BILTMORE: THE HOUSE THAT VANDERBILT
THE FIRST POSTMODERN DWELLING
The narrow road twists up a ravine past a clattering mountain brook and quiet ponds. Blazing clumps of azalea and dogwood half-screen tall stands of oak and tulip poplar behind. Deer browse in the underbrush. Birds sing. Bees hum. No wonder Hollywood chose these woods for the setting of a new production of The Last of the Mohicans.
Like a Hollywood sound-stage, it is all man-made. Thousands of trees and bushes were put here in the 1890's by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park, in order to create "an aspect more nearly of a subtropical luxuriance than would occur spontaneously" in the southern Appalachians. And at a turn of the long road beyond them, he decreed that "wilderness" should give way to a complex of formal gardens, in the middle of which would stand, as it stands this day, an enormous chateau withe high-pitched roofs, dominating the North Carolina countryside all the way to Mount Pisgah, 17 miles away
The chateau, the gardens, the azaleas and the million and. s half or so trees are here all because a young man because a young man came riding through the countryside one day in the late 1880's. It was a very different countryside then, a sorry stretch of overlogged,, overgrazed, plowed-over bottom lands and hillsides, its soil cruelly eroded. But George Washington Vanderbilt, vacationing in Asheville with his mother, saw a chance to turn into a luxuriant thriving country estate like those he had visited and admired in Europe.
He was still a bachelor, but the house would be big enough to bring up any family-to-be in a setting of aristocratic comfort. He would be able to raise cattle and crops, ride and hunt and fish, and all his friends could come for repose and entertainment. He would call the place Biltmore, from "Bildt," the little Dutch farming village from which his ancestors had emigrated to Staten Island, and "more," an Old English word for "rolling uplands."
Being a Vanderbilt, George had little financial difficulty in taking the step from vision to reality. He was the youngest of the nine children of William Henry Vanderbilt, head of the clan since the death of grandfather Cornelius, nicknamed "the Commodore," for the great 19th century fortune he built on steamships, railroads and sharp practice. George's share of the family fortune was combatively modest, estimated to be around $10 million, but at a time when an average city household made $573 a year and flour cost 3 cents a pound, $10 million could do very nicely.
In the 1880's the Vanderbilts were still regarded as new money,,pushy upstarts compared to people like the Astors who had made their fur-trading fortune a couple of generations earlier. The Vanderbilt urge for monumentality was considered a sign of their vulgar nature. They all had a weakness for bigger and better, beginning with the Commodore himself, who built a large house for himself on Staten Island but soon decided that it would be better of his business and socials aspirations to live in a bigger one in Manhattan. When his wife, Sophia, balked at leaving her quiet island community, he had her clapped into an insane asylum till she came to her senses.
The Commodore's descendants liked to build for posterity. George's father helped do the Metropolitan Opera House, and William K., George's brother, did Garand Central Station. George's niece Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney would found the first museum of contemporary American art But mostly they built for themselves, creating chateaus on Fifth Avenue or on the Hudson River or in Newport, where they could show off the glittering luxuries that wen with new money on the 19th century.
George was well acquainted with grand homes long before he came to Asheville. He grew up in his parents' Fifth Avenue mansion. He inherited and remodeled a summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine. But he had the urge for something grander and more identically his own. He did not want to be cooped up in a corner of a city block, or in the paltry 11-acre plot in Newport where his brother Cornelius as building a 70-room house, the Breakers. So that the name "Vanderbilt" would not sent prices skyrocketing, he set a troop of agents to work quietly buying up land in North Carolina, and by 1880, when he was 28 years old, he was well on his way to acquiring the 125,000 acres he desired. Then he set about designing a house to stand on it.
A natural choice for architect was his friend Richard Morris Hunt, who had already left his mark on the American landscape with the base for the statue of Liberty and the Tribune Building in New York. Hunt was a grand master in the style of the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, which dominated the western world in the days before World War I. The puritanical early 20th century would dub this style "eclecticism," and for many decades no one with any pretension to be up to date, would dare to say a good word for it. But now that Eclecticism has been rechristened Post-Modernism, it has become intellectually respectable to cast a fond eye on these ornate, theatrical structures, to sympathize with the admiration which George Vanderbilt felt for the ebullient self-confidence of Hunt's design for Biltmore.
