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  • Sophia DePaul, AIT

Christmas at Biltmore and the Fall of an American Dynasty

Biltmore Manor is the largest private residence in America as well as a National Historic Landmark. This 250-room French Renaissance chateau is situated on an 8,000 acre estate in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. It features Antler Hill Village, a winery, gardens and grounds, and places to stay on the property (a hotel, inn, and historic cottages). This winter, Biltmore Manor opens its doors for ‘Christmas at Biltmore,’ featuring wreaths, garlands, and ‘the sparkle of thousands of ornaments’. Ticket prices range from a mere $114-$344 for access to the village, estate, tours, and winery. The overnight stay options feature “world-class dining and luxurious spa treatments ... a full concierge staff dedicated to the fulfillment of special requests, [and] … exceptional amenities recognized by AAA, Forbes Travel Guide.” Activities include exploring “miles of walking, hiking, and biking trails, and acres of gardens” as well as engaging in “falconry, horseback riding, and sporting clays.” The words “luxury,” “exclusive,” and “adventure” are used very generously throughout the Biltmore website descriptions. The Biltmore marketing team wants you to picture this: You wake up in your luxury suite at the Inn and step outside to “relax in an adirondack and take in sweeping panoramic views of the estate”― you’re practically George Vanderbilt for the day. In more concise terms, Biltmore Manor is the Disney World of America’s old money.

This $300 million estate was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II, a member of the prominent Vanderbilt family, whose fortune was made by business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1860’s. Cornelius started the family business by borrowing $100 from his mother and operating a passenger boat on Staten Island in 1810. From there, he went on to build the railroad empire New York Central, giving him a monopoly on all rail service in and out of New York City as well as an accompanying steamboat empire. Cornelius started by creating and growing his own steamship company in the 1830’s. He gained control of the traffic on the Hudson River by cutting fares and offering new luxury on his ships. It was so difficult to compete with his company that Cornelius’ competitors paid him large sums of money to move his business. Then, by 1860, Vanderbilt bought up enough stock to control the New York and Harlem Railroad. He went on to acquire the Hudson River Railroad, New York Central Railroad, Lake Shore, and Michigan Southern Railroad (1873). These two industrial empires, which inspired numerous Americans to push for stronger antitrust laws, helped him build his net worth to about 185 billion (in today’s dollars) and to found Vanderbilt University. In the Gilded Age, the late 19th century era of rapid economic growth, the Vanderbilt family occupied themselves with philanthropic activities, art collecting, hobnobbing with high society, and purchasing a string of houses in Newport, Rhode Island (including The Breakers, another mansions) and 10 more mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

However, reckless spending and unsuited heirs, as well as the division of assets amongst descendants, led to the decline of the Vanderbilt family fortune. Third generation William Kissam Vanderbilt, for example, donated $1 million to build tenement houses in New York City and hundreds of thousands of dollars to Columbia University, the YMCA, the Vanderbilt Clinic, and Vanderbilt University. While this generation marked the end of growing the Vanderbilt family fortune, subsequent generations were no better. In the fourth generation, Cornelius Vanderbilt III spent vast sums on maintaining a high society appearance, and his brother Reginald Claypool Vanderbilt was an avid gambler and playboy. Reginald Vanderbilt is grandfather to current CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, who said on Howard Stern’s radio show, “My mom's made clear to me that there's no trust fund.”

Today, Vanderbilt Manor and estate is currently the property of Bill Cecil Jr, the current CEO of Biltmore Company and George Washington Vanderbilt’s grandson. The Biltmore Company is the firm in charge of managing Biltmore estate, and it’s subsidiary, Biltmore Estate Wine Company. The Vanderbilt family opened the estate to public tourism in 1930 in an attempt to generate enough income to preserve the estate in the Great Depression. In the 2000’s, the estate opened it’s overnight stay options and Antler Hill Village shopping center to “offer guests a personal taste of Vanderbilt hospitality,” in other words, to bring in more revenue.

The Vanderbilt family, once a symbol of effortless class and entitlement, are now forced to get their hands dirty in order to milk a few million dollars out of their last remaining cash cow. So while hundreds of tourists admire the 16th century tapestries, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent art, and 70-foot high ceilings this winter, not all will realize that they are standing in one of the sad remnants of America’s fallen royalty.

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