Vanderbilt’s Grandson Leads Biltmore Into Its Next Century
William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil wasn’t born when his grandfather, George Vanderbilt, built his North Carolina mansion, Biltmore House, over 100 years ago. But Bill Cecil inherited more from Vanderbilt than just his one-of-a-kind estate: He also received a generous genetic dose of determination when faced with a “can’t do” attitude. “My acquaintances in the world of historic preservation told me in the 1960s that Biltmore could never be profitable, that I couldn’t run it as a private enterprise,” recalls Cecil, who is president of The Biltmore Company, which operates the 8,000 acre estate in Asheville, NC. “But they were wrong.”
With a payroll of over 800 employees, annual taxes to pay and ongoing maintenance and operations projects costing millions of dollars annually, Cecil has defied the odds: He’s making private enterprise preservation both possible and profitable. Almost a century after his grandfather first opened Biltmore House on Christmas Eve of 1895, William Cecil is committed to preserving Vanderbilt’s legacy for the next 100 years.
A Harvard graduate, Cecil remembers sliding down the banisters of the 250-room Biltmore House (the largest private home in America) as young boy. “I didn’t think there was anything particularly unusual about the house,” remembers Cecil, who was born in the house. “I thought everyone had banisters as high and as long as I did.”
After a career in banking with Chase Manhattan in New York, Cecil returned to Asheville to a Biltmore that was truly struggling, losing a quarter of a million dollars annually. It was clear that in order to begin to preserve his grandfather’s home, Cecil would have to instigate some unprecedented ideas.
He began to market it.
In the beginning, Cecil did it all: he was photographer, ad man, media relations person, CEO and financial overseer.
Unlike other historic sites, Biltmore still contains the original art and furnishings collected by Vanderbilt. The assemblage is phenomenal—and quite costly to maintain. Realizing its significance, however, Cecil plowed profits right back into the preservation of the estate. Whatever was left was applied to marketing.
Cecil’s classic business strategies worked. By the late 1960s, the estate garnered its first $16 profit. “It was the best money I’ve ever made,” says Cecil.
Today, Biltmore welcomes more than 900,000 guests each year. And its retail shops, restaurants and agricultural businesses function in support of the whole.
And function they must. The preservation costs continue to climb annually. “We are in the process of restoring nine 16th century Flemish tapestries,” notes Cecil, “and we’re doing it all ourselves, with our own wash area, dye lab, tapestry conservators. It’s a wonderful project.”
“We also have the continual job of restoring rooms such as the Breakfast Room. That particular restoration project required our having re-woven for us exact reproduction of the original fabric made for my grandfather a century ago in France.”
While these preservation projects are fascinating examples of Bill Cecil’s insistence on doing things right, there are other preservation measures which are much less glamorous, but equally as vital. Repairing the flume system in the estate’s Bass Pond carried a price tag of $425,000, for example. Updating century-old plumbing across the estate was another whopping $700,000. And if you’ve ever priced repairing a slate roof for a house that totals four acres in floor space, you can appreciate the daunting task of paying that bill.
Cecil is proud of the fact that Biltmore is able to remain committed to its conservation and preservation ideals and do so as a self-sufficient property. Because the estate receives no governmental monies, funding or private grants of any kind, its self-sufficient status truly makes Bill Cecil’s approach unique in the world of historic houses.
Ironically, Cecil’s success is also his biggest problem. Because he has achieved his dream of making Biltmore a profitable example of private enterprise historic preservation, Cecil’s family will face greater inheritance taxes, upon his death, than if he had allowed Biltmore to decline over the years.
“My goal, as the estate turns 100 years old,” says Cecil, “is to do everything I can to preserve it for the next generation, keeping it privately owned and self-supporting.”
“Neither government agencies or non-profit organizations can or should have the burden of preserving this National Historic Landmark with taxpayer dollars,” adds Cecil. “The current system would make it impossible for a governmental or non-profit entity to pay the bills because admission revenues cover only about 60 percent of our operating expenses. The balance—which we gain through food service, retail, reproductions and wine sales—is called ‘other income’ and is taxed.”
“It’s a significant challenge to try to gain the attention of our lawmakers when they’re faced with so many important tasks,” says Cecil. “But I firmly believe preserving a part of our cultural heritage as important as Biltmore is worth fighting for. And I’ve never been one to accept ‘it can’t be done’ as an excuse.”