His original sketch for the house was a modest Tuscan villa. However, in the course of long discussion and correspondence with his patron, ambition took wing, the design became more and more grandiose. The house would swell to 225 rooms and become, in fact, the largest residence ever built for a private citizen (perhaps in the whole world, for that matter).
The style of the exterior was tried and true French Renaissance, combining the classical sobriety of 15th-century Italy with the decorative exuberance of old-fashioned French gothic. The outside of Biltmore is made up of variations on a number of chateaus, notably the jewels of the Loire Valley, Blois, Chambord, Chenonceaux. Inside is a rich jumble from a variety of periods throughout Europe and Asia. The taste of the day saw nothing odd in mingling 16th-century tapestries with modern paintings, a room full of Louis XV furniture next to one chock-full of Chippendale. Hunt designed some of the furniture himself.
In the vast hall called the Gallery, George Vanderbilt, a young man with brooding eyes and long hyper-aesthetic face, stared out from a portrait by John Singer Sargent. He was a sport among Vanderbilts, an intellectual who could read eight languages. He had studied land management and the history of art,, he had visited the art treasures of Europe not just o collect them but to learn from them. He commissioned portraits of Hunt and Olmsted for his walls, portraits that were considerably bigger than his own. But. he was very much a part of the designing process at Biltmore. He was, said Olmsted, "a delicate,,refined and bookish man with considerable humor and shrewd, sharp, exacting and resolute in matters of business."
When Hunt proposed gracefully carved legs for chairs he was deigning for the 7-toot-high Banquet Hall, Vanderbilt insisted on "more manly" straight legs. He wanted this hall to look like the nave of a church, and Hunt designed some giant organ pipes of one wall. They were attached to no organ, but the effect was undeniably grand. When it was proposed that local pine might be good enough for the floors in the servants' quarters upstairs, young Vanderbilt scrawled a vagarious "NO" in the margin. Everything in Biltmore was to be first class, and all its wood floors oak.
Complete with a vast wrought-iron chandelier that hung down through three stories of the central stairwell, and the thirty-odd master switches that controlled the flow of electricity, the place might seem more like an ocean liner than a private home. It was rumored locally that if all the electricity at Biltmore was to be turned on all at once, the trolley cars in Asheville would grind to a halt.
The place was a storehouse of modern conveniences. Unlike Blois and Chenonceaux, it was built at least as much for comfort as for show. The great chandelier held hundreds of bulbs, recently invented by Mr. Edison. The guests could rise to their bedroom in elevators made safe by Mr. Otis. There were telephones, there were refrigerators, there was central heating, there was an electrical signal system any of the 80-servants to come running when required.
A spur railway three miles long was built to bring in tons of Indiana limestone for the walls. A brick-factory and a wood-working factory went up on the grounds. Hundreds of men were kept digging, hammering, welding, planting for almost six years, until everything was ready tor the grand opening on the scheduled date of Christmas Eve, 1895.
A host of Vanderbilts and Vanderbilt in-laws were present for the opening, and they were all enchanted. The trees that Olmsted had planted were now up to 12 feet high and spread a carpet of green on both sides of the Broad Banks River all the way to Mount Pisgah. The English Walled Garden, the Italian garden, and a man-made lake called the Lagoon were all laid out. The Bass Pond was well stocked. The Nursery was full of a fantastic range of do domestic and exotic growths. A dairy herd and horses were comfortably ensconced in the new barn and stables, which were also designed by Hunt.
Everything in the house was in place, where it all can be seen to this day, the Flemish tapestries and the Chippendales, the statues of St. Louis and Joan of Arc, looking out over North Carolina, the frieze of scenes from Tannhäuse in the Banquet Hall, the great heads of moose and grizzly that Vanderbilt had bought rather than shot, the tables in the Billiard Room, the bowling alley, the indoor swimming pool, the gymnasium with its weights and rowing machines.
