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The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home

Review

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home

For those who couldn’t get enough of “Downton Abbey,” THE LAST CASTLE might satisfy that desire to peer into the lives of wealthy members of the reigning elite. The setting here is Asheville, North Carolina, instead of the English countryside, but there are many similarities between the Earl of Grantham and George Vanderbilt, the man who built “the last castle.” As befitted those who belonged to the top echelons of society, both owned and managed enormous houses on huge tracts of land, with staff who were treated as extended family. Both had a social, if paternalistic, conscience about providing for those in their employ or on their grounds. And both fell on hard times during and after the wars, forcing them to economize in ways that once would have been unthinkable.

But, of course, Vanderbilt did not inherit his estate, Biltmore House; he built all 175,000 square feet of it on 125,000 acres of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is the story of how the house came to be built and what that entailed --- not just for the 1,000 workers who constructed it over six years, but for the myriad townsfolk who lived in what came to be called the village of Biltmore. It’s also the story of George and Edith Vanderbilt, their families, friends and famous visitors --- who included everyone from Edith Wharton, Teddy Roosevelt and Henry James to John Singer Sargent and James Whistler, the latter two of whom were hired at George’s request. Sargent painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the grounds. Whistler, a friend, painted Vanderbilt himself.

"[THE LAST CASTLE] does what it sets out to do: recreate the grandeur of George Vanderbilt’s vision, and the price that those around him willingly paid to help keep it alive."

The story begins back in the 1880s, when George and his mother, Maria Louisa, visited Asheville in the hopes that the elder Mrs. Vanderbilt might recover from a bout of malaria; the mountain air was said to be good for one’s physical and mental health. George --- the grandson of the titan of shipping and railroads, Cornelius Vanderbilt --- fell in love with the area and decided to create an estate to rival those of Europe. Why he felt compelled is not entirely explained here, but that he did so with intentions of making a beautiful home with all the modern amenities, and with sensitivity toward how the land was used, is abundantly clear. In fact, much of the forest around Asheville had been overfarmed, and a concerted effort was made by George and his German groundsman, Carl Schenk, to replant the ground. Their efforts led to the first American School of Forrestry in the nation.

Almost half of the book details the building of Biltmore and its environs, and the saga of the estate is never far from the author’s sights. George’s marriage to Edith, and the birth of their only child, Cornelia, are noted, but details about the family usually revolve around their impact on the House. When George died, at the age of 51, Edith took over the running of the estate, and eventually sold much of the land, as well as Biltmore Estate Industries, which she had helped start to foster mountain crafts in Asheville. Edith went on to become president of the North Carolina Agricultural Society, and gained a reputation as a public speaker and civic-minded woman. She eventually married a senator from Rhode Island and helped get him reelected.

Meanwhile, Cornelia’s life was very different, and she spent much time away from Asheville, first in England and then in New York, where she became an artist. But her British husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, and their two sons remained involved with the estate. When the moment arrived that the taxes and debts outweighed even the Vanderbilt fortune, the decision was made to open Biltmore House to the public. This is similar to what happened with many of the grand houses in England, and something with which Cecil and his circle were very familiar. To this day, the Vanderbilt family controls their house, now a National Historic Landmark that is visited by more than one million people annually.

THE LAST CASTLE is a paean to a grandiose house and family, so those who are looking for gossip or a social history of the era will find the book somewhat lacking. But it does what it sets out to do: recreate the grandeur of George Vanderbilt’s vision, and the price that those around him willingly paid to help keep it alive.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on September 28, 2017

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home
by Denise Kiernan

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 1476794049
  • ISBN-13: 9781476794044