What began in 1895 as an estate built by George Vanderbilt continues to be an amazing experience for visitors today. At its core, Biltmore Estate will always have the natural beauty of the mountains as well as the majestic house, three times the size of the Whitehouse, and a yard nine times the size of New York’s Central Park.
George Vanderbilt envisioned Biltmore in 1888, while on a short vacation to Asheville. His imagination was sparked by the area’s beauty. Building Biltmore was, at the time, one of the largest undertakings in the history of American residential architecture and the results were astounding. Over a six-year period, an entire community of craftsmen worked to build the country’s premier home. The estate boasted its own brick factory, woodworking shop, and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site.
George and Edith Vanderbilt only had one child, Cornelia, who married British diplomat John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924. The Cecil’s had two sons: one is William A. V. Cecil, Biltmore’s owner. His son, Bill Cecil, Jr., is chief executive officer of The Biltmore Company, which includes Biltmore House & Gardens; Antler Hill Village which encompasses the Winery and Farm; Inn on Biltmore Estate; Biltmore Estate Wine Company; and Biltmore licensed products. Cecil and his family are passionate about the mission of preservation through being self-sufficient, a philosophy embraced before the first stone was ever put in place. Today the Estate welcomes more than a million paid guests per year and has one of the finest wineries in America and a world class Inn.
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, only child of George and Edith Vanderbilt, and her husband John Francis Amherst Cecil worked with the City of Asheville to open Biltmore to the public in 1930 to spur tourism in the area during the Depression and to generate revenue to support the estate.
The Cecil’s have turned the 255-room house, into a thriving tourist attraction. When 10,000 of those guests all wanted to come the day after Thanksgiving, the wait stretched beyond two hours, with visitors cramming the parking lots, ticket office, gift shops, restaurants and house.
The Cecil’s, through their Biltmore Company, have achieved his improbable business success by making the contradictory seem logical. An aristocratic heir to an aristocratic home, they commission marketing studies to make sure the estate can appeal to commoners’ tastes. To keep the house private, the family has welcomed ever-larger throngs of the public, adding dining halls and shops, a winery, Christmas music and candlelight tours
Cecil’s family now is facing the greatest challenge since they first turned a money-losing, deteriorating estate into a showplace more than three decades ago. When William A.V. Cecil dies, the tax collector will want his family to pay 55 percent of Biltmore’s value in estate taxes. This would probably force his family to sell or develop the property, or turn it over to a foundation or government agency unlikely to afford the upkeep of the Estate. With that in mind the Cecil’s have lobbied for kinder tax treatment: a tax deferral until his family sells the estate, or at least a 10-year period in which to pay the taxes.
To pay the IRS, heirs could be forced to sell off property to developers, with the estate shrinking with each generation. Of course, wealthy families often travel another route: They give property to a nonprofit corporation or government agency. That prospect horrifies Cecil. He is proud that Biltmore, unlike nearly all historic houses or museums, pays its own way. “Biltmore takes no grants, has no government subsidies, state funds or anything else,” Cecil Sr. says. Biltmore pays state and federal taxes.
The Cecil’s want properties such as Biltmore to win an indefinite deferral on inheritance taxes, as long as they stay open to the public, and meet rigorous preservation standards, heirs wouldn’t have to pay. If a family wanted to sell a property, taxes would then be due. England has such a law.
The Cecil Family states nearly all the company’s profits return to preservation, with a small portion left to support one or two families. “Biltmore is my only asset,” William A.V. Cecil says. “I don’t have secret offshore bank accounts. I don’t call on Swiss bankers.”
William A.V. Cecil Sr. has been quoted “Biltmore,” he says, “is a very tough mistress.” Cecil is so protective of Biltmore’s reputation that he wouldn’t let Oprah Winfrey get married there, even though his staff says she offered to write him a blank check. He wouldn’t let his own daughter, either. He doesn’t want the house turned into a catering hall.
Biltmore House is a wonderful place to spend a weekend in the upcoming fall and holiday season. Let’s hope this wonderful American Landmark, an example of American business wisdom and history stay’s just as it is today, in the hands of the Cecil Family and heirs and not the tax man one day.
Scott Smith WSGC Radio News
- Portions of this information for this article were obtained from Biltmore Estate, The Charlotte Observer and the New York Times