For most visitors to Asheville, North Carolina, a trip to Biltmore is a mandatory excursion. George Washington Vanderbilt’s vast mansion, still the largest privately owned house in the United States, is located around 5 miles south of the city, surrounded by an 8,000-acre estate. Built between 1889 and 1895, and modeled primarily on the Château du Blois in France’s Loire Valley, it contains 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms and is an embodiment of the Gilded Age in pale golden limestone.
The patriarch of the Vanderbilt dynasty was George’s grandfather, Cornelius, who began his legendary business career running a ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island. So great was his determination, the other ferryboat captains took to calling him “the Commodore,” a nickname that was to prove indelible. From ferries, he progressed to steamships, and then to railroads, most famously the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, for which he constructed the Grand Central Depot, the precursor to Grand Central Terminal.
At the time of his death in 1877, Vanderbilt had an estimated fortune of $105 million (multiple billions in present-day dollars), 95 percent of which he left to his son, William, and through him to his four grandsons. Cornelius may have been a prodigious builder of wealth, but his architectural ambitions were comparatively modest. Generations of his offspring would prove far less reticent.
It was the beauty of the landscape at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains that motivated George Washington Vanderbilt to begin work on his “little mountain escape,” a summer home that would provide a base from which to visit his mother who lived nearby. Today, the receding forested ridges visible from Biltmore remain exactly as Vanderbilt would have seen them.
Biltmore’s scale and opulence draws no fewer than 1.7 million visitors a year, who come to see its immense salons, medieval tapestries and an art collection that contains works by Renoir and Whistler, as well as six portraits by John Singer Sargent. (Two of these depict Biltmore’s architect Richard Morris Hunt and its landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Both are prominently displayed, which struck me as a charming and unexpected acknowledgment by Vanderbilt of the talents of his employees.) In the summer months, tickets to Biltmore can be hard to come by — the concierge at The Inn on Biltmore Estate is one privileged source — and the crowds can be oppressive. During our recent visit, the pandemic had ensured that there were fewer visitors than normal, but even so, we had to queue for 10 minutes or so at the main entrance. Areas “below stairs” such as the kitchens, storerooms and servants’ quarters are less popular, and it was possible to wander through them at a leisurely pace. I was especially intrigued by the basement swimming pool and indoor bowling alley.
From the 1870s until the 1920s, various scions of the Vanderbilt family built dozens of mansions and palaces, primarily in New York and on the East Coast. But at the end of World War II, extravagant consumption as well as the declining profitability of the railroad business had eroded the family’s fortunes. By 1947, virtually all of their New York homes — which had once included no fewer than 10 mansions on Fifth Avenue — had been demolished.
Elsewhere, however, it is possible to visit Vanderbilt properties that still serve as powerful reminders of the family’s prodigious wealth. It was the architect of Biltmore, Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, the largest of the city’s so-called “cottages,” for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The 70-room Renaissance Revival-style mansion was completed in 1895, and it stands on a 13-acre clifftop estate overlooking the Atlantic. Around 450,000 visitors a year come to see its immense Great Hall; the Library, with its fireplace from the 16th-century Château d’Arnay-le-Duc in Burgundy; and the Music Room, with its Second Empire ormolu-mounted mahogany piano and coffered ceiling lined with silver and gold. Today, the Breakers is owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County and is open year-round.
A mile to the south, the 50-room Marble House, also the work of Richard Morris Hunt, was constructed between 1888 and 1892 for William Kissam Vanderbilt, another of Commodore Vanderbilt’s grandsons. The design was inspired by the Petit Trianon at the Palace of Versailles. The mansion cost $11 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars), of which $7 million was spent on American, Italian and African marble. The two-story Stair Hall features a grand staircase of yellow Siena marble, with railings based on those at Versailles, while the Grand Salon has walls with wood and gold gilt panels inspired by the ones adorning the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre. The Dining Room boasts pink Numidian (North African) marble capitals, and its fireplace is a replica of the one in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles. The Marble House is also overseen by the Preservation Society.
Rather than a view of the Atlantic, Frederick William Vanderbilt opted for one of the Hudson River. Hyde Park, a 54-room Beaux Arts mansion on a 600-acre estate (now more prosaically known as the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site), was constructed between 1896 and 1899 by the immensely influential New York architecture firm of McKim, Mead & White. (Its commissions included the former Pennsylvania Station, the Brooklyn Museum and the main campus of Columbia University.) Aside from its grand interiors, visitors come to see the property’s formal Italianate gardens. Two miles to the south is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Springwood estate (now officially the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site). From 1941 to 1943, President Roosevelt’s Secret Service bodyguards were housed in the basement and service areas of the Vanderbilt mansion, while some of the president’s friends and White House staff would occasionally stay in its main bedrooms. After Frederick’s death in 1938, Hyde Park and its contents were donated to the National Park Service.
William K. Vanderbilt II, a great-grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, had three ruling passions: racehorses, fast cars and yachts. Although nominally employed at the family’s New York Central Railroad offices at Grand Central Terminal, he devoted much of his life to pleasure, especially the pleasure of travel. Wandering the world aboard his yacht, he acquired huge collections of marine specimens and ethnographic objects, which are now displayed in the Vanderbilt Museum at his mansion, Eagle’s Nest, in Centerport, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island. The Spanish Revival house is set on a 43-acre estate and was built by Warren & Wetmore, the architecture firm responsible for the design of Grand Central Terminal. In 1925, Vanderbilt traded his 265-foot yacht, Eagle, plus $1 million, for 7-acre Fisher Island off South Beach, Miami. Its previous owner, Carl G. Fisher, a fellow automobile enthusiast, is considered one of the founding fathers of the South Florida real estate business. Today, Fisher Island is an Andrew Harper-recommended hotel. On his death in 1944, Vanderbilt donated his Eagle’s Nest estate to Suffolk County, which maintains the property to this day.