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The Great Smoky Mountain Journal

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Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2018 07:20 PM

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Owner Of Biltmore Estates Dies At Age 89

William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, owner of the Biltmore Estate and a champion of its preservation and success, died at his Asheville home TuesdayCecil also was the grandson of the estate's famous builder, George Washington Vanderbilt III. Cecil was 89.

“My father’s legacy is immeasurable for our family,” Bill Cecil Jr., William Cecil’s son and president & CEO of the Biltmore Company, which owns and operates Biltmore Estate, said in a press release. “He will always be remembered for his leadership, vision and dedication to Biltmore. He had the foresight to do what everyone thought was impossible."

Cecil said his father devoted himself to the estate's preservation, and he was determined to make the estate self-supporting. The 8,000-acre estate, French-style chateau and on-site attractions such as the Antler Hill Village retail area and a winery now host more than 1.4 million tourists annually, but during the mid-20th century the estate struggled financially.

Born Aug. 17, 1928, at his family home in Asheville, William A.V. Cecil was the youngest son of Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and John Francis Amherst Cecil. He was educated in England and Switzerland, then served in the British Navy near the end of World War II.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1952, Cecil worked in finance at Chase Manhattan Bank in Washington, D.C., and with Chase’s international department in New York.

In 1957, Cecil married Mary “Mimi” Ryan, a lawyer with a Wall Street firm. Three years later they moved from New York to Asheville, determined to preserve Biltmore by boosting tourism, not only to the estate but also to the Asheville region.

George Vanderbilt completed the estate in 1895, but he died in 1914 in Washington, D.C. from complications after an appendectomy.

While William A.V. Cecil's parents had opened the Biltmore house to the public in 1930, it was not a money-maker. A 2016 Citizen-Times story noted the estate turned its first profit in 1969, a decade after Mimi and William Cecil returned to Asheville.

It was not quite $17.

"My dad was very proud of that," Bill Cecil said with a smile at the time.

In its press release, the Biltmore Co. said Cecil's leadership "propelled restorations to Biltmore House, renovations across the estate, and unparalleled growth for the Biltmore Company based on his unique business philosophy of a profitable private enterprise supporting preservation."

He would do anything for the company, including taking pictures and writing marketing copy.

His devotion to the estate was unquestioned, and it was never about bringing in huge profits. In its press release, the Biltmore Co. cited an oft-repeated quote of the elder Cecil: “We don’t preserve Biltmore to make a profit. We make a profit to preserve Biltmore."

Steve Miller, 62, worked for the Biltmore Company for 38 years, starting in college when he would literally muck out livestock stalls. He considers Cecil one of the "great men" of Asheville, a true gentleman and visionary who did not seek out the spotlight but was quietly instrumental in the progress of the estate, and the region.

While the estate is flooded with tourists almost year-round now, it's easy to forget that in the middle of the last century the estate was losing $250,000 a year, Miller said. The famous Biltmore Dairy was self-sufficient, but overall, taxes and operating costs siphoned off more money than the estate could generate.

Despite industry experts who told him he could never turn a profit on a historic property, Cecil persevered, determined not only to succeed but also to keep the estate privately owned. It is the largest privately owned home in America.

"He recognized the potential for Biltmore — and Asheville — to become really significant national tourism destinations," said Miller, who now owns a consulting business and teaches business at UNC Chapel Hill. "Had it not been for his foresight and his determination, Biltmore would not be what it is today, and I don’t think Asheville would be what it is its today."