Today, Biltmore House is known as America’s largest private residence and a National Historic Landmark. But before it became one of North Carolina’s most popular tourist destinations, it was simply “home” to the Vanderbilt family.
George Vanderbilt visited Asheville, NC, in 1888 and was captivated by the area’s natural beauty. He slowly began purchasing land and ended up with 125,000 acre estate. Determined to make this rustic community his home, Vanderbilt enlisted architect Richard Morris Hunt to design and build a 250-room chateau. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was also hired to create formal gardens and transform the former farmland into a beautiful pastoral landscape.
Biltmore House officially opened to family and friends on Christmas Eve, 1895. George Vanderbilt had a beautiful family home, but as America’s most eligible bachelor of his time, no one to share it with.
A Legendary Romance
That all changed on April 28, 1898, when Vanderbilt proposed to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. A family friend, Edith was 10 years younger than Vanderbilt but admired for her beauty and personality. She was hailed as cosmopolitan and cultured yet humble and down to earth. The pair shared a passion for learning and travel that they indulged throughout their marriage.
On June 1, 1898, the pair was joined as husband and wife in a private 15-minute civil ceremony in a town hall in Paris, France. The next day, they followed French tradition with a religious ceremony at the American Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris. Close friends and family were invited to this ceremony, which was surprisingly simple and modest considering the media fanfare that surrounded the event.
A quiet Italian honeymoon followed, and then the couple returned to Biltmore House. Estate employees welcomed the bride to her new home by lining up along the Approach Road. A giant horseshoe made out of goldenrod flowers with the phrase “Welcome Home” spelled out in more flowers greeted the couple as they arrived at Biltmore House.
Biltmore House Becomes a Family Home
The happy couple added to their family on August 22, 1900, with the birth of their daughter Cornelia. It was a joyous occasion celebrated among the family and recorded by local newspapers. The Spartanburg Journal wrote, “A new star has appeared at famous Biltmore, and the charming mistress of this most gorgeous home is smiling upon her first born, a tiny girl called Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and the world shares in her new found happiness.”
Cornelia spent her childhood on the estate, and often played with the local children whose families lived and worked on the estate. When Cornelia was 13, tragedy struck when George Vanderbilt unexpectedly died following an emergency appendectomy in Washington, D.C., in March 1914. Mrs. Vanderbilt returned to the estate after her husband’s death, but eventually consolidated the family businesses and properties.
The Arrival of a New Generation
A decade later, wedding bells rang as Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village on April 27, 1924. It was a joyous occasion as guests from around the world descended upon the quiet little town of Asheville. Mr. Cecil was a British diplomat and a descendant of Lord Burghley who was High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
A second generation arrived at Biltmore House a year later. George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil was born in Biltmore House in 1925. Three years later in 1928, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil was born in Biltmore House. George and William were educated abroad in Switzerland and England, but always returned home to Biltmore for holidays and summer vacations.
The brothers were instrumental in caring for the estate as adults. William especially was involved in overseeing the care of Biltmore House, the estate and the current Biltmore Company. Today, his son, William A.V. Cecil, Jr, is CEO of Biltmore.