Bill Cecil and his son were out hunting wild turkey in the rain in 2010 when he got a call that the president would be at the family homestead in a half-hour.
Barack Obama was not the first chief executive to visit the place on the outskirts of Asheville. Nor was William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil Jr. the first of his family to welcome one.
Cecil, 53, is the chief executive of the family-owned Biltmore Estate, North Carolina’s most-visited tourist attraction and the largest privately owned home in the nation. The sprawling French chateau was built by great-grandfather George Washington Vanderbilt in the 1880s and today is the centerpiece of a larger concern that has 950 employees – around 1,800 during peak season.
“It’s a job,” he said. “I try to show up early for work because Biltmore has turned into a business that includes industries from hospitality to agriculture.”
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The president seemed to have a good time there, by the way: He was budgeted to spend 20 minutes but stayed close to an hour and a half. In the library, Cecil said, Obama was fascinated by an ornate 1890s globe the size of a medicine ball and asked if he could touch it.
“He put gloves on his hands, and we lowered the guard rope. He spent 15 minutes moving the globe this way and that.”
Cecil – pronounced “sess-il” – grew up having the run of the 8,000-acre estate on the French Broad River. He is accustomed to all stripe of tourists. Roughly 1 million visitors per year is business-as-usual.
A mansion frozen in time
Unlike his father, he was not born in the mansion and never lived there. His parents moved back to Asheville in 1958, two years after the chateau was permanently converted into an attraction that William Cecil Sr., now retired, inherited. Bill and his sister, Diana, were raised in South Asheville.
Being without residents better allows the mansion to be frozen in time.
“Most of the restoration was done in the 1970s through ’90s. Two hundred fifty rooms are stabilized and 90 percent of them are restored.”
About 85 percent of mansion floor space is open to the public.
Cecil himself, however is both shy and private. Who he’s from crosses into work; who he is is his own business.
How cool would it be growing up with your family owning the mansion where the movie “Richie Rich” was filmed?
He recalls bowling in the basement’s alley until a rosewood ball broke.
Of playing after hours in a 130,000-square-foot manor hall, he remembers thinking the Winter Garden’s trapdoor freight elevator was kind of creepy.
What about the “Champagne Lady” ghost? Legend has it that she descends the marble staircase just off the main entrance.
Cecil snickered and said, “That was a story until closed-circuit TV; she hasn’t been seen since.”
His favorite room? The more than 10,000-book library, because of the way the light plays through the windows.
He is visually-oriented and focused on what he terms “the operational end of things.”
Bill and Melinda Gates visited Biltmore once. “They came to get ideas for decorating their place, and were very amazed,” Cecil said. “I told him, ‘You can tour Biltmore for free if you teach me how to use Windows 95.’ ”
Like CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a Vanderbilt kinsman he’s never met, Cecil has had to deal with dyslexia – a disorder that makes reading difficult.
One way Cecil’s parents dealt with it: When he was 9 or 10 his mom took him to one of the estate garages and pointed at a broken-down 1947 Jeep pickup. She said, “It’s yours to drive as soon as you can fix it,” and gave him its Chilton Auto Repair manual and a box of tools.
He was soon motoring around the Biltmore grounds.
Groomed for the job
His father may have been private-schooled in Switzerland – Cecil says William Sr. speaks French better than English – but he had his son do time on estate crews. (Clearing out manure from the stables, he uncovered never-installed mansion ceiling lights.)
Junior was being groomed for his position in life. He got away from it, briefly. An avid skier, he attended the University of Colorado. He wanted to be on their ski team and the school was “in a place where I wouldn’t be Mister Cecil’s son.”
He took his a degree in geography. And came home.
On this spring day, he is driving a mud-splashed 4x4 Toyota Tundra pickup.
Part of Cecil’s work is akin to being a museum director, supervising the restoration and conservation teams that safekeep everything from medieval tapestries and Renoirs to mounted animal trophies (“They’re all stabilized. No bugs.”)
The mansion’s massive attic is fully organized, its contents in labeled crates.
Taking care of business
Then there’s the business end of things, growing the winery his father started, keeping the gardens, grounds and buildings maintained and profitable, overseeing product licensing, keeping the Inn on Biltmore Estate a top-ranked hotel, administering the on-grounds Antler Hill retail/recreation development, and so on. The Biltmore board includes his sister, Diana.
Cecil’s older son is a bank analyst in New York. His daughter works with horses in Florida. His youngest wants to play Division I football, possibly at Appalachian State. Will they eventually take over the Biltmore reins?
“I would hope the kids would do this,” he said. “I would want them to have the passion for living here... because there’s no day off.”