Book Review of The Last Castle, the Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
About the Author Denise Kiernan
I recommended The Last Castle to our book club because I had read Kiernan's previous book The Girls of Atomic City and had enjoyed the story of their contributions to creating the fuel for the Manhattan Project bomb in secrecy in the Tennessee Hills. Most times before I read a non-fiction book, I go on-line to see what other materials the author has written and as a curiosity what might have led to their choice of subject material. In reading Denise's biography, she may have written about the Biltmore Mansion because she lives nearby in Ashville Carolina. I think the old admonition of writing teachers everywhere is to write about subjects you know is still true. While The Last Castle would have the most appeal to those who love history, Denise has made it readable history by not only telling about the construction of the Biltmore and the creation of the grounds and the furnishings of the house, but by crediting the vision good taste of George Washington Vanderbilt. Some of the most amazing parts of the book center on the struggles of Edith Vanderbilt, George's wife, to keep the Biltmore running after George died. Denise has written other books as a co-author with her husband Joseph D'Agnese and she is a frequent speaker as well as promoting her writing workshops.
How Did George Washington Vanderbilt Get the Fortune to Build the Biltmore?
The family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt, grew up on a farm in New York and saved enough money to buy a "ramshackle boat" for $100 to ferry people from Staten Island to Manhattan. The one boat business grew into several ferry boats, then steamships and then railroads. George's father William was one of Cornelius's sons and since William had proven his ability in business, the bulk of the railroad fortune was passed to him. George's older brothers were involved in the family railroad business, but George was content to read and study. He purchased several small properties in the East as investments. During a quest for a place to build a home to avoid the harsh winters of New York and healthier air, he discovered what he referred to as "The Promised Land." when he discovered land near Ashville, North Carolina. Since George had inherited monies from both his grandfather and father, George was able to build the house of his dreams at an approximate cost of 1.6 million which translates to approximately 1.2 billion today.
George Made Some Wise Choices
Once his idea of Bilmore was formulated, George began systematically purchasing the parcels of land around the area where the home was to be built. He selected Robert Morris Hunt for the architect whose grand scale projects were already well known. He also had selected Frederick Law Olmisted who had developed some impressive city parks, including Central Park, to develop the forests, and landscaping around Biltmore.
The years that George had spent reading, studying and traveling had given him excellent taste in furnishings, art and rare books. Unlike many of his peers in the Guilded Age, George had refinement and great taste. One rather funny detail in the book is that George decides that if Biltmore is meant to resemble one of the fine castles of Europe with a surrounding village, then he should have a family crest. He chooses acorns to be designed into a family crest for the Biltmore
Through friends, he met Edith Dressler on an Ocean voyage. He married Edith on June 2nd of 1898 in Paris. One criticism of The Last Castle is that there isn't much in the book about their marital relationship. The many trips they took together are noted. Edith and George begin establishing traditions at the Biltmore and their visitors include family, friends and many of the famous artists and writers and other famous of the day. Their only daughter, Cornelia was born on August 22, 1900 and she grew up playing with the other children in the area..
The Biltmore Continued to Evolve
When the Vanderbilts moved into the Biltmore, the house was far from finished and the landscaping was just beginning to take root. After the birth of Cornelia, Edith began an Arts & Crafts workshop to help the townspeople develop skills to boost their income. They continued to support schools and charities in Ashville and undertook the building of a very elaborate church. A farm was developed at first to create income to offset the expenses of the home, but since location was so remote, it was impractical to ship products, but it did provide meat and dairy for the home and townspeople. As new technology developed, the Biltmore installed it. With the blessings of the family, Olmstead developed the first school of American Forestry on the property in 1898. Of course, even life in a "castle" has its troubles. Troubles with family members, troubles with friends and then financial troubles beginning with the Panic of 1907, and how to find ways to cut expenses. The family began closing the home more often and traveling for months at a time. Then George died in 1914 at the age of 51.
Edith's Role in Biltmore's Legacy
After George passed, Edith became even more determined to safeguard George's legacy. George's will was very detailed on how his estate would be divided and how the properties would be managed, but the Biltmore and farm was becoming a liability, so Edith began selling off the forest surrounding their home and new income tax laws were being put into place. Meanwhile the roles for women kept expanding and Edith received awards for her role in North Carolina agriculture and became head of their state fair. Cornelia became the first bride at Biltmore, and her son became the first baby to be born at Biltmore. Her life was to take a wild turn, during the jazz age and the new freedoms of the 1920s and after her second son was born Cornelia sought a divorce. The solution to keep the Biltmore going during the Great Depression was to open the house and grounds to the public. Edith remarried Senator Peter Gerry and turned her attention to social concerns
The Biltmore Estate Today
After a rather wild period, Cordelia re-married twice. In her last marriage, Cordelia was 72 and her groom was 46 which would have caused some gossip, but like her mother Edith and her father George she continued to share the Vanderbuilt fortune. In the epilogue in the book, the reader discovers a number of facts about the Biltmore today including the fact that it is still privately owned by the Cecil family, the descendants of George and Edith. Two hotels were built on the estate, and the tours that number about 700,000 a year, the gift shop, the winery, the restaurants and events held there continue to turn a profit. One reason that there isn't much personal history about George and Edith and they remain a mystery to historians is that Edith burned her letters and papers, and George was very private. The Last Castle has a section of extensive notes and a wonderful index.
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