A Big Empty House?

The East Facade of Biltmore House

Last weekend I took some good friends of mine to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.  I am somewhat of a Biltmore aficionado, so I took this opportunity to show off my stomping grounds and toot my horn of knowledge a bit. 

I had envisioned a lovely, if not chilly, early winter’s day touring the house and grounds.  Mother Nature, on the other hand, had different plans:  a freak snow storm hit Asheville early on Saturday morning, and winds gusted in excess of 40 mph.  The temperature never made it above 35 degrees. 

So we weathered the storm and toured Biltmore House, the largest private residence in the United States.  My friends, who had never seen Biltmore, registered their due fascination with its scale and form, but flagged their impressions with a note of criticism in its opulence, excess, and palatial proporotions, ironically for one man. 

Granted, I am admittedly biased in my affection, and thus do not take lightly any pot-shots at George Vanderbilt‘s unparalleled assembly of art, antiques, and architecture, but I could begin to see their point.  Did George Vanderbilt conceive, and consecrate, Biltmore House as some sort of surrogate to fill a personal, emotional void?  My history knows better–Vanderbilt was a product of his age and class, where such construction plans were the norm—but it does give one food for thought.  I can only hope that the life the Vanderbilts lived there—along with their hundreds of servants—was happy and blissful, if not short-lived.

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Epilogue

Chris’ comment (see separate) got me to thinking more about Vanderbilt’s mentality, and my interpretation thereof–especially in light of my response.  Thus let me say the following:

If I know anything about George Vanderbilt, it is that he was a well-read, well-traveled, bookish, intellectual type who blithely enjoyed the advantages of his (inherited) wealth and social position.  He was indifferent, if not apathetic, toward the pressing social issues of the day (think Progressivism), and I am quite sure he didn’t stay up nights worrying about his servants.  In toto, he was the picturesque Victorian aristocrat.  But George was a human being, too, and in all likelihood had a genuine desire to treat his employees well.  This was of course self-serving (we’d call it “mutually beneficial” today)—happier employees better serve their employers.  No one can say to what degree his motives were truly altruistic.  But what we do know is that George Vanderbilt was well-respected, even venerated, by his  employees and the entire Asheville community.  Biltmore House was the place to work, its luxuries (even for servants) were unparalleled, and its wages (at the New York City rate) were unmatched. 

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2 thoughts on “A Big Empty House?

  1. You’re absolutely right, George Vanderbilt (as I’ve alluded to) would never have considered himself ruthless or opportunistic in his
    “southern expedition.” Quite the contrary; Vanderbilt et al. (Hunt, Olmstead) thought they were doing the locals an enormous favor by providing housing and dependable, well-paying jobs, etc. George was very much a Victorian aristocrat. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he had a tinge of guilt now and again, as proved by his constant effort to make sure he was perceived as a good employer–witness the estate employees’ Christmas parties, etc. In the end Vanderbilt, like others of his age, was a dichotomy, stuck between the aristocracy of his class and the morality of his conscience.

  2. Curious. My visits to Biltmore, in your company no less, have produced some of the same thoughts. We’ve noted some things together (of the Elgin Marbles variety), but there are the larger political and social implications of George Vanderbilt’s actions in the poverty-stricken postbellum South. Vanderbilt, Flagler, et al., from one point of view, seem to have been ruthless opportunists, cashing in on cheap land and playing to cash-strapped local economies who were more than willing to invite in colonial overlords who would do something to dispel the morass in which they found themselves. But, then again, as you say, that’s hardly how George himself would have perceived it. Ah, the complexities of human existence!

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