Guests could inscribe witticisms in a Biltmore Nonsense Book provided for them (there is page after page of variations on the theme of This is the House that Vanderbilt. Serious-minded guest could slip down the spiral staircase to the 10,000-volume library with an 18th-century Venetian painting on the ceiling, to find a book they could take with them to read in bed. On a shelf at the top of the stairs is a well-thumbed copy of How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis's pioneering picture of what life was like in the slums of New York.
"It is delightful down here," wrote George"s niece Gertrude of that first Christmas. "We have walked and ridden and when we are at home sat around and fooled and I have seldom enjoyed myself so much."
And so Biltmore was launched. For years George Vanderbilt kept coming back, sometimes only for Christmas, sometimes for many months. Little treasures were added to the first ones, like the two Renoirs in the Chippendale Room. The oval-shaped Louis XV bedroom designed for a still hypothetical Mrs. Vanderbilt found an occupant when George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris in 1898.
Great achievements always provoke envy. In December 1897 a newspaper reported that Vanderbilt, ordering a servant to bring in a glass of spring water that he had piped in at enormous cost, was horrified to hear that pipes had burst and he could not get a drop. "The," said the story, George Vanderbilt stopped. The sunken foundations, the cracked marbles, the idle sawmill, the unproductive dairy farm, and all the failures that had been pointed came rushing in on him. He could have stood all those, but he could not stand this climax. He had spent $19,000,000 on Biltmore, and he could not get a drink of water!
"Can we wonder that he decided to go to India?"
Next day The New York Times corrected the story - not a word of truth in it.
Biltmore's construction was rock solid., the place was a going concern. Its founder had always regarded it not as a rich man's toy but as a vital part of the local economy. It not only provided employment for an astonishing proportion of the local population, it was also a profitable business enterprise. Olmsted's nursery sold seeds and saplings all over the United States. The herd of Jerseys provided the best milk in North Carolina. The woodland, under the direction of Gifford Pinchot, a young socialite friend of George Vanderbilt's who founded the U. S. Forest Service, became a vast laboratory for the proper uses and preservation of forest land. "Vanderbilt," lamented the S. Y. Secretary of Agriculture at one point, "has more workers and larger badge for his forestry projects than I have for. the whole Department of Agriculture." The principles of sustained yield. Striking a balance between cutting timber and growing new trees, standard practice today, were first worked out in the United States at Biltmore.
Though some sophisticates like Edith Wharton thoroughly enjoyed their visits, other visitors felt that there was something missing. Henry James, who visited while he was suffering from gout, was appalled by the "vast sequestered remoteness...the showy colossal heartbreaking home, the desolation and discomfort of the whole thing. (North Carolina" must have seemed to him another name for "Patagonia.") Gifford Pinchot was a bitt kinder: "As a feudal castle, it would have been beyond criticism. But in the U. S. of the nineteenth century and among the one-room cabins of the Appalachian mountaineers, it did not belong..."
It is true that, for all its charms, Biltmore could never be the great house of George Vanderbilt's dreams, Over the centuries in the European houses he admired, the lord of the manor had not only provided employment for his tenants, but settled their quarrels, oversaw their education, sometimes led them off to war. Biltmore did its best to fit to that pattern. The model village for the estate workers, the school for carpentry and other traditional crafts, the Young Men's Institutes for young black were all worthy and much appreciated by the community.
Bu9t Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, through they are occasionally willing to be serfs, obstinately refuse to be peasants. George Vanderbilt could never be a lord of the manor riding through crowds of faithful servants tugging at their forelocks. He did not belong in local society any more than his statues of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc belonged in the North Carolina countryside. Though he entertained handsomely, he did not entertain on the scale he had intended, and his guests were mostly limited to other Vanderbilts and some literary and artistic friends like James and Wharton and Sargent. The doings in the house never acquired the richness of pageantry and scandalous anecdote that marked the old manor houses of England, or would mark in the next generation the San Simeon of William Randolph Hearst in California.
