Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue


George Washington Vanderbilt II inherited scarcely more than a fraction of his father’s estate. When the railroad magnate, William H. Vanderbilt, dropped dead of an apoplectic fit in his library at 640 Fifth Avenue late in the afternoon of November 28, 1885, he left a fortune the size of which astonished even those who knew him well. It was double the value of the $90,000,000 that he had inherited from his father, the old Commodore, and as a broker of the day noted, the estate “if converted into gold…would have weighed five hundred tons, and it would have taken five hundred strong horses to draw it from the Grand Central Depot to the Sub-Treasury in Wall Street.” Of this massive sum young George, who was twenty-three when his father died, received only $ 10,000,000 and the house at 640 Fifth Avenue. It was little enough compared with what fell to his brothers: $67,000,000 to Cornelius II and $65,000,000 to William K., but George, very soon after his father had died, put his fortune to what he thought was good use. He built the most palatial mansion that America has ever seen, and he built it at a time when palaces of surpassing splendor were the order of the day for such families as the Astors, the Goelets, and the Belmonts.

George Vanderbilt’s house, if a massive limestone chateau can be called by such a homely name, was “Biltmore.” From its leaded-glass windows its young owner surveyed his princely domain of 130,000 acres of North Carolina woodlands. In its library he sat beneath a magnificent ceiling, painted by the ebullient Venetian master, Tiepolo, a work of art that he had acquired in Europe on the condition that he keep secret where he had got it and what it had cost him. Around him (he was a studious young man) were twenty thousand richly bound volumes on his favorite subjects—forestry, art, and ancient and modern languages. In his banqueting hall, whose ceiling was seventy-five feet above its highly polished floor, he dined with friends surrounded by Gobelin tapestries and warmed by a triple fireplace. In his print room he examined his collection of DÆrer engravings or a chess set that had once belonged to Napoleon I. There were forty masters’ bedrooms in the house and the steep roof that covered it was the largest, whether for a public or private building, anywhere in the country.

To plan his gardens young Vanderbilt had secured the services of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park; to manage his forests he employed Gifford Pinchot, who was then, like Vanderbilt, still in his twenties. It was the first experimental forest in America, and J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of Agriculture of the day, noted somewhat wistfully, “He employs more men than I have in my charge. He is also spending more money than Congress appropriates for this department.” The hundreds of employees who worked the farms and forests lived in a village, complete with church and hospital, that Vanderbilt had constructed for them; they provided him with a choir for his private chapel.

When George Vanderbilt conceived his plan to live in a palace and devote his fortune to experimental forestry, it is not surprising that he should have chosen as his architect a man well known to the family. Richard Morris Hunt had not only built William K.’s house at Fifty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, the very model of a French chateau that had made its designer famous, as one of his contemporaries noted, “almost before it was completed,” but who had also built the family mausoleum on Staten Island. There in a $300,000 version of the Romanesque chapel of Saint-Gilles at Arles, his father was entombed, and for fear of body snatchers was guarded by watchmen who were required to punch a time clock every fifteen minutes. It had been the magnificence of Hunt’s house for William K. that (according to legend) had made Mrs. Astor, the mentor of New York society in the Seventies, accept the Vanderbilts into her fold; it had been the quality of its design that had caused Charles F. McKim, of the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, to say that he often walked up Fifth Avenue late at night to look at the house because he slept better after feasting his eyes on it. But there were other reasons as well. Mr. Hunt was the most amiable of men and an architect rare in his capacity to get along with his clients. “The first thing you’ve got to remember,” he once said to his son, “is that it’s your client’s money you’re spending. Your business is to get the best results you can following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down standing on its chimney, it’s up to you to do it, and still get the best possible results.” With such an attitude toward his profession, there is no wonder that he found so many friends or that George Vanderbilt should have been happy to turn to him for the realization of his dream.

Biltmore was, and still is (it is now open to the public), a massive structure of Indiana limestone based on the Ch‚teau de Blois, with pinnacles and steep roofs, and a forest of chimneys and gables. When George Vanderbilt saw Hunt’s plans for the house he was so pleased that he had a spur of railroad built to the site from Asheville to expedite the construction, and he imported hundreds of artisans from France to lay the walls and apply the ornament. Accounts of its cost vary by several millions of dollars; some say $3,000,000, some say $5,000,000; whatever the figure, it evidently mattered little to George Vanderbilt or, indeed, to Richard Morris Hunt.