ASHEVILLE, NC -- Biltmore House, the extravagant mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt's grandson in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, makes the White House look like a gardener's cottage.
George Washington Vanderbilt opened his new home -- the largest private residence in the U.S. -- in 1895 with what must have been a resplendent Christmas party. Guests dined in a medieval-themed banquet hall complete with thrones, flags, and ancient tapestries. A 40-foot Douglas fir Christmas tree completed the decorations.
The French chateau-inspired residence boasts 175,000 square feet, 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a library holding 10,000 of Vanderbilt's 23,000 books (as well as Napoleon's chess set), three kitchens, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, stables, and sumptuous gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. When it opened, the Biltmore estate (the name is a contraction of the owner's original Dutch name, "van der Bilt," and "more," an old English word for rolling hills) also encompassed 125,000 acres of land.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century visitors were agog at the modern conveniences. The mansion was equipped with central heating, electricity, running hot and cold water even to the upstairs baths, a fire alarm, cold-storage mechanical refrigeration, an elevator, an electric communication system for calling servants, and, perhaps the real mindbender of 1895, underwater lighting in the swimming pool.
But while the many bathrooms had hot and cold running water, those in the guest suites lacked something that even the poorest hovel now has -- a sink. Members of the upper class wouldn't think of washing their hands and faces in the bathroom. When they needed to wash, they simply rang for a servant who arrived with a towel, a bowl, and a pitcher.
That detail more than any other suggests how much attitudes have changed in a little more than 100 years. America continues to produce its mega-rich, of course -- more than ever -- but that sort of languid dependency has very much gone out of style. Bill Gates built a mansion in Washington worth an estimated $147 million. But when he and his guests get their hands dirty, they doubtless manage to manipulate the handles on the sink and would be appalled at the idea of having someone do it for them.
Similarly, the changing rooms near the pool at Biltmore had call buttons for servants so that the ladies and gentlemen could get assistance changing from their clothes into swimsuits and vice versa. A modern person, one suspects, no matter how rich, would snort at the idea of being helped into and out of a bathing suit.
Biltmore (it's never "the Biltmore," a modern Vanderbilt descendent sniffs; that's a hotel) had its heyday between 1895 and 1914. Though George was bookish and intellectual (he read about 80 books a year in at least four languages), he and Edith Vanderbilt lived and entertained luxuriously. But by the time of George's early death in 1914, it was becoming clear that even the Vanderbilts could be guilty of that most American of vices -- wanting too much house. George spent most of his inheritance on Biltmore and when Congress created the income tax in 1913, he had trouble affording the upkeep. He died suddenly at age 51 in 1914. His widow was forced to sell more than 86,000 acres of forest around Biltmore to the federal government and undertake other (always unspecified) economies to keep the elaborate white elephant from sinking. A dairy and later a vineyard helped to pay the bills.
The estate was intended to be a self-sustaining retreat and aerie for the leisured Vanderbilts, but by 1930, the family began to admit the paying public as they do to this day. Biltmore remains the property of George and Edith's descendants, but as a business, not a home. A million tourists pass through the house and grounds annually to marvel -- but perhaps also to reflect that while Biltmore is certainly something to see, it is, in the end, a monument to excess. To live in that style seems not so much unreachable as unseemly today. This recession notwithstanding, we are wealthier than ever as a society, but also perhaps (and as someone who does not hobnob with the superrich, I could be mistaken) more appropriately modest in our personal styles.
Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago that "The soil of America absolutely rejected a territorial aristocracy." Yes, but the commerce kings of the Gilded Age made quite a run at aping them.