Vanderbilt must have been aware of the failure, for in his later years he took to spending more and more time at his home in Washington, where he had more friends. When he died in 1911, aged 51, after an appendectomy, the great house went on in a desultory way was a family home for the widow. A lively lady who smoked and drove a car before most women for. her class dared to, she sold some of the forest land to the U. S. government (which made it the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest), and in time the property shrank to its present more manageable size of 8,000 acres. Olmsted's greater nursery was swept away by a catastrophic flood in 1916, but the dairy farm flourished and more or less paid for the upkeep of the site.
Cornelia, the Vanderbilts' only child, married John Cecil, an English diplomat descended from the great Lord Burghley Queen Elisabeth's High Treasurer. The Cecil boys, George and William, had a high time sliding down Biltmore's giant banisters, unaware that they were anything unusual about living in 225-room house.
Through the Depression and war years, the property was managed for the vanderbilt heirs by a local dignitary, Judge Junius Adams. It was he who turned Biltmore into a corporation, opening the house to paying guests for the first time in 1930. During World War II it served a safe haven for treasures shipped down for the National Gallery of Art in Washington when the city was briefly fearful of German air attack. It was still more or less intact when Judge Adams died in 1960. In time, the Cecil boys decided to split Biltmore between them. George took over the booming dairy business, and William got the house and grounds.
"People shook their heads at first," says William, a big, bluff former naval person - ne served in the Royal Navy in the 1940?s - who is known to everyone in Asheville as "Mr. C." "No one could imagine what I was going to do with this colossal white elephant.' At age 32 he was an officer of the Chase Bank in New York, but felt it was time to try to make a go of his inheritance. The blood of the Vanderbilts and the Cecils, men who always had a keen eye for the main chance - were pumping through his veins. He wanted to show that, like the Commodore who had switched at precisely the right moment from steamships to railroads, he knew where the future was.
The future, as so many have discovered in 20th-century America, was in the marketing of dreams. And for a daily fee, he figured, grand opulent Biltmore could be anyone's dream of enjoying luxury and comfort and the sense of being important. It was also a rich and colorful testimonial to a unique period in American life, the decades of peace and unfettered progress around the turn of the century, when thee was no income tax, there was plenty of cheap skilled labor, and a millionaire could let his fancy run free when it came to fixing up a place to live and show off in. It was only natural that in the course of time Biltmore would be declared a National Historic Landmark.
There are of course scores of such Landmarks spread around the land, and many of their owners and managers sometimes look askance at Biltmore. "They say I am too commercial," says Cecil. "What they mean is that I pay my way." Actually, he does no more than any one else in exploiting his landmark. He is a gift shop and a restaurant, he runs occasional events like flower festivals, horse-carriage parades, concerts. Like every one else he offers his slice of the past, and tries to preserve it in a state preserving the original as much as possible.
Preserving it is the rub. Most historical monuments tend to develop a shabby look over the years. "There is only a fine line,"says Cecil, "between preservation and dirt." Real preservation, as he soon learned, is a terribly expensive business. When he took over Biltmore, he had to have the brocades re-created by French weavers. When he repaired his entrance driveway, it cost $3700,000. When he replaced the drainage pump in the Bass Pond, it cost $422,000. Removing, restoring and replacing the 70-foot-long painting The Chariot of Aurora by Giovanni Pellegrini, an 18th-century Venetian, had all the complexity of a military campaign.
"That is why," says Cecil, "my competitors always have a begging bowl in their hand. They are always asking for grants, subsides, bequests, gift, tax breaks. And when they can't get enough of these, they end up in the hands of the government. That is the kiss of death."
Running a house like Biltmore demands quick decisions. The sooner repairs are made, the cheaper they are. But government bureaucracies cannot move quickly; they will wait till a place is about to fall down and then waste millions in crash programs. Why, asks Cecil, should the government be in the home management business at all? Why, with all the problems of the U.S. budget deficit, and of the unemployed and the homeless buzzing about our ears, should we be asking the taxpayer to subsidize the upkeep of a place that shows how rich people lived a hundred years ago? It is more sensible, and more efficient in the long run, to ask the people who want to see such a place to pay for the cost of maintenance.
