets (if not, they were very good recreations).

Mr. Carson’s office:

Downton Abbey butler officeThe kitchen:

The bells:

They also had the formal dining room and Lady Mary’s bedroom.

Then we had to take another shuttle to Antler Hill Village to see the costumes. I enjoyed this quite a lot. Even without remembering who wore which clothes, we found ourselves guessing which dress went with which character just by its style. I have multitudes of pictures but will just share a couple.

Downton Abbey costumes

I had mentioned at the beginning feeling like there was no need to go back to Biltmore and see the same things again. What i didn’t know was that the Antler Hill Village area was all fairly recent, plus a few new rooms had been opened up. Plus, in all the times we’ve been there, we’ve never seen the greenhouse or Biltmore Village. The latter was built by Vanderbilt for workmen and employees. I’ve been reading in the book I mentioned about All Souls Cathedral, also built by Vanderbilt, and its stained glass windows dedicated to George’s mother and close friends and other family who passed away. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of it, but by the time we were done, we were tired and needed to get back on the road. So some day I’d be up for another visit to see some of these areas.

Jason and Mittu did stay overnight and went back the next day to see the greenhouse and some other areas. Timothy was a little trooper and seemed to enjoy himself. We were glad there were some grassy areas in-between buildings where they allowed people to walk and kids to run. He was looking forward to the pool at the hotel. 🙂

All in all, it was a fun visit. I enjoyed seeing the Biltmore again and loved seeing the Downton Abbey sets and costumes. If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you get a chance to see the exhibit. It’s at the Biltmore until April 7. I’m assuming the house and exhibit would be a lot less crowded on weekdays: I’d recommend going then if you can.

Have you visited the Biltmore or see the Downton Abbey exhibit?