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George Washington Vanderbilt II

George Washington Vanderbilt II (November 14, 1862 – March 6, 1914) was a member of the prominent United States Vanderbilt family, which had amassed a huge fortune through steamboats, railroads, and various business enterprises.


The fourth son and youngest child of William Henry Vanderbilt and Maria Louisa Kissam. George II was named after his father's younger brother, George Washington Vanderbilt I, third son of the family founders, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Sophia Johnson. (Uncle George had died young at age 25 of tuberculosis contracted during his service in the Civil War.) As the youngest in William's family, George II was said to be his father's favorite and his constant companion. Relatives described him as slender, dark-haired, and pale-complexioned. Shy and introverted, his interests ran to philosophy, books, and the histories of the paintings in William's large art gallery. In addition to frequent visits to Paris, France, where several Vanderbilts kept a home, George traveled extensively, becoming fluent in eight foreign languages.

George Vanderilbt II with daughter Cornelia

His father owned elegant mansions in New York City and Newport and an 800-acre (3.2 sq. km) country estate on Long Island, died in 1885 of a stroke, leaving a fortune of approximately 200 million dollars, the bulk of which was split between his two older sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt. George W. Vanderbilt II had inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father's death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund. He ran the family farm at New Dorp and Woodland Beach, now the neighborhood of Midland Beach on Staten Island, New York where he had been born, then lived with his mother in Manhattan until his own townhouse at 9 West 53rd Street was completed in 1887. The Vanderbilt family business was operated by his older brothers. This left George to spend his time in intellectual pursuits.

Biltmore Estate

In the 1880s, George visited western North Carolina with his mother. On a trip there in 1888, when he was twenty-six, he decided to build a country home there. In 1889, he purchased acreage near Asheville, North Carolina and began construction of the Biltmore Estate. He continued buying land until the estate eventually encompassed 228 square miles (591 sq. km). It would have taken a week to travel on horseback around the property. Modeled after the great French Chateaux of the Loire Valley, the 250-room estate on 125,000 acres (506 sq. km) would be the largest of all the Vanderbilt houses. It remains the largest home in the United States and one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age. The buildings were designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt and the grounds landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the "father of American landscape Architecture". On Christmas Eve 1895, Biltmore House opened its doors for its first family celebration. An art connoisseur and collector, George filled his mansion with Oriental carpets, tapestries, antiques, and artwork, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and James Whistler, as well as a chess set that had belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.

At Biltmore, George led the life of a country gentleman. Having a great interest in horticulture, he oversaw experiments in scientific farming, animal bloodline breeding, and silviculture (forestry). His goal was to run Biltmore as a self-sustaining estate. In 1892, Olmsted suggested that Vanderbilt hire Gifford Pinchot to manage the forests on the estate. According to Pinchot, who went on to be the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, Biltmore was the first professionally managed forest in the U.S; it was also the site of the Biltmore Forest School, said to be the first such school in North America, established in 1898 by Dr. Carl Schenck.


George Vanderilbt II with daughter Cornelia

On June 1, 1898, George W. Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (1873 — 1958) at the American Cathedral in Paris, France. They had one daughter, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt (1900 – 1976). In 1912 George and Edith booked passage on the Titanic but changed their plans before departure sailing and arriving in New York before the Titanic sank, due to what newspapers of the day labeled "a premonition of Mrs. Vanderbilt's sister, Susan Dresser", or in some cases, a premonition from George Vanderbilt's mother (who was deceased, making it difficult for her to have a premonition). It was too late to stop Mr. Vanderbilt's valet, Fred Wheeler, from boarding the ship; he was lost, along with the Vanderbilt's luggage, when the Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912.


Unfortunately, George spent more than his annual income on the Biltmore and its upkeep and began withdrawing money from capital. In addition, bad investments helped to deplete his once great fortune. Some of the chateau's rooms were never completed. He lived on the property until 1914 when he died of a pulmonary embolism in Washington, D.C. after an appendectomy. He was interred in the Vanderbilt family mausoleum at the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp on Staten Island, New York.


After his death, George's widow sold approximately 86,000 acres (350 sq. km) of the property to the United States Forest Service at $5 an acre, fulfilling her husband's wishes to create the core of Pisgah National Forest. She sold additional land as finances demanded; today, about 8,000 acres (32 sq. km) remain. Edith Dresser Vanderbilt later married Peter Goelet Gerry (1879 – 1957), a United States Senator from Rhode Island. Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt (George and Edith Vanderbilt's only child) married British aristocrat, John F. A. Cecil, a descendant of William Cecil in 1924. Her sons, George and William, eventually inherited the property. George Cecil, the older of the two sons, chose to inherit the majority of the estate's land and the Biltmore Farms Company, which was more profitable than the house at the time. The younger son, William Cecil was thus left with Biltmore House, and is credited with preserving the chauteau which (though still privately owned) has been opened to the public.

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