Tourism is a major revenue generator in North Carolina, creating more than 200,000 jobs and contributing almost $23 billion to our economy. Our No. 1 tourist attraction is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, attracting more than 1 million visitors annually.
Touring Biltmore, one gets a glimpse into the lifestyle and opulence of the rich at the turn of the 20th century, but to truly understand the backstories of wealth, ambition, grandeur and the personalities involved, we recommend reading “The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love,Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home,” written by North Carolinian Denise Kiernan.
George Vanderbilt, the grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, inherited $12 million at the young age of 23. Never interested in the family railroad empire, Vanderbilt was an avid reader and loved art. Vanderbilt and his mother came to Asheville in 1888, immediately falling in love with the beautiful scenery, clean air and warmer climate. Vanderbilt was especially awestruck by Mount Pisgah and that summer purchased 661 of what would ultimately become more than 125,000 acres he amassed.
Teaming with Frederick Law Olmstead and Richard Morris Hunt, the wealthy young bachelor determined to build a home to equal any in America or Europe, naming his estate Biltmore. Work begin in earnest in 1890, planting trees, constructing a rail spur, building roads and a village nearby to house the artisans and craftsmen working on the project. Vanderbilt scoured the globe to purchase tapestries, art, furniture, books and antiques befitting such a grand estate.
At the close of 1895, six years after beginning construction, Biltmore was sufficiently completed for the 33-year-old Vanderbilt to entertain for the first time in the 175,000 square-foot palace more than 1,000 workers helped construct. Biltmore’s annual operating costs were estimated to be $250,000, requiring a staff of 300 for his part-time residence, grounds and farming operation.
George married at age 35 and had a daughter. They frequently traveled between Biltmore, New York, France and England. At one time, Vanderbilt’s wealth was estimated to exceed $20 million, but a series of bad investments, downturns in the economy, large charitable donations and excessive spending found George struggling to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He sold off land, including his beloved Mount Pisgah, creating America’s first national park. Vanderbilt further cut Biltmore’s expenses and continued to search for ways to stop the depletion of his wealth while still maintaining his opulent standard of living.
George Vanderbilt died in 1914 at the age of 51. His widow, Edith, inherited a lot of real estate in various locales but also money worries. She considered selling off the valuable furnishings, books and artwork in Biltmore to generate cash, but was unable to find experts who could evaluate their worth. Desperate to raise funds she decided to open the house to the public for a small admission fee. While many were eager to see America’s largest private residence, revenues were small, especially during the Great Depression. Biltmore finally turned a small profit in the 1960s.
Grandsons Bill and George Cecil and their family preserved Biltmore with the furnishings Vanderbilt purchased, leaving us a mirror into The Gilded Age. But even today, massive inheritance taxes pose a financial threat.
We urge you to read the book and then spend at least a day inside “The Last Castle.”
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.