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The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love,…

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the… (2017)

by Denise Kiernan

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2771262,063 (3.51)17



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This is a nonfiction book about the building of the Biltmore and the Vanderbilts. The Biltmore is America's largest home and was built in the early 1900s, the Gilded Age. It was George Vanderbilt's project - he feel in love with the natural beauty of the Asheville, NC area and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to work on the grounds (something like 125,000 acres) and Richard Morris Hunt to build the home. George married Edith Dresser after almost finishing Biltmore and she did much to support the Asheville community and to keep Biltmore financially viable after George's early death.

This book has plenty in it - information about the families, the building of the house, the grounds and forestry, the Asheville locals, and celebrity gossip. But despite all that I somehow found it a little light on the details. I wanted a bit more in depth analysis of almost every aspect presented.

This was interesting and easy to read, but wasn't quite as great as I wanted it to be. I'd still recommend it to anyone interested in the story of the Biltmore estate. ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 8, 2019 |
When I was a kid I visited Biltmore House and was awed and amazed. That experience had me looking forward to reading this book, however, I had to force myself to finish this book it was so boring. First off the buying of the land and the building of the house by George Washington Vanderbilt beginning in 1888. George and his mother who both suffered from poor health believed that the mountain air would be good for their health. However, she wouldn't live long enough to live in it. Now, writing about building something isn't easy to make it sound interesting but it is possible as Erik Larsson does in Devil in the White City as he describes the building of a city within a city and makes it sound completely fascinating. Kienan fails here. It's like a listing of items that get checked off.

The great Fredrick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park among a million other things including the White City at the World's Fair of 1893 and Richard Morris Hunt who designed the pedestal for the Statute of Liberty among a million other things, as well as the White City, were the ones who designed Biltmore House. The grounds had been badly deforested and needed to be replanted which with the help of Olmstead and Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck forested the land. Pinchot would leave to start up the U.S. Forestry Service for Roosevelt and Carl Schenck would come in and take his place. Schenck would set up a school for forest rangers on the grounds of Biltmore. Biltmore would set up a nursery that would grow trees and shrubs to be planted.

George would not see the point in marrying for a long time. He believed in seeing the world before settling down. He would be thirty-six when he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, in 1898. His sisters would put his best friend William Vrandhurst Osgood "Billy", "Willie" Field up to get the two together since they were going to be on the same ship crossing the Atlantic going toward France with a stop in London. She spends more time with Field than she does Vanderbilt though. Edith has the name but not the riches. She has three other sisters and a brother Daniel. Both her parents have been dead for some time and they were raised by a grandmother who is also now dead. But the two don't get together then. Willie and George head on to India but then when they come back, Field has to go away on business and George is left to his own devices and finds himself meeting up with Edith in Paris where the two fall in love and decide to marry there.

Soon the two are joined by a daughter Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt. She is born in North Carolina and the state welcomes her completely as one of their own calling her a "Tar Heel Nell". Cornelia will be brought up along with the servants and villagers' kids and with a sense that she needs to give back to the community like her parents do. Edith opens up Biltmore Industries a crafts and clothing operation and helps to support the women who run it which provides people with the ability to learn a trade and to sell their crafts. This makes her no money it all goes to the Institute and the people who are in it. She also opens up a school for those who want to learn how to be a domestic servant and she opens schools for the children on the grounds of Biltmore.

Biltmore was never finished as George essentially ran out of money that he could devote to it. The music room, for instance, has a ceiling that is unfinished. As a matter of fact, through some bad investments, George wasn't doing so well financially. He would begin to look for ways to cut back. Which would begin a trend over the years as land is sold off (over 88,000 acres to form the Pisgah National Forest the first protected government land to come from private lands) and other things are done to save Biltmore from being torn down or parceled off.

Something that bothers me a great deal in this book is all of the describing of what people wear. I realize that Edith and Cornelia were some sorts of fashion plates perhaps, but it got quite boring real quick. Again this is the most boring interesting book ever. And I know this isn't the author's fault, it's even in the title, the loss that she describes isn't just the real estate it's all the dead bodies in this book. So many people die in this book. And not just from old age. There are suicides, murder, sickness, stress, and a ship sinking. It's a real downer to read that one more person has died like some kind of Shakespearean tragedy. And if they weren't dying they were getting divorced. The Kennedy curse is to die young, the Vanderbilt curse is to get divorced. This at a time when people could and did divorce, but not in great numbers. This book did have a few brief moments of interest such as when it talked about the authors Edith Wharton winning the Pulitzer and when it talked about Thomas Wolfe throughout. However, these pieces of information seemed to meander off of the main point as though she was looking for something interesting to tie into it. I was disappointed that such a grand house would receive a book that would let it down. It didn't even live up to it's title. The author provides all the information but fails to provide it in an interesting way. I give this book two and a half stars out of five stars. ( )
  nicolewbrown | Mar 13, 2019 |
Wow! What an interesting story and a delightful read! Kiernan, by way of her beautiful writing, in-depth research and excellent perspective made what could have been a dry, boring story extremely captivating. It’s especially awesome that I recently visited Biltmore House. I highly recommend both the book and a tour. ( )
  joyfulmimi | Feb 21, 2019 |
Biltmore is an enormous Gilded Age estate in North Carolina. It was built on the orders of George Washington Vanderbilt II in the 1880s-90s as a summer retreat and became the largest private home in America. Biltmore is situated on a plot of land to match, over 10 square miles, the bulk of which is forest and now a National Park. The house itself, astonishingly, remains in private hands. How this came to pass makes for an entertaining bit of history.

I hadn't known much about the origins of Biltmore or its role in the early environmental movement and was impressed. Kiernan veers away from the story of the house to dwell on Vanderbilt family drama, but its to be expected. Not many people just want to hear about stone korbels and inspiration for plasterwork. The Biltmore Vanderbilts lived interesting lives, Edith (George's wife) in particular with her involvement in an Arts & Crafts cottage industry around the estate. The other family members, especially where it seemed Kiernan had to fill gaps of information with speculation such as with Cornelia Vanderbilt (the original heiress), was less interesting. Thanks to this book, Biltmore and its gardens and the park surrounding it have risen above the 'cottages' of Rhode Island as a must-visit for me.

The fact that Biltmore, such a white elephant from the beginning, survived intact through a century as destructive as the last one is remarkable. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 19, 2019 |
If you are expecting a book written solely about Biltmore House and its occupants, then likely you will be disappointed in the rambling nature of this book. Author Denise Kiernan has written a discourse on much more just the house itself. She has included much of the history of the times, the people and the events that shaped the house from its beginning to the present day. While some events do appear to be filler for the book, most of it explains what the owners of the house experienced in the building and the maintaining of such a vast undertaking. Still under private ownership while other estates are not, the author painstakingly illustrates the beginnings and the changes that had to be made by the people who inherited it. All the dreams and hopes as well as the heartbreak and tragedies that occurred are well researched and explained in this book. ( )
  Maydacat | Jul 23, 2018 |
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Documents the story of the Gilded Age mansion Biltmore, tracing George Vanderbilt's construction of his European-style estate and the efforts of his bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, to become its protector in the face of changing fortunes and times.

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