Biltmore was officially opened on Christmas
Eve 1895 with a holiday feast and a coaching party. It was the
first of many gala affairs at the Estate with luminaries like
novelist Edith Wharton and Henry James as honored guests. Here
in society’s new playground was an array of activities
from tennis, croquet and archery, hunting, riding, and picnicking
with concerts, dancing and parlor games.
This is what George so long for, a home for
entertaining and displaying his treasured art, a reflection of
his vision. George was a man who enjoyed sharing his advantages
Looking around at his dream, George saw there
was one very important element missing, someone to be his significant
other, a loving wife. Mr. George Washington Vanderbilt and American
socialite Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (1873-1958) were married in
Paris, June 1898, honeymooning in Europe. Two years later
they announced the birth of their only child, Cornelia (1900-1976)
a life long resident at Biltmore.
George had everything he ever dreamt of, a mansion
to house his collection, a productive self-supporting enterprise,
more land than anyone could conceive but most importantly, a
family all his own with a beautiful daughter to carry on the
The Vanderbilt's were dedicated to helping others.
They purchased the nearby town of Best which housed most of the
estate’s employees and renamed it Biltmore Village in 1889. The
quaint town grew under the Vanderbilt’s guidance between
1896 and 1902, with a church, school, hospital and shops. Estate
employees lived in cottages that were equipped with central heating
and plumbing, not the norm for the late 19th Century.
The Vanderbilt's maintained a rather large staff
at the Biltmore, providing good wages and accommodations. At
Christmas time the Vanderbilt's would decorate an enormous tree
in the Great Hall and have a special celebration with gifts for
their staff and their children.
In 1889 the Vanderbilt's took considerable pleasure
in founding the Biltmore Forest School, the first institute for
scientific forestry in America. George and Edith also founded
Biltmore Estate Industries in 1901, for the purpose of creating
an apprenticeship program to teach traditional crafts such as
weaving and woodworking. Students enjoyed creating many things,
including reproductions of furnishings within the mansion and
were encouraged to sell their works for income.
The success of the apprenticeship program encouraged
Edith Vanderbilt to start the School for Domestic Science, where
young women were instructed in housekeeping skills such as cooking
and cleaning enabling the students an advantage in obtaining
The Vanderbilt’s owned several residences,
including his parent’s original Fifth Avenue mansion. Yet
it was apparent that Biltmore was their favorite. Their
involvement in the operations of the estate was a personal joy.
Life was great, and remained good until an unfortunate
day in March 1914 when George was rushed to a hospital in Washington
D.C. where he received an emergency appendectomy to no avail.
George Washington Vanderbilt passed on and was buried in the
family mausoleum, on Staten Island, New York.
Devastated by her loss, yet championed by duty,
Mrs. Vanderbilt returned to Biltmore to carry on her responsibilities
at the estate and within the community. She advocated many
worthwhile causes; literacy programs, she helped build a new
hospital as well as served as woman president of the state agricultural
In 1915 Edith Vanderbilt sold nearly 87,000
acres of land to the federal government in respect for George’s
wishes to preserve his forest land for the public.
Selling Biltmore Estate Industries in 1917 and
Biltmore Village in 1921 helped Mrs. Vanderbilt consolidate her
responsibilities to Biltmore Estate. In 1925 Edith married
Senator Peter G. Gerry, the couple maintained several residences,
Providence, Rhode Island and Asheville.
George and Edith’s only child, Cornelia
(1900-1976) was married at the All Soul’s Church in Biltmore
Village in 1924 to the honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil (1890-1954).
Cecil was a descendant of Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer
to Queen Elizabeth I.
Cornelia and John Cecil continued to live at
the Biltmore giving birth to two sons, George Henry Vanderbilt
Cecil (1925) and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil (1928).