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.