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.