Asheville-based author Denise Kiernan has an obvious passion for history and an impulse to personalize it. Asked what the land George Vanderbilt bought in the mountains of North Carolina would have looked like, she imagines how Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect Vanderbilt brought on to help design the estate, might have reacted.
“Olmsted showed up,” Kiernan says, laughing, “and George was about 2,000 acres in, and Olmsted says, ‘This looks really crappy!'” And yet, she explains, Olmsted’s familiarity with the forests in the surrounding mountains induced him to take on the the task of extending that distant outlook into Vanderbilt’s land. Kiernan launches her book on Biltmore — The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home — at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 26.
As it happens, the author has some things in common with the historical figures whose story she tells. Like Vanderbilt, Kiernan was born in New York City and, like the scion and his wife, Edith, Kiernan traveled widely (including a stint in Italy reporting on soccer for ESPN) before settling in Asheville. When she and her husband arrived here, however, it wasn’t for the first time.
“I’ve always liked interesting houses,” she says, recalling her first visit to the Biltmore Estate, taken with her family when she was in high school. “But what really struck me there was just the sheer amount of land, and the views, and the gardens. As soon as we came back, that was certainly one of the places that I wanted to spend time.”
For that reason, writing about the estate seemed like a natural next step for Kiernan, who has penned several books of narrative history, including The New York Times best-seller The Girls of Atomic City. The Washington Post praised that book’s “deep reservoir of intimate details,” and a reader finds much the same intimate focus in Castle. Kiernan uses Biltmore as a lens to examine the rise and fall of the Gilded Age, and she weaves letters, journals, public records and newspaper archives together to present a picture of two people — George and Edith Vanderbilt — who refused to fall in with the expectations and distractions of the time.
“George grew up in the midst of this extravagant mayhem,” Kiernan says, “but he was a quiet rebel. A lot of people of his ilk were into travel and art, but he pursued it with authentic passion.”
For Edith, being an orphan shaped her character. “She and her sisters were quite adventurous and quite spirited,” Kiernan says. “It was almost inevitable that [she and George] were going to end up on a ship somewhere with some guy trying to play matchmaker.”
According to Kiernan, George and Edith also connected in other, unexpected ways. Edith’s instinct toward philanthropy reinforced George’s. And, despite its grandeur, their Appalachian home also brought them down to earth, eventually putting them in touch with a craft culture that inspired even George’s refined admiration. That led to one of the first legacies of their marriage: their significant influence in making homespun housewares mainstream as the American aesthetic scaled down for the more democratic age that followed.
Ironically, these two rebels against the Gilded Age ended up preserving one of its greatest monuments.
“It is hard to maintain that amount of wealth when financial crises come along,” Kiernan says. And yet, “even when money was a challenge, what Edith ended up buying was time.” At her death in 1958, the house had progressed beyond being, in Kiernan’s words, “a giant limestone albatross.” Instead of falling to the wrecking ball, like so many other great estates, it endured to become America’s largest private home.
As a result, the Biltmore Estate offers a unique experience in comparison with the other surviving homes of that era. “When you walk around the Biltmore house, it’s a very intimate visit,” Kiernan says. A visitor can look at a room and see it exactly as it was when it was first used: “They were sitting here, having tea, and looking at these very tapestries.”
Kiernan concludes Castle from the perspective of the estate’s acreage. Her visits now focus on the grounds of Biltmore — walking and kayaking on the property. She suggests that that the extension and preservation of the surrounding forests may be the Vanderbilts’ greatest legacy.
“I don’t think Asheville would be the place it is today if those 87,000 acres of forest hadn’t been preserved,” Kiernan says. “We talk about what George built bringing people to town, but what George didn’t build also brings a lot of people.”
WHO: Denise Kiernan presents The Last Castle in conversation with Karen Abbott
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 26, 6 p.m. Tickets are $32 and include a copy of the book