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

The Vanderbilt name during the late 1800s conjured images of opulence and immenseLast Castle wealth.  As a scion of this moneyed family, George W. Vanderbilt inherited in a big way, and spent most of his fortune building what would become the largest house in the United States.

Whereas his extended family made their homes mainly in New York City and Newport, George looked farther afield, into the mountains near Asheville, NC.  Here he found the climate congenial, began buying up thousands of acres there, and employed the best in their fields to design and create his grand estate.

In his mid-thirties, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, descended from some of New York’s oldest families.  Edith was level-headed and charity minded, and brought these strong attributes to her role as mistress of Biltmore House.  She and George were active in the community, contributing funding and time to a number of pursuits.

Edith shouldered on when George died in his early 50s.  The vastness of Biltmore Estate and the costs to run it almost overwhelmed her, and Edith had to sell off certain interests of the estate, including a huge chunk of land to the federal government, which later became the core of Pisgah National Forest.

As a way of raising capital, the family began charging admission to the house in 1930.  Although it took years for the venture to make a profit, the move to open it to the public kept Biltmore House from neglect and the wrecking ball.

The Last Castle is a detail-packed account of the biggest house of the Vanderbilt family, the ordeals of building and financing it, and the ultimate triumph of its owners to keep it despite obstacles.  The author portrays George and Edith with compassion – they were not numb one percenters, but lively people who had consideration for others.  While they were decidedly rich and lived that way, they learned from and affiliated with the common person, and understood that their grand estate functioned by the work of many.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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