Coming home to Biltmore
Written By Jean Sexton
The fate of George Vanderbilt’s visionary estate featuring Biltmore House set like a jewel amidst a breathtaking landscape might have been very different if Mr. Vanderbilt’s grandson William A.V. Cecil had not returned to Asheville to take on the management of America’s largest home and all that it entailed.
The white elephant
After Biltmore House was opened for public viewing in 1930, it became a well-known attraction in the southeast. By the late 50s, however, the numbers of visitors were dwindling and a decision had to be made: sell the property and turn what many considered a “white elephant” into a state or national historic trust—or find a way to preserve the estate and put it back on its feet financially.
Against most well-meaning advice, Mr. Cecil decided to leave his successful career with Chase-Manhattan Bank in Washington, DC and return to his birthplace to see what he could make of it. According to Howard Covington’s book Lady on the Hill,
“Cecil brought a fresh and appreciative perspective to Biltmore. He saw the chateau not with the eye of a curator hired to present and explain a historic property but as a devoted family member who was proud of what his grandfather had left for him and others to enjoy. Like his father before him, William believed that visitors should be made to feel like guests rather than ticket holders and should be welcomed warmly and treated with courtesy.”
To attract the numbers of guests needed to make the venture successful, Mr. Cecil had to become a one-man marketing department to promote Biltmore House and Gardens to the public. He was more than equal to the challenge, and in the summer of 1960, Biltmore welcomed its one-millionth visitor since tickets were first made available 30 years earlier. The growth was important for the success of Biltmore, because the dairy operation that had sustained the estate for many years was becoming less profitable in the face of new regulations and increased competition.
The legacy continues
Now nearly six decades later, Biltmore welcomes more than one million guests annually, and the estate is a glowing tribute to George Vanderbilt’s original vision, the groundbreaking work of his grandson William Cecil, and the Cecil family’s continued commitment to their mission of preserving Biltmore as a privately owned, profitable, working estate. The property includes Antler Hill Village, which features the award-winning Winery and Antler Hill Farm; the four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate; Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate; Equestrian Center; numerous restaurants; event and meeting venues; and Biltmore For Your Home, the company’s licensed products division.
Featured image: William A.V. Cecil in front of Biltmore House, circa 1980s
Right: Cornelia and John Cecil open Biltmore House to the public in 1930
Left: William Cecil works discusses the possibilities of raising prawns at Biltmore, circa 1980s
Right: William Cecil in the winery he envisioned, circa 1985