I picked up this book because I’d planned a trip to Asheville and I plowed through it in three days because I got it right before I was leaving. It definitely made itself very accessible, which I appreciate, and I really like that I know so much more of the history. It is dry, granted, but nicely informative about the people who lived there and the ages they lived in.
The Last Castle is the history of Biltmore House and the estate constructed and managed by the Vanderbilt family. George W. Vanderbilt, the man with the dream, was the grandson of the man who started the Vanderbilt fortune and the son of the man who became the richest man in the world. The book touches multiple times on the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” philosophy of inherited wealth and while this branch of the Vanderbilts took very deliberate pains to avoid that, they came closer than the average American (aka, me) ever realized. The house was never fully completed and was always a drain on on the family’s finances. The original estate was hundreds of thousands of acres that had to be sold only a few decades after they were bought to defray maintenance costs. Biltmore was barely a generation old before the largest house in America opened to paying tourists – and it was another fifty years after that before it turned a profit. One of the primary managers of the estate was not George Vanderbilt but his wife Edith who outlived him by almost forty years. Their daughter gradually sold off her shares in ownership and handed it over to her British husband and their sons. Even as the house was firmly entrenched in the Gilded Age, Edith Dresser Vanderbilt helped promote and expand the reach of the Arts & Crafts movement. There’s some neat stuff.
I’m going to Asheville tomorrow to run the marathon on Sunday – a race that winds its way around solely the Biltmore estate for all 26.2 miles and I am more excited than ever to explore French Broad River and Approach Road. It’ll be a slow run as I trace the steps so many millions have before me, but at least there will be minimal tourists.