William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil dedicated much of his life to preserving his family home – the more than 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate where he was born in 1928.
Under Cecil’s leadership, the French-style chateau in Asheville grew into a popular North Carolina tourist attraction with a profitable winery. The Biltmore, with its 250 rooms, is recognized as America’s largest private house.
Cecil died at his home on Tuesday. He was 89.
Cecil was the younger son of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F.A. Cecil. He attended schools in England and Switzerland before serving in the British Navy, according to the estate’s website. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, he worked as a banker.
He returned to Asheville in 1960 in hopes of preserving his childhood home, the Associated Press reported. The home was built in the late 1800s as the private estate of his grandfather, George Washington Vanderbilt III. Cecil came back to the estate with his wife, Mary Lee Ryan, a first cousin of First Lady Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy.
His parents opened Biltmore Estate to the public in 1930, but it didn’t make a profit – only about $17 – until 1969, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.
“After Biltmore House was opened for public viewing in 1930, it became a well-known attraction in the Southeast,” the estate’s website says. “By the late ’50s, however, the numbers of visitors were dwindling and a decision had to be made: sell the property and turn what many considered a ‘white elephant’ into a state or national historic trust – or find a way to preserve the estate and put it back on its feet financially.
“Against most well-meaning advice, Mr. Cecil decided to leave his successful career with Chase-Manhattan Bank in Washington, D.C., and return to his birthplace to see what he could make of it.”
The estate now attracts more than 1.4 million visitors annually.
“My father’s legacy is immeasurable for our family,” Bill Cecil Jr., William Cecil’s son and the president and CEO of Biltmore Co., said in a statement. Biltmore Co. owns and operates the Biltmore Estate.
“He will always be remembered for his leadership, vision and dedication to Biltmore,” Bill Cecil Jr. said. “He had the foresight to do what everyone thought was impossible."
A private funeral for family, friends and close associates will be at 11 a.m. Friday at All Souls Cathedral in Biltmore Village, followed by a private family burial, according to the Citizen-Times. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Building Preservation Fund at All Souls Cathedral, 9 Swan St., Asheville NC 28803.