By David Tulis
On the Lord’s Day of April 8, after the regular luncheon at church, Jeannette and I quit Chattanooga and drove through the hill country east of Chattanooga to Asheville, N.C., where we spent the next day exploring Biltmore Estate, the famous tourist trap that employs more than 1,500 people and tells a story about the fruitful results of a Christian man’s great work to affect his local economy and make the world a better place.
George Vanderbilt, the scion of a wealthy New York merchant shipping and railroad family, built the estate in the hill country because he had the means. His plan fitted his desires to reshape the world for the better. His estate cost more than $2 million in the money of the day (gold and silver) and was designed for the enjoyment of everyone who lived there, namely his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, and hundreds of important visitors — politicians, notables, writers, artists, opera stars and thinkers. The estate was opened to the public in 1930, and is run by William Cecil and other family members, some of whom live on grounds that once covered 228 square miles. Biltmore Co. emerged from a reorganization in 1972 and is a for-profit, taxpaying business.
“[Mr. Vanderbilt] desired a place to showcase his growing collection of books, art, and decorative art objects,” says an official estate book, “in which he had been interested since childhood. These many influences resulted in the concept of a self-sufficient, working estate that was also a country home where he could entertain his guests.”
The story of Mr. Vanderbilt is illustrative of the restless energy that is Christianity. I have heard ministers in Chattanooga say Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. But if we grant for a moment that it is a religion, as Calvin referred to it in his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, we allow comparisons between it and manmade systems of religious faith. We can attest that it is unlike other religions because it is prodigiously restless, a most energetic system of passion and thought. Hinduism, Mohammedanism, Mormonism and every other system of human invention lack its otherworldly impetus and its earth-changing premises. Christianity searches down into the soul of man and transforms him from inside out.
One doesn’t have to go far to see Mr. Vanderbilt’s religious convictions and bookishness treated slightingly, as if they are simply another manifestation of a pretentious fop and rich ne’er do well.
Fortune’s Children [;] The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, by Arthur T. Vanderbillt II, a family member who practices law in New Jersey, is probably typical of this eyebrow-raising approach. A bit of hype from the dust jacket is intended to draw you in: “Set against a backdrop of monumental Fifth Avenue mansions, sprawling country estates including The Breakers and Biltmore, oceangoing yachts, private railroad cars, fleets of maroon Rolls-Royces, lavish jewelry, and squads of maroon-liveried servants, this is a riveting account of a bygone world of privilege, money, power, and self-indulgence. It is a compelling, irresistible narrative of the fall of a family dynasty.”
This line of presentation is perhaps unavoidable looking back at the so-called Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. It creates a sensation with the hint of scandal and careless excess among diverse Vanderbilt clan whose members came from Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt (1794 to 1877).
Our bias is less compelling. But it has the advantage of being less judgmental as to Vanderbilt family members’ sins and unwilling to condemn them as a group because they put so much silver into circulation with their grand expenditures. ** Though we are American commoners, we are not people whose sense of envy is easily stoked. I am interested in discerning how the Vanderbilt millions fit into the story of the growth of Christendom and are an evidence of that religion’s power to enhance technical innovation, alter landscapes for the better and elevate common folk in the glow of its prosperity.
FIRST, A FEW DETAILS about George Vanderbilt and Biltmore Estate. Mr. Vanderbilt was the youngest of eight children, and was his father William’s favorite son. The Vanderbilt son showed little interest in sports, big society or business. While his brothers and sisters were busy building mansions, he lived at home with his mom on ritzy Fifth Avenue and haunted used bookshops. Though he inherited millions, he was not impressed. Shy, he spent his time reading, studying philosophy, art history (to better understand his father’s many purchases) and learned eight languages. Two of them were Greek and Hebrew, so that he might better study the scriptures.
In 1888 he visited the Great Smoky Mountains with his mom to escape a cold winter. Impressed by the clime’s fresh air and rolling hills, he decided to build a winter refuge for himself and his mother. The work began in 1889 and took six years.
A thousand laborers were involved in road and building construction, earning 90 cents a day, or $1.65 if they arrived with a mule. Top stonecutters were paid $3.50 a day. Cabinet makers were brought in, their rail fare paid by Mr. Vanderbilt. The people who served the Vanderbilts and ran the estate were often personally committed to the enterprise. Chauncey Beadle, director of landscaping, stayed 60 years, overseeing 11 million plant specimens.
Mr. Vanderbilt, obedient to man’s dominion mandate given first to Adam, the first millionaire, worked earnestly to create new value by applying labor and capital to land. He created a forestry operation that supported the estate and its many dependents and was a leader in scientific land management. “He employs more men than I have in my charge,” the federal secretary of agriculture is quoted as having said. “He is also spending more more money than Congress appropriates to this department.”
Mr. Vanderbilt saw to the creation of many other benefits. He subsidized schools for workers, and teachers’ salaries and housing. He paid for the design of churches. He built 24 cottages. In Asheville he funded the Young Men’s Institute, a recreational and educational facility for blacks. His ingenuity touched on how the house was heated (gasoline engine) and how phones were installed.
THE MATTER ARISES as to how Biltmore Estate interests us as students of local economy. I will no more than hint at the answer today. The biblical idea of service, wealth creation, capitalism is hidden from view if we view Biltmore solely as a lofty plaything of a wealthy man who enriched himself at the expense of the poor and of workers, as the envious among us might be too willing to believe.
Wealth, technology, beauty, cooperation are fruits of Christianity and the basis of Western civilization. In a future post we will look further into this question with the help of an author who sent a daughter to Covenant College for the very purpose of raising the quality of life in her home country, one quite on the other side of the earth.
Secondarily, the George Vanderbilt story tells something of the ideas of adoption, which is an important doctrine in Christianity. Mr. Vanderbilt adopted Asheville as his home, an uncultivated, even brutalized, part of the world, and turned it into a garden and haven. Every Christian is under an obligation to do the same, wherever God in has placed him in the outworking of His sovereign will. Though you may not be a native Chattanoogan, you and your family are not here by mistake, or some oversight on God’s part.
Therefore, you have a duty to prosper yourself and your neighbor in this place, even though you may be a newcomer and still feel a sense of alienation since your arrival.
[I first published this essay in April 2012.]
Please join us in further helpful explorations of this matter.
Sources: Our many thanks to Biltmore guide Will Hutchinson for answering our questions.
John M. Bryan, G.W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate [;] The Most Distinguished Private Place (Rizzoli International, New York, 1994)
Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, Fortune’s Children [;] The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (William Morrow, New York, 1989)
Susan M. Ward, Michael K. Smith, eds., Biltmore Estate (The Biltmore Co., Asheville, N.C., 1989)