The Biltmore rests within an 8,000-acre estate. This house, designed to resemble a French chateau and serve as George Vanderbilt’s home, contains 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. Since 1895, it has been an object of ridicule and awe, a shrine to greed, and a beacon of hope for strivers after the American Dream.
Walking through the house took about 90 minutes. The tour started near a banquet hall with “a seven-story high ceiling and Flemish tapestries from the 1500s” that can seat 38 people at its main table and ended near private bedrooms for the 30-to-35 servants who ate “three meals a day.” All servants, the guidebook says, had “a comfortably furnished, heated, private room – most uncommon for the period.” The rooms actually did look comfortable.
My mind struggles to comprehend this house’s meaning. Was it intended as a palace for American aristocrats or a gesture of contempt toward other countries’ pureblooded aristocrats? Was it the product of a grand vision or delusion, or a piece in a bored game of sibling rivalry?
How many of us remember what Cornelius Vanderbilt accomplished to build this family’s fortune? Does this massive house stand as a warning to a selfish or spendthrift United States?
I know the answer to the first question (shipping, railroads), and not the second. I believe, though, that a social order where one family requires a house that holds 43 bathrooms is never going to be sustainable over the long haul.
Descendants of the Vanderbilt family still own the house, which has been open for tourism since 1930. They describe their work in language about historic preservation and honoring their ancestors. These are admirable goals.
Ironies abound. Cornelius Vanderbilt built a fortune of $105 million, or about $2.26 billion in today’s dollars. He gave a university $1 million, and the university renamed itself after him. Then his descendants spent so profligately that, according to some sources, a century later zero millionaires existed among the scores of surviving family members. I ordered a copy of Arthur T. Vanderbilt II’s Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt solely to learn how they managed to accomplish that feat.
Many of the Biltmore’s smaller rooms are closed to the public. A staff member told me that these rooms weren’t restored or were used for storage. Up one blocked staircase, I glimpsed an interior wall of one room, noticing damaged and torn wallpaper.
The early death of George Vanderbilt was one of many steps along the road of the family’s decline. According to the guidebook, he died in 1914 because of “complications from an appendectomy.”
The family runs a massive tourist operation at the Biltmore to earn money to maintain the estate, restore various rooms to their original states and, presumably, to rebuild the family fortune. According to the Biltmore’s guidebook, this operation provides jobs for 1,800 employees.
Surely this country would be stronger if those 1,800 were making or producing something new rather than maintaining one family’s cultural artifact. On the other hand, and whatever the family’s motivation, those jobs are real.
The extravagantly rich, it is true, have more money than the rest of the 99 percent, or – as in the Vanderbilt case – at least they do for a short time. But visiting the Biltmore reminded me that reality simply is much more complicated than a “the 1 percent” versus “the 99 percent” narrative allows for.
Here’s the interesting question: Why do so many of the so-called 99 percent visit the Biltmore?
Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.