The first thing, Cecil decided, was to make sure that customers would get their money's worth. Biltmore had to be restored to mint condition. Fortunate no revolutionary mobs had ever swept through the grounds, nor had the tax collector carried off any of the treasures. All the old furniture and the old decorations were in place or tucked away in storage rooms. George Vanderbilt, who never threw anything away, left an archive of more than 50,000 documents that contain information on everything from the prices of all the 400 Oriental rugs to the domestic problems of the housekeeper who had a drunken husband. Armed with this data and a skilled staff, which had grown from 50 to 550 in 30 years, Cecil has been able to bring house and grounds to the pitch of perfection George Vanderbilt demanded a century ago.
Biltmore could always count on loyal and devoted servants. There was Chauncey Beadle, who ran the grounds for 60 years and spent his vacations tramping through the eastern mountains of North America looking for new subspecies of azalea to bring back for planting at Asheville. Today there is a trio of tapestry-conservators who have a computerized color-formulating system for their dyes and are ready for any emergency. A few years ago a moose head worked loose from the wall in the Banquet Hall, and then as it fell to the floor, its giant antler ripped the splendid Flemish tapestry Vulcan Forging and Spreading the Net. For the past year and a half the conservators have been repairing the tapestry thread by thread.
If the restorations were done well enough, Cecil reasoned, people would pay to see the result. He has been proved spectactularly right. When he took command in1960, about 63,000 visitors a year were paying $2.40 each for a brief tour of a few rooms and the gardens. It was slow going at first., bu9t by 1968 he turned a profit of $16.34; the tide was turning his way. It soon became a tidal wave. By 1990t the self-guided tour, comprising 85 rooms and the landscaped grounds and taking at least several hours to complete, attracted 718,000 visitors paying $19.95 to get in. [In 2006, they are paying up to $45.] Though it has a payroll of almost $9 million, Biltmore receives not a cent in subsidies, pays its property taxes like any other house in North Carolina.
There are visitors who grouse that nowhere in the world are people charged so much just to visit somebody's private home. Why, they say, then visit a Vanderbilt house on the Hudson, with a Roosevelt house thrown in, for less than a tenth as much. Yes, says Cecil, but it takes heaps of tax money to keep those price down. Whereas here at Biltmore you get exactly what you pay for. And there is so much to pay for: Chauncey Beadle's azaleas, the Dürer prints, the Japanese swords, the chess set of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Boldini portrait of Edith Vanderbilt - a bravura rendering of a swirling shawl in which the lady's face seems only an afterthought - the old chests and modern bathtubs - the stables where you can lunch in Hunt-designed stalls exactly where the Vanderbilts horses once bedded down in luxury. In the dairy barn turned winery, you can sample Biltmore's own quality Chardonnay and champagne. And of course there is the three=mile-long road through Olmsted's unnatural "natural forest." By the time they are through it all, most visitors have concluded that they got a bargain.
Biltmore fans claim the place is way more satisfying than, say, Disneyland. The only grand house they see there, is Sleeping Beauty's caste, and even the most unsophisticated visitors know the Sleeping Beauty lived only in fairy tale. But everything in Biltmore is real. This was the house of flesh-and-blood Vanderbilts, people just like you and me except that they could afford to buy pretty much everything they needed or wanted, people who sat in those carved chairs, chalked those billiard cues, watched wild boar turning on those spits. For many the most rewarding part of the whole experience of the visit is not the great rooms filled with brocade and portraits, but for an optional fee (for $10) an Upstairs Downstairs look at the machinery that made life on this scale possible: the laundry rooms, the drying room, the ironing room, the sewing room where the sheets and curtains were mended, the kitchens with their giant ovens, the steam furnace for central heating, the 105 water valves, the electric call-boxes for the servants, the parlor where the ladies' maid could knit and gossip while on call.
Visitors love it all. At most historic landmarks you are apt to see a sullen, dutiful look in the crowds: this is what teacher ordered. At Biltmore the characteristic look is a picknicker's smile. For almost three quarters of a million satisfied tourists every year, George Vanderbilt's Patagonian palace has become a place of comfort and relaxation, a dream house next door,
Smithsonian Magazine September 1992
© 1992 Robert Wernick