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Sunday, September 11, 2011


Every family has, what we call, a "black sheep." In the late 1800s, there were three brothers, William, Cornelius, and George. The elder two followed their father into the business world of high finance, transportation, and manufacturing. Their "little brother" was something of a quiet, bookish sort, a collector of scientific oddities, liked to hunt, travel the world, and grow things. He never held a job in his life, was uninterested in marriage, and devoted to his mother. He developed into an art connoisseur and student of architecture, landscape design, and horticulture. He enjoyed a good party once in a while too. When the boys' father died in 1885, his will left the bulk of his holdings to his two favorite sons while little Georgie received a mere pittance. With it young George decided to go to the hard scrabble backwoods of North Carolina, buy a farm and build a house; while his two brothers took their society wives and headed off to join the elegant social whirl of New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Interesting, but not all that unusual perhaps, except in that the boys' names all ended in Vanderbilt.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island, Richard Morris Hunt,
Marble House, Richard Morris Hunt, 1893-95
George's "pittance" was a mere $10 million. His brothers each got $65 million. All three hired the same architect to build them new homes--Richard Morris Hunt. The two "rich" Vanderbilts each squandered millions on a couple garishly overblown "cottages" overlooking the sea at Newport, each struggling to outdo the other with pretentious marble palaces rivaling the royalty of Europe in their grandiose ornamentation, expensive gimcracks, and gewgaws. Cornelius II had the misfortune of completing his house first. Called "The Breakers," it was something of a cross between a grand beach-front hotel and an Italian Palazzo. His brother, William, thus had the chance to build an even larger "cottage" just down the street. His marble palace, modestly called "Marble House," was...well, let's just say it gave Versailles a run for its money.

Meanwhile, "poor" George was putting together his own entry into the ongoing family domicile contest amidst the rolling foothills of the eastern slope of the Smokey Mountains. He called it Biltmore. It was aptly named and perhaps something of an inside family joke. He literally "built more." When finished, it was the largest private home in America--all 255 rooms of it. Based largely on the Palace of Fountainbleu built by France's, King Francis I, during the 1600s, Hunt also drew inspiration from the English country house, Waddesdon Manor designed by Gabriel Hippolyte. As the Vanderbilt mansions go, though certainly opulent, it was beyond doubt the most tasteful architectural indulgence of the three. The style is French Chateau with Gothic decoration--five floors connected by an elevator, backed by a spiral staircase wide enough to drive a Land Rover to the top. The dining room ceiling soars to the dizzying height of some seventy feet and at 72 by 42 feet this room alone is large enough to contain a modern-day three bedroom house with attached garage. Overseeing a working farm with a state-of-the-art land-management and forestry program, farmer George called on New York's Central Park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, to lay out the grounds. Inside, the two-story library contains some 20,000 volumes while the rest of the house is a veritable museum of fine art ranging from portraits by John Singer Sargent to tapestries by French nuns, even Napoleon Bonaparte's private chess set. It just goes to show what a modicum of good taste and a "little" money could accomplish in the days before income taxes.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, Richard Morris Hunt, 1889-95

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