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Looking back on a Titanic decision

Exhibit digs deeper into Biltmore’s stories and fateful move that kept Vanderbilts off doomed ship

POSTED: May 20, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Restoration work on Napoleon's chessboard. George W. Vanderbilt came into possession of the chess set as a birthday gift when he turned 21.

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One hundred years ago, as passengers and crew members aboard the RMS Titanic counted down the minutes to certain death or despair, members of one well-known North Carolina family were out of harm’s way, having made a decision that likely changed the course of their lives.

The maritime tragedy, retold in countless movies and books, played out when the grand ocean liner collided with an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic just before midnight April 14, 1912, sinking very early the following morning.

More than 1,500 souls were carried into an icy grave during Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton U.K., to New York. The 700 or so people who managed to survive faced life-threatening conditions in the open ocean until rescue efforts commenced.

But a stroke of luck meant that George Vanderbilt, whose vision is the inspiration for Asheville’s Biltmore estate, his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, wouldn’t be counted on rolls naming the dead.

Despite initial plans to travel on Titanic, a fateful change in plans put the family aboard a sister ship, the Olympic, which carried the Vanderbilts from Europe to the United States several days earlier. One of their servants wouldn’t be so lucky.

The Titanic tale is just one of many stories told in a new exhibit at Biltmore, “The Vanderbilts at Home & Abroad.”

Visitors to the estate can dig into the details in the Biltmore Legacy building of the Antler Hill Village & Winery area, several minutes away from the main house.

The 250-room Biltmore House was designed by well-renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. The father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead, a designer of New York’s Central Park, planned the gardens.

Staff at Biltmore are “responsible for the preservation of everything at Biltmore estate, including the stories that are associated with its history,” said Darren Poupore, chief curator. “Ultimately we are trying to answer the burning question, ‘What were George, Edith and Cornelia like? What were their lives like? Who were they?’”

The estate’s archives, which include thousands upon thousands of unreviewed documents, yield new discoveries even today, years after the house’s formal opening on Christmas Eve, 1895.

“We’re constantly doing research, and we constantly have new discoveries,” Poupore said.

The Titanic story grew out of such efforts.

A stronger story

“While going through the estate’s archives, we were able to piece together a fascinating story about why the Vanderbilts did not board Titanic,” Poupore said. “We share the fateful decision that ultimately saved (the Vanderbilts’ lives) for the first time in this exhibition.”

Vanderbilt connections to the Titanic had long been known, but solid details remained scarce. Questions about the reliability of turn-of-the-century newspaper reports also nagged curators.

For example, some early reports indicated the ship was under tow to Nova Scotia.

“The Vanderbilts were kind of like Hollywood stars at the time, so their comings and goings were always documented,” Poupore said. “We just know that a lot of what was documented was wrong.”

By combining research efforts in the estate’s archives with a curator from The Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and an independent maritime historian, a more concrete story developed.

As February 1912 arrived, the Vanderbilts had been in Europe for six months, and previously unprocessed documents in the Biltmore archives sketch out the timeline for their return home.

“I have practically decided to sail on the maiden trip of Titanic, returning to New York,” George Vanderbilt wrote to the estate supervisor early that month.

Another letter followed in March, confirming booking aboard Titanic to New York, with travel to Biltmore by train.

Then something changed, prompting a telegram to be sent to the estate a week before Titanic’s voyage began.

“Sailing on Olympic, plans changed,” George Vanderbilt wrote.

Exactly what led to the switch isn’t clear, but Poupore points to a coal strike that disrupted maritime operations at the time or the desire to travel with close friends booked on Olympic as possibilities.

Whether the Vanderbilts would have perished is of course an unknown. A British Board of Trade report indicated first-class survival rates of 33 percent for men, 97 percent for women and 83.4 percent for children.

One Vanderbilt servant, Edwin Charles Wheeler, wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

He kept his original Titanic ticket and perished, perhaps while acting as custodian of baggage the Vanderbilts were bringing home.

A Titanic model, original dining menus and images on loan from the Pigeon Forge attraction help tell the story in “At Home & Abroad.”

A wealth of stories

Visitors to the main house in Asheville encounter a grand scale projecting at almost every turn.

Figures published by Biltmore indicate the house itself covers 175,000 square feet. The estate originally encompassed 125,000 acres, although much of the land later was acquired by the federal government. Today, some removed acreage is part of Pisgah National Forest.

If the indoor swimming pool were filled, it would contain 70,000 gallons of water. The library holds 23,000 books. There are 250 rooms, 94 acres of vineyards and 65 fireplaces. The approach road to the house itself is 3 miles long and was quite the journey for carriages.

Placing the exhibit at Biltmore Legacy permits visitors a more intimate look inside the Vanderbilts’ lives with less hustle and bustle.

“There’s only so much you can do in the house. What we’re hoping is that people will come down to Antler Hill Village and really get a second part of the experience. They can take their time going through the exhibition and go at their own pace and learn as much as they want to at a much deeper level about George, Edith and Cornelia,” Poupore said.

A special piece normally located 15 feet behind a velvet rope in the main house can now be seen up-close for the first time, and it is Poupore’s favorite.

“Napoleon’s chess set to me is just captivating,” Poupore said. “For one reason, because I’m a chess player. But also because it’s an object that can get lost in the historic interiors.”

The set is both hard to see and in competition with everything else in the Vanderbilt library.

“We’re able to put a spotlight on one object, and use it as a platform to tell something more about who a family member was,” Poupore said. “You learn so much more about George just by looking at this chess set.”

The story is rooted in George Vanderbilt’s teen years. He was 17 when he traveled to the Holland House, a historic home and 19th century social center in England.

He wrote in his travel diary that James McHenry, an American business tycoon, gave the family a private tour. The two would strike up a friendship and, when George turned 21, McHenry offered Napoleon’s chess set and table as a birthday present.

“Mr. McHenry was an older man, and I think he was impressed in George. He saw this young teenager who had this kind of unusual interest in history and the arts and was interested in what he was showing,” Poupore said.

George Vanderbilt would go on to develop a fascination with Napoleon, one of the most celebrated figures in Western world history. Books, etchings and engravings are among Biltmore’s collections.

“You’re seeing another side of George. In talking about this chess set, you’re really getting a much fuller picture of who George was,” Poupore said.

Visitors to “At Home & Abroad” are greeted with details about the Vanderbilt family tree. Moving forward they will find a silver tea service from George Vanderbilt’s private rail car, Edith Vanderbilt’s personal Kodak cameras and a costume worn by Cornelia Vanderbilt during her 21st birthday masquerade party.

Other notable items include authentic samurai swords and armor from an 1892 trip to Japan, and a rare 1920 model 20-J tandem seat Harley-Davidson, nearly identical to one once owned by the Vanderbilts.

In all, 15 sections make up the exhibit, with a variety of different stories and objects on display.

“We’re hoping that everyone who comes will be interested in something,” Poupore said.


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