Cornelius Vanderbilt was a man who knew how to do two things really well:
Grow an impressive set of mutton chops and make an obscene amount of money in railroads and shipping.
Vanderbilt began his working life ferrying passengers between Manhattan and Staten Island in the early 1800s on a boat he bought with $100 he borrowed from his mother.
Commodore Vanderbilt – as he was called by the other nearby captains – married his first cousin Sophia at the age of 19. The couple had 13 children.
Okay, there were three things Commodore Vanderbilt knew how to do really well.
Vanderbilt built a massive fortune in steamships and then moved into the rail.
By the time Sophia died in 1868 after 55 years of marriage, the Vanderbilts were among the wealthiest and most powerful families in the world.
This is the world Cornelius’s grandson George Vanderbilt was born into. A world of extreme wealth and decadence.
And after Cornelius married another cousin, this one the improbably named socialite Frank Armstrong, a world of extreme philanthropy.
If we include marrying cousins, we’re up to four things Cornelius was good at.
George was the youngest child of William Henry Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s oldest son and fellow mutton chop aficionado.
William – who went by Billy – inherited $100 million when his father died and had doubled that fortune by the time of his death nine years later.
What family built the Biltmore Estate?
Two years later, as the youngest of nine, George first came to Asheville, North Carolina.
After a second visit – this one in 1888 – he began purchasing land in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
His vision was to create America’s answer to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley in France. Construction began in 1889 on the massive 250-room French Renaissance chateau.
An entire community of craftspeople came together to build what is believed to be America’s largest home. The construction spanned six years.
Not being burdened by things such as worrying about making a living, George was free to live the life of a country gentleman.
His vision was that Biltmore would be self-sustaining and he threw himself into hobbies such as horticulture and agriscience.
He oversaw experiments in scientific farming, animal bloodline breeding and forestry.
He married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898. The couple’s only child was born two years later, the same year construction of the main dairy and horse barn began.
George died when his daughter Cornelia was only 13, following complications from an appendectomy in Washington D.C.
The home spans 175,000 square feet, which is more than four acres of floor space.
It includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, an indoor pool and a bowling alley.
The original size of Biltmore was about 125,000 acres, but part of the property was later sold to the federal government to create the Pisgah National Forest.
How are the Cecils related to the Vanderbilts?
Cornelia married a British aristocrat named John Cecil in 1924. The Cecils had a pair of sons, George and William.
And in 1930 – due to the depression – the Biltmore house was opened to the public for the first time.
Shortly after that, George’s daughter got bored with life at the Biltmore and moved without her husband to New York.
There she began studying art before moving to Paris where she divorced John Cecil, dyed her hair pink and took to calling herself Nilcha.
She never returned to the Biltmore or the United States again.
She went on to live her best life, marrying Captain Vivian Francis Bulkeley-Johnson who was a hero of the first World War.
After the captain’s death in 1968, she married a man 26 years her junior named Bill Goodsir. They met and fell in love when he served as her waiter.
While Cornelia was off doing her thing, the Cecils ran her father’s dream home.
On her passing, Biltmore fell to George and Bill. The elder son chose the majority of the land and the more profitable – at the time – dairy farm leaving the house and grounds to Bill.
Over the years, under the leadership of the Cecils, Biltmore has pursued George’s vision of sustainability while adding the winery, the Inn and Antler Hill Village along the way.
What family owns Biltmore Estate?
Today, the Cecil family remains at the helm of the Biltmore Estate. William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil Jr – who goes by Bill – is president and CEO.
“Biltmore is still family-owned, and we are still passionate about our mission of preservation through self-sufficiency – a philosophy embraced before the first stone was ever placed,” he says on the Biltmore website.
“We remain self-sustaining through innovation, creative thinking, and listening to guests who continue to tell us they want more ways to connect with Biltmore.”
Do any Vanderbilts still live at Biltmore?
The Vanderbilt family stopped residing in the Biltmore mansion in the 1950s.
However, the Biltmore company remains an essential part of the region and brings in millions of visitors each year.
The mansion also brings in millions in tourist dollars and offers substantial employment nearby. To learn more about visiting Biltmore, visit their website.
Have you visited Biltmore Mansion? Let us know in the comments!
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