America has its castle
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries there were none so closely watched as the upper crust who circulated among New York City, Newport, R.I., and Europe. Among these was George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius “the Commodore” Vanderbilt and Edith Dresser, a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant.
It was George who built the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., and Edith who became its mistress upon her marriage to George. They are the subjects of Denise Kiernan’s just-published book, The Last Castle — The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home.
Kiernan will visit Wilton Library on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m., when she will discuss the book and her writing process, and share some funny anecdotes along with a slide show that illustrates “how big a part of the American experience at the turn of the century Biltmore House was.”
In an interview last week, Kiernan told The Bulletin she grew up in a military family and when her father was stationed at Fort Jackson while she was in high school, it seemed natural to visit the estate.
“I’ve always been a history nerd,” she said, and that was further fueled by the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. It was the first time, she said, that “I thought about how history wasn’t just dates and battles and who did what to who. It was what people wore and what they ate and what kids did in school.”
The house, she said, is “like a time capsule. What’s particularly unique is that so much of the family’s stuff is still there. You are looking at the same tapestries they looked at 100 years earlier.”
Years passed, and as a married woman, “for a variety of reasons,” she said, she and her husband moved to Asheville. “My husband had never been, and so I said, ‘Let’s go to Biltmore,’ because that’s what you do.” It was still “incredibly fascinating.”
Kiernan, who is also the author of the bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, keeps “piles of ideas that might be good stories.” The more she looked into the history of Biltmore, the more she found how it intersected with other events in American history.
When she spoke about the estate to her friends, they were curious about the house, the forestry project Vanderbilt undertook, his art patronage, and the philanthropy that extended to building a church and supporting many projects in and around Asheville.
“I decided to pull the trigger,” she said.
Because George Vanderbilt was fabulously wealthy — by the time he was 23 he had inherited $12 to $13 million and had an income of $520,000, tax-free — there was no scarcity of newspaper articles about him. More important to telling her story, Kiernan found a treasure trove of material from George’s friends at the New York Public Library.
“They wrote about what they saw and felt,” she said. “There were just these great letters, feeling the weight of the stationery and postmarks. … I get kind of sad that now we’re archiving emails. It is very different than the physical sensation of letters.”
All this material and more helped Kiernan build the Vanderbilts’ world.
“The Vanderbilts were tracked, stalked, followed by the TMZ of the day,” she said, adding that people could be “just as snarky as they are today.”
At 175,000 square feet on thousands of acres, Biltmore house is still the largest private home ever built in the United States.
George Vanderbilt was not the only wealthy man to build a large home. In her book Kiernan writes, “The rich sought to conquer one another on battlefields of architectural grandeur. Society fought wars in ballrooms and twinkling parlors, wielding the most haute of designers and décor as their weapons of choice, Italian marble beneath their feet. The carnival of spending knew no limits.”
The Vanderbilts owned several homes on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, one of which George inherited, and built or bought their colossal “cottages” in Newport. But George strayed from the fold when he and his mother traveled to Asheville for the healing air and he fell in love with the countryside.
One regret Kiernan has is that she could not find any letters or other scraps of information that explained why George created a bachelor pad of such proportions.
“It did not start out that big,” Kiernan said, noting that early sketches showed a much smaller undertaking. But George hired two of the biggest names of the time — architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — to help him. On trips to Europe he looked at chateaus for inspiration, purchased tapestries and artwork with which to decorate, and then there was so much space to fill up. Kiernan speculates he just got carried away.
“The whole thing smacks of being competitive,” she said. “He felt he wanted to make his own mark in his own unique way.”
Unlike his male siblings who continued to expand their industrial empire, George was a quiet, reflective young man who cared more for art and his beloved books, a collection that eventually numbered about 23,000.
Probably the most eligible bachelor of his day, George eventually married Edith Dresser who was not wealthy but was of excellent breeding.
“She is the most consistent and largest thread” in the book, Kiernan said. “I find her unique and interesting and vivacious. … I love the way she carried herself in later life.”
Edith is often left out of the tale of Biltmore, but it was she who carried on after George’s death and worked to preserve what he built.
Biltmore, of course, is the other character. “It’s almost what the house saw, the Gilded Age, two world wars, the Depression,” Kiernan said. “And the house is still standing. For a house of that size it is quite remarkable.”
The house is not only standing, it is thriving.
“I think he was fascinated with the idea of a working estate,” Kiernan said of George. Today, the estate has the most-visited winery in the country, “does a lot with solar power, they have a lot of biofuel projects. I think he’d be pleased. It’s a working estate now.
“It’s self-sufficient. … That rejuvenation would have made them happy.”
For decades people have visited Biltmore, she said, “to enjoy the natural beauty, and we are all beneficiaries of George Vanderbilt’s vision and Edith’s commitment to keep it intact.”