Biltmore House, America’s Original McMansion


The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home

The Biltmore House, circa 1900.CreditJohn H. Tarbell/Library of Congress

The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home
By Denise Kiernan
Illustrated. 388 pp. Touchstone. $28.

Three years ago, I toured Biltmore House, the 175,000-square-foot mansion in Asheville, N.C., that, on completion in 1895, became America’s largest private home. I found the labyrinth of rooms and architectural detail both intimidating and soulless. I recall thinking that, had I been alive and deemed suitable to merit an invitation in its heyday, I would have preferred one of the 66 bedrooms designated for the servants, in which I’d be less likely to get lost.

In “The Last Castle,” Denise Kiernan tries to reveal the answer to what is surely the greatest mystery for any of Biltmore’s million annual visitors: Who, exactly, conceived of such a huge undertaking? What kind of bachelor really wanted to inhabit a 250-room house, replete with an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley?

Kiernan hangs her dense narrative on a potential love story featuring an unlikely lead. George Washington Vanderbilt was the wealthiest grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the cunning entrepreneur nicknamed Commodore because he got his start undercutting New York ferry services, an enterprise he expanded into a network of steamships and railways. George’s father, William, inherited the Commodore’s nose for business and doubled his $90 million inheritance within six years, accumulating what Kiernan describes as the “greatest fortune in America, very possibly in the world.”


All eyes, inevitably, are on young George from the first chapter of “The Last Castle,” but he never lives up to our expectations, no matter how hard the author tries. Kiernan, who lives in Asheville, recounts her difficulty in finding original sources that reveal much about Vanderbilt. But, one wonders, even if all his letters had been kept, would he have been worth her while?

An inheritor who never worked, Vanderbilt lived with and was inseparable from his mother, Maria. Only upon her death, in 1896, did her son, then 34, half-heartedly consider finding a wife. His friend William Bradhurst Osgood Field (whom I find the book’s most entertaining character) warns in exasperation to his mother while Vanderbilt is courting the New York blue blood Edith Dresser: “I think his attachment, in whatever quarter it might lie, would be on a basis of business, as the rest hardly comes into his constitution.”

While single, Vanderbilt had decided to outdo all his friends on the so-called Four Hundred — the Gilded Age’s equivalent of the 1 percent — by building himself a monster mansion in Asheville, where the air was good for his health. The name Biltmore, it emerges, is a compression of “Bilt,” an ancestral name, and “moor.” Vanderbilt stamped the name not just on his own land but on local institutions like the post office — a gesture that, unsurprisingly, met with “Anti-Biltmore” protests and complaints about “snobbery.” Chiefly, then, the estate was a vanity project, one that turned out to be financially disastrous despite the best efforts of Edith, whom he eventually married and who was central to creating the flourishing artisan business that remains the heart of Asheville today.

Biltmore House survived as a private entity for under 40 years before the 1929 stock market crash put the remaining Vanderbilts’ fortunes in peril. The bulk of the 125,000-acre estate, in which Vanderbilt had experimented with America’s first managed forest, had to be sold off quickly. Cornelia Vanderbilt, George and Edith’s only child, could stand to live in her inheritance for only seven years before the debts and the boredom crushed her. She abandoned her British husband, John Cecil, as well as their two young children, George and William, and headed, ultimately, for England, where she changed her name, married twice more and is buried in the Orkney Islands in an unmarked grave. (Tellingly, the Cecils, not the Vanderbilts, were the ones who found a way to make the estate’s core commercially successful. They are the reason the house is open to the public today.)

Kiernan’s wider lens on the Gilded Age compensates for her protagonists’ insipidness. The book’s vitality lies in the details she reveals about the architects, writers, artists and peers of the Vanderbilts who spent time at Biltmore. A particularly comic but perhaps truthful voice is that of Henry James, who complained, after he had trouble finding a bathroom, that Biltmore was a “colossal heartbreaking house” seemingly built “based on a fundamental ignorance of comfort and wondrous deludedness.”