This book is a behind the scenes look at how Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville went from a home to a historic attraction. I like to think I witnessed this from the outside and now know some about the inside story. The house has gone from a white elephant to the privately owned historic landmark it is today with a viable company centered around it. What I didn’t know were the financial and ideological struggles that went on to save the Lady on the Hill.
For someone like me who wants to know the real story behind things this book is a must read if you have seen Biltmore. I don’t think it would mean as much if you hadn’t seen Biltmore and let the awesomeness of the home work its magic on you. To see world treasures and understand what the family tried to do to help the area as well as how they differed from other families in the Gilded Age I think has to first be rooted in an appreciation of the house and its contents. Once you have a notion of that, this book will fill in the spaces of how we almost lost the treasure more than once. Also it gives you a better idea of the masters and mistresses of Biltmore over the years.
I’ve always wondered why the daughter of George Vanderbilt, Cornelia, left her husband and two young boys in 1937 never to return to the US or them. I had hoped the book would shine some answers on the question but it did not. It stayed firmly focused on the house, only mentioning once the fear that the trust she had set up to manage the estate until her boys came of age would force the sale of the home and contents. Needless to say that was adverted.
What I did learn from the book was the efforts Edith, George’s wife, went to in order to keep the estate for her daughter and later to keep it for her grandsons. She was a major force in North Carolina industry and due to bad fortune not mismanagement lost the wonderful industry she created from the estate. Inspired by George’s vision of the estate being a source of employment for the locals, a self sustaining agricultural estate, and a place of modernizing horticulture she built industries that were supporting the estate.
First was the sell of plants mostly cultivated plants native to the area for decorative planting. It is from these efforts we have vast varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons now used in landscaping across the country today. The Biltmore Greenhouses annual catalogue was a hard bound book that gave such excellent illustrations and descriptions of native plants that it was used as a text book in native horticulture at several Universities at the time. However the green houses were down on the French Broad River and went a horrible flood came they were wiped out.
Also destroyed in that flood were two industries dear to Edith’s heart. Her Biltmore furniture and homespun manufacturing. She had worked hard to train artisans to make furniture worthy of homes like Biltmore from local woods. She also was a proponent of cloth making both wool and linen from sheep and flax grown on the estate. She had designers of the day make her suits and gowns from the fabric. She wore them to the ‘season’ in New York and Biltmore Homespun became the fashionable rage. Sadly the shops for these were destroyed too in the flood.
Even more depressing was the Biltmore Village flooded in minutes killing many. Edith donated caskets, flowers, and support to families devastated by the flood, loss of loved ones, loss of homes, and loss of jobs. What wasn’t known then was the family was financially strapped and the industries that were just destroyed were the ones that were not only saving the community but the family.
The years went on and Edith remarried turning her attention to her new husband and his political career. Her lawyer was left managing the estate while her grandsons were overseas getting their education. Their father a British aristocrat Mr. Cecil turned out not to be an estate manager but rather a benign presence on the estate that withdrew to ever smaller sections of the decaying home, hiding during the time tourist were let into his home. Over the following years various industries buoyed the Estate but none lasted forever. There was the dairy, the restoration company (world renowned did many major restorations in the USA), wine (turns out the ground isn’t great for grapes), just to name a few.
In 1977 Cornelia died and her sons split the estate. One took the dairy which he eventually sold to Pet Dairy that eventually became part of the JM Smucker company and what was of the dairy at Biltmore is now gone. The other took the house and began a campaign to not only make it profitable but restore it to his grandfather’s vision.
There were challenges ahead like the interstate coming through the estate. An airport threat taking land near the house by eminent domain. Learning to balance the needed business side with the preservation, restoration, and conservation of such treasures. However it was done and he proudly announced not only the first year the house was self sustaining but the first year it turned a profit, albeit under $20 profit for the year but a profit none the less.
When the 100 anniversary celebration came the William Cecil had restored the home, made it self sustaining. Had introduced the concept of private preservation for the public enrichment, and done it all without a penny of public assistance. He had opened all of the house to tours and established an archive and curation to document what the house held as well as records about the home and contents. At that dinner to everyone’s surprise including Bill Cecil Jr. he turned the whole company over to his son and retired.
Today Bill runs the estate for his father William who still lives in Asheville and visits his property. Bill’s son and daughter are interested in the estate both the business and the conservation/preservation/documentation. It is still a privately owned, privately run home and business. However the concern now is inheritance tax. Bill Jr couldn’t pay the tax on such a home whose last tax evaluation was $37million for the home without contents and $67million for the land it sits upon. Then toss in the things like Napoleon’s chess set, one of three complete Durer prints of the Emperor Maximillian’s family tree, some Rembrandt originals and other classical masters… along with many one of a kind treasures from first print books to murals from Venice Italy. All these things are open to public viewing and academic research while paying taxes annually and not taking a penny of public funding. His argument is that service should be worth some consideration in inheritance tax. They did store the nation’s art treasures at Biltmore for no charge during WWII too.
No matter how you feel about the inheritance issue today the book is well worth the read. It is an amazing home with an amazing story.