Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 4, 2014

March 4, 2014: Letters to the editor

Kokomo Tribune

---- — Vanderbilts’ vast, mysterious mansion

George Washington Vanderbilt II died 100 years ago on March 6, 1914. He was the third generation back from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who started the family fortune with steamship vessels for shipping, and later on built a railroad empire. When the commodore’s son, William Henry Vanderbilt, died in 1885, youngest son, George, received $10 million from the estate. With it he created the vast Biltmore estate south of Asheville, N.C.

In 1888 his agents began buying land and amassed 125,000 acres. Construction of the house began in 1890 and went on for five years. Within were 250 rooms, a winding four-story staircase, a library with 22,000 volumes, and a banquet hall with a ceiling 70 feet high. In all, the foundations extended 780 feet from the carriage house on the north end, all the way through to a walled garden on the south side. The home housed 70,000 pieces of art collected by Vanderbilt as he traveled the world. The house was designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt.

The interior also contained a swimming pool, bowling alley and a fitness gym. When the home was completed in 1895, it was entered from the east on the ground level, but a walk through to the west side reveals it is 30 feet down to the ground. The house was as modern as it could be for the time, with electricity, elevators, central heating, telephones, fire alarms and central plumbing — things unheard of at that time.

Around the house were formal gardens laid out by noted landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Farther out were managed forests, a nursery, a dairy operation and other agricultural pursuits. Other construction included farm buildings, miles of roads, and an entire village with a brick church, shops, houses, a school, post office, train station and a hospital. A bachelor when he planned Biltmore house, Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898. A poor businessman, he spent most of his money on his estate, and died at the early age of 51 from complications from an appendectomy operation performed in Washington, D.C., in 1914.

Vanderbilt was a good man. When an estate employee sent his young son out to get a Christmas tree for their home, the boy unknowingly chopped down a prized spruce tree Vanderbilt had growing in his garden. The boy’s father was greatly distressed to learn what his son had done, but when they went to Vanderbilt, he merely told the family to enjoy the tree. The music room, on the other hand, was a mystery. At the back of the great hall, in one of the finest locations in the house, the room was originally never finished. It was closed off and existed as bare brick walls until finally completed in 1976 and put on the tour.

After Vanderbilt’s death, Edith sold much of the land to the U.S. government, and in 1930 opened the estate for tours. Today the estate is owned by George Vanderbilt’s great grandson, William A.V. Cecil, and comprises 8,000 acres. Tours go from the bottom to the top of the great house, and a winery has been established that produces exquisite wines for sale.

Cornelia, the daughter and only child of George and Edith Vanderbilt, married into the Cecil family in 1924, perhaps against her wishes. Two sons were born, then in 1934 she divorced her husband, abandoned her family, the estate, the country, her former life, and moved to England. She married a man much older, then another man much younger, dyed her hair colors like orange and pink, changed her name, and it was said she never saw her mother again, or returned to America until her death in 1976, when her body was placed in the Vanderbilt mausoleum on Staten Island, N.Y.

She was much like the unfinished music room — a mystery.

Jeff Hatton