'The Last Castle' Goes Beyond the Biltmore Estate's Legacy

May 10, 2018

There are some notable addresses and iconic homes around the United States, but one has stood the test of time and remains the largest home on U.S. soil.  The Biltmore Estate, built in the late 19th century in Ashville, North Carolina, is a colossal mansion built by George Vanderbilt.

The 175,000 square foot home features 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms and 45 bathrooms. In addition to the grandeur on display inside of the house, it's surrounding landscape and gardens are just as spectacular.  It’s the stuff of legend, as is the story of the people who built and lived in it. Both are chronicled in a new book by Denise Kiernan, called The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home

Kiernan recalls when she first visited the Biltmore Estate when she was a 14 year-old "little history nerd": "I felt like I was stepping back in time when I walked into the house. So many of the family's furnishings were there, tapestries - it was really really immersive. Now as an adult who writes, I became really curious not just about the house and its size, but who had lived there, who had made this place what it was and how did it still possibly manage to exist."

Determined to research and write a comprehensive narrative non-fiction about the Vanderbilt family and the famous estate, Kiernen dove right in to historical archives and discovered much more than one would expect from an elite family.

Edith Stuyvesant Dresser's 1898 engagement photo.
Credit Natalie Bayard Brown Papers / Brown University Library

"Edith (George Vanderbilt's wife) was one of the main inspirations for wanting to do this book," she notes. "I wanted to show her as an independent woman, as a single woman, as a young woman, before she simply became Mrs. George Vanderbilt. And being able to sort of really get a feeling for who she was made a huge difference for me."

Although George came from a family with fortune, as the youngest child of the Vanderbilt family, he had the freedom, time, money, and passion to explore the arts, cultures, and literature.

While traveling with his ailing mother in North Carolina for the restorative mountain air, he explored the wildnerness on his horse and fell in love with the landscape, according to Kiernan.

"George just wanted to do something a little different, and I think that because he seemed like such a quiet, private, bookish individual, I image that the society in New York could be so claustraphobic," she notes.

Ashville, North Carolina gave Vanderbilt "a real opportunity to indulge architecture, art, and get away from it all."

Construction of the Biltmore Esate spanned from 1889 to 1895, and was meticulously planned and executed by several building and landscape architects, and foresters - a lesser known legacy of the Estate.

George Vanderbilt
Credit Bain Collection / Library of Congress

"One of the things I wanted to give a lot of attention to was Vanderbilt's and Biltmore Estate's role in United States forestry history," says Kiernan. In fact, she says that the Biltmore Estate founded the first forestry school before the U.S. Department of Forestry even existed. And the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot,first served as Biltmore's forester.

Vanderbilt's plan of establishing a self-sustaining estate with grounds for crops, villages, forests, and water supply had both its success and failures in operation, according to Kiernan. However, one thing that set the Vanderbilts apart was George and Edith's legacy of philanthropy and their support for their Ashville community.

"I think (George and Edith) had travel in common, I think they had philanthropy in common, and I think they each had just enough of a - if not desire - satisfaction and ease at living away from the very claustraphobic world of New York society," explains Kiernan.

She notes that it is amazing that this house still stands, when so many other Gilded Age buildings and legacies have dwindled over time. Kiernan reccomends visiting the estate - not just to look at its oppulence, but to explore the surrounding grounds and Pisgah National Forest.

"It is a rare opportunity to actually kind of immerse yourself in a very, very different time," she notes. "I always tell people the house is great, the setting is amazing - I'm a huge believer in how significant it is historically - but go a little further afield and see the legacy of what they didn't build."

Can you guess which one is Lake Effect's own Audrey Nowakowski? She and her three sisters stand in front of the Biltmore Estate on a family trip to North Carolina.
Credit Photo courtesy of the Nowakowski family