Back in the days before I retired and worked at a “real job” I built homes for a living. It was a career that suited me perfectly as it allowed me to be outside and doing as opposed to inside and sitting. Within a period of approximately 20 years, I built and sold 125 houses that ranged in size from 2,000 to 3,500 square feet primarily for buyers who were purchasing their second home.
Throughout those days and continuing into the present, I loved looking through houses. When Helen (adorable wife) and I would attend conventions of the National Association of Home Builders we would always sign up for the home tours offered each year. After I left the building business, I took a part-time job inspecting foreclosed homes for HUD. This job was probably the most fun I ever had while working.
Therefore, I find myself somewhat surprised that, until recently, I had never visited Biltmore House, the largest private residence ever constructed in America. One would think that this massive structure, located in nearby Asheville, NC, would have lured me long before now for a tour of both the home and gardens. Except for the fact that I don’t like crowds, I don’t have a good excuse…it just never happened.
When we began planning the trip we named “Bertha and the Beach” which called for a stopover in Asheville to visit our friends Sally and Bill, Helen was adamant that we book a tour of the Biltmore House. Once again, thinking about the crowds, I was a bit reluctant and put up mild resistance, but eventually relented and gave the go ahead. As usual, Helen made the right call. The experience was fascinating and as much as I enjoyed learning about the construction details and looking over the furnishings, fixtures, and beautiful artwork found throughout this incredible structure, I most enjoyed just imagining what it would be like to live there.
Just imagine that you are George Vanderbilt, son of the wealthiest man in America and had just inherited 13 million dollars in 1885 and were 23 years old. (That 13 million would be about 1.8 billion today). As George, a somewhat shy and introverted young man who never really had a job, you travel to Asheville, NC in 1888 with your mother and fall in love with the area. Over the next few months, you decide that you will use your wealth to build a 135,000-square foot French-style Chateau to have a place to live when you are not living in your other homes in Maine or Newport, RI.
Next, you begin to acquire 125,000 rugged acres in the Asheville countryside with a view of the Blue Ridge mountains and start a construction project that will last nearly six years and require over 700 workers. (Most of my homes took three to six months to complete with about five people on the site at any one time). Now imagine that it is 1895 and you move into a 250-room home with 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms with hot running water, electricity, an indoor swimming pool, a staff of hundreds…and you are single and worth millions.
Every morning you wake up to put on the clothes laid out for you by your personal valet, the first of several clothing changes that day, and either eat breakfast in your bedroom or have it served to you in the Breakfast Room.
After breakfast (and another change of clothes) you ride over a portion of your 125,000 acres and check out some of the three million plants that were ordered by Frederick Olmstead, the landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City. Next, it would be time for afternoon tea served on the Loggia (think big concrete deck) where you could either read or take in the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond the landscaped acreage.
At the end of this busy day, it would be time to dress once again for an evening with the distinguished guests who traveled from the northeast to visit Biltmore and the North Carolina countryside. Some of the guests will stay at Biltmore for a few days of horseback riding or hunting, but tonight they will be seated at a table for 38 in the banquet hall for a seven or eight-course dinner of wild turkey and vegetables grown in the Biltmore garden. Three or so hours later the guests will retire to the music room for entertainment or perhaps the gentlemen will follow George to the Bachelor Hall to view his gun collection while they sip brandy just before playing billiards in the billiards room. As I said above…It’s fun to think about.
Understandably, George eventually concluded that he needed someone to share all this excitement with and so in 1898, at the age of 33, he married the 25-year-old Edith Dresser and brought her to Biltmore…and gave her a bedroom of her own complete with staff to help her plan the social engagements. This marriage produced one daughter, Cornelia. As a Vanderbilt family, this idyllic lifestyle would continue for sixteen more years until George passed away in 1914 at age 51.
At the end of our tour, I remember thinking that it would be easy for some to have the opinion that George Vanderbilt was just some rich kid who inherited family money and spent it lavishly without ever doing much to earn it. I dismissed that opinion quickly. I contend that George, and his family that followed, did much to earn the money after they received it. George spent years researching the design and the details before he turned the soil. He gave jobs to hundreds of unemployed North Carolinians, many of them African American. He created the first forestry school in the United States. Some of the original land for Biltmore is now the Pisgah National Forest and thereby preserved forever. Today, Biltmore attracts a million and a half visitors a year and contributes 140 million dollars to the local economy and employs 1,854 hard-working people. I would say that Mr. Vanderbilt justified his inheritance and multiplied it many times over.
Now, were I to find myself in George’s shoes…Vast riches, single, youthful, curious, able to build a castle, bring a young bride in after it was built (advantage George), entertain famous people from all over the world, leave a legacy for generations to admire…does that have any appeal?
Once again, I imagine myself as George probably did in 1889 looking over acres of barren red soil covered in patches of ugly briars. Knowing how it all turned out, I probably would find myself looking up with a big grin proclaiming loudly “Please throw me in that briar patch”!
Well done, George. We truly enjoyed Easin’ Along with you on this trip.