For most visitors to Asheville, North Carolina, a trip to Biltmore is a mandatory excursion. George Washington Vanderbilt’s vast mansion, still the largest privately owned house in the United States, is located around 5 miles south of the city, surrounded by an 8,000-acre estate. Built between 1889 and 1895, and modeled primarily on the Château du Blois in France’s Loire Valley, it contains 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms and is an embodiment of the Gilded Age in pale golden limestone.
The patriarch of the Vanderbilt dynasty was George’s grandfather, Cornelius, who began his legendary business career running a ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island. So great was his determination, the other ferryboat captains took to calling him “the Commodore,” a nickname that was to prove indelible. From ferries, he progressed to steamships, and then to railroads, most famously the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, for which he constructed the Grand Central Depot, the precursor to Grand Central Terminal.
At the time of his death in 1877, Vanderbilt had an estimated fortune of $105 million (multiple billions in present-day dollars), 95 percent of which he left to his son, William, and through him to his four grandsons. Cornelius may have been a prodigious builder of wealth, but his architectural ambitions were comparatively modest. Generations of his offspring would prove far less reticent.