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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mansion on the Hill

For ostentatious displays of wealth, the modern NBA or NFL diva with a seemingly endless supply of money pales in comparison to some of the scions of the Industrial Revolution and their offspring. Teeter around Newport, Rhode Island and LeBron James's entire bank account wouldn't equal the interest these tycoons made in a couple of weeks.

Put simply, Deion Sanders couldn't hold George Washington Vanderbilt's jock. Neither could Aaron Spelling.

I say this having just toured the Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina. Awe inspiring doesn't begin to describe the level of opulence this man put into his vacation home. Two hundred and fifty rooms. One hundred and twenty-five thousand acres of total land, literally enough to encompass all the eye can see from the veranda of the mansion, twice the size of Washington D.C.

Vanderbilt commissioned two of the most prominent men in America to design and build the estate, architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the same Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York City. Their reputations are well-earned, because Biltmore is the American equivalent of Versailles.

The banquet hall has a ceiling seven stories tall. It looks like a high-end cathedral. The library has 10,000 volumes and a fireplace so big you could spit roast an Escalade in. There's an indoor pool with underwater lighting, installed at a time when most people didn't even have electricity. An entire room is devoted to Hunt's architectural model of the estate, and that's the room's original purpose.

I don't mean to slag Vanderbilt. He was a devout Episcopalian who completely funded a local parish, operated a farm and furniture plant on the property for the benefit of local citizens, and generally continued his family's tradition of generous philanthropy (for example, his father helped establish the Metropolitan Opera).

But the level of excess and expectations enjoyed by these long-gone barons are simply too decadent for anyone currently alive to comprehend, outside of the British royal family and some Saudi oil sheiks. Even if Bill Gates wanted to live like Vanderbilt, who didn't have a quarter of his father's inheritance, he couldn't afford the property taxes (keep in mind the income tax wasn't around when Biltmore was created), let alone the upkeep.

Biltmore makes some of the nicest homes you'll see on television look like hovels, and that's not hyperbole in the slightest.

The estate is a living testament to an era the earth will never see again. Taxes are too high, land is too expensive, and people just aren't that self-indulgent. That's a good thing. Conspicuous consumption is ugly, no matter how pretty it can appear.

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