The Right Thing at the Right Time: A Philanthropic Legacy
Written By Amy Dangelico
Biltmore forester Carl Schenck once wrote:
“Personally, I can say that Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt detest publicity, preferring to do the right thing at the right time without beating a drum about it.”
Indeed, George and Edith Vanderbilt demonstrated an unswerving commitment to helping those less fortunate. Whether it was on the estate, within the local community, or in other parts of the country, their charitable gifts reflect their passions for literacy, education, and the arts.
Jackson Square Branch of the New York Public Library
George’s commitment to providing educational opportunities to all, regardless of income, began at a young age. In 1887, he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt, who later designed Biltmore House, to design and build the Jackson Square Branch of the New York Free Circulating Library System.
George paid to have the branch furnished and fully stocked with books at a time when free libraries were rare; individuals usually had to pay a fee to borrow books, which prevented many from having access.
American Fine Arts Society
In 1889, a group of young artists in New York City set out to create an organization that would provide educational and financial support to up-and-coming artists. George was one of eight initial benefactors who each donated $5,000 to what would become The American Fine Arts Society. The society’s new building opened in 1892, adjoined by a grand exhibition gallery which George built at a cost of $100,000.
Many assumed the society would then rent the gallery for exhibitions. Instead, at a celebration in the gallery on December 29, 1892, he surprised those attending by announcing he was handing over the gallery’s deed to the society as a Christmas and New Year’s gift.
“The gift of the gallery… is an example of what a public-spirited man can do if he has wealth at his disposal….He has stood by the Fine Arts Society from the start, and encouraged the triple alliance of architects, artists, and art students …”
– The New York Times, January 1, 1893
The exhibition gallery, named The Vanderbilt Gallery in George’s honor, still exists today.
George was also a proponent of the Industrial Education Movement, a reform movement aimed at providing skilled teachers and schools to educate poor urban children.
A wealthy New York socialite named Grace Dodge wanted to create a college in New York City that would not only instruct teachers on how to educate children, but also focus on psychological and emotional needs, a revolutionary concept at the time. She asked George for assistance, and he agreed to help by paying the salary of the first director of Teachers College.
George later served on the school’s Board of Trustees. In 1893, Teachers College joined forces with Columbia College (known soon after as Columbia University), and the next year, the school opened its new campus on land George donated. Teachers College, Columbia University was the first and remains the largest graduate school of education in the nation.
Young Men’s Institute
In 1892, Prof. Edward L. Stephens, principal of Asheville’s first public school for African-American students, had a vision to create an organization similar to a YMCA to support Asheville’s African-American community. He approached George, who was in the process of building Biltmore House at the time, for assistance.
George was moved by Prof. Stephens’ plans and agreed to loan the institute $32,000 to fund the construction of a building, which became known as the Young Men’s Institute. Completed in 1893, the YMI was designed by Richard Sharp Smith, who also collaborated with architect Richard Morris Hunt to create Biltmore House and other estate buildings.
The YMI offered a variety of services to the black community, including a kindergarten, night school for adults, library, dormitory, and athletic facilities. It also served as a social and spiritual center and included commercial spaces on the ground floor. Among the early businessmen renting spaces were a doctor, pharmacist, barber, and restaurant owner.
The Young Men’s Institute is now home to the YMI Cultural Center and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Vanderbilts’ other charitable efforts include the School of Domestic Science, which Edith founded in 1901 to train young African-American women in professional housekeeping, and the Moonlight School at Biltmore Estate, founded in 1914 to teach illiterate estate workers how to read and write, among others.
Today, we continue the Vanderbilt philanthropic efforts to promote education with the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil Scholarship Fund. Established in 1995, the scholarship was created to assist the dependents of Biltmore employees with the rising costs of higher education. We also collaborate with local organizations such as Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and Eblen Charities to assist those in our community with hunger, heating, and housing needs.
Top Right: Jackson Square Branch, New-York Free Circulating Library, 1893. Image from King’s Handbook of New York City, New York, 1893.
Right: Columbia Teachers College, mid 1890s
Left: Young Men’s Institute during the late stages of construction, mid 1890s