Biltmore owner’s lasting legacy
"He had the foresight to do what everyone thought was impossible."
The Gilded Age in the United States generally referred to the post-Civil War period from the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, when vast industrial fortunes led to lavish lifestyles for those relatively families. Newport, Rhode Island came to be seen as the most fashionable resort for many wealthy industrialists, with such “summer cottages” as The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliff, The Elms, and others. Eventually, as Henry Flagler extended the railroad down the Atlantic coast of Florida, St. Augustine became a winter destination with the opening in
1888 of the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), before the winter resorts farther south at Palm Beach, Miami Beach, and the Florida Keys became popular.
But what transformed the economic and social dynamics that effectively brought the Gilded Age to an end? And what became of those summer cottages? Many were demolished, others were preserved as historic house museums in the early days of US efforts in historic preservation, and yet still a few of them are still available for sale as private homes today. One of the most storied historic house museums can be found at what was once known as the largest private residence in America.
The Vanderbilt family built opulent mansions in New York City, Newport, and the Hudson River Valley. But one Vanderbilt chose a small town in the mountains of North Carolina for his extravagant home. Asheville had long been a favorite destination for its scenery and climate, both of which attracted George Washington Vanderbilt II (youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt and grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) to select Asheville as the location for his summer state.
Construction on Biltmore began in 1889 and involved the establishment of Biltmore Village with its own railroad. The estate comprised 150,000 acres of mostly forested land for which landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was hired to design and convert to a working estate. (Much of the acreage was sold in 1914 to the federal government and became Pisgah National Forest). The house itself—nearly 180,000 square feet—was completed in 1895.
Edith Vanderbilt (widow of George upon his death in 1914) inherited the house and continued to reside there until the marriage of their daughter Cornelia to John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924. Cornelia opened Biltmore to the public in 1930 as one of the earliest historic house museums in the United States while she continued to use it as a residence. Upon her divorce from Cecil in 1934, she moved out of the house for good and the Cecil’s continued to operate Biltmore as a house museum while continuing to reside there.
By 1956, the Cecil family no longer lived at Biltmore but continued to run it as an historic house museum. In 1960, Cornelia’s son William A.V. Cecil, Sr. returned to Biltmore to co-manage the house and estate with his brother as a publicly available tourist attraction. It since became one of the most successful such enterprises in the country.
William Cecil’s recent death leaves a lasting legacy, not only of the architectural splendor of Biltmore but also for its role as an innovative house museum. (The 2006 photo of Biltmore by JcPollock is shared here under CC BY-SA 3.0)
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