Man Fights To Keep A Castle His Home

THE VANDERBILT heir who runs America's largest private home denied Oprah Winfrey's wish to marry there. Ditto his daughter's. He doesn't want the place to become a catering hall. But he does want a tax break. ------------------------------

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil is thinking hard these days about estate planning.

Cecil has more to consider than most. He owns a big house that demands quite a bit of upkeep.

It has 34 master bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, three kitchens and a yard more than nine times the size of New York's Central Park.

Cecil, 66, isn't getting any younger. Neither is his house, Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America and the most famous in North Carolina. It's also the mansion featured in the recent movie "Richie Rich."

This year, Biltmore turns 100. Cecil's grandfather, George Washington Vanderbilt, opened the house on Christmas Eve, 1895, with the family arriving by private railway car.

America's great Vanderbilt railroad and shipping fortune had financed Biltmore, a country manor in Asheville to rival the estates of European royalty.

Since the 1960s, Cecil has preserved Biltmore with a strategy many visitors find curious.

He saved a decaying castle by flinging open its doors to the multitudes - and charging them admission, now $24.95 apiece for adults.

Part aristocrat, part entrepreneur, Cecil marketed memories. He turned a historical oddity into a $34 million-a-year family business with its own winery, gift shops and line of furniture.

Now, Cecil faces a final challenge: Making sure Biltmore survives another hundred years.

Cecil confronts the inevitable without flinching. "Should the unfortunate occur and my life be snuffed out by God, the devil or something else," Cecil says, "then, Uncle Sam will come in with his IRS friends."

As with so many family businesses, inheritance taxes threaten to foil Cecil's dream of passing Biltmore on to his two children.

For the last few years, Cecil has spent much of his time lobbying Washington politicians for kinder tax treatment, so Biltmore can maintain its grand style.

"Biltmore," he says, "is a very tough mistress."

Cecil is so protective of Biltmore's reputation that he wouldn't let Oprah Winfrey get married there, even though his staff says she offered to write him a blank check. He wouldn't let his own daughter, either. He doesn't want the house turned into a catering hall.

In the 19th century, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt created the family fortune.

His grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt, was estimated to have spent half his $10 million inheritance to build Biltmore.

The family may have been able to afford a collection of Renoir, Sargent and Whistler paintings and 16th century tapestries. But Vanderbilt had to slash expenses to afford Biltmore's upkeep.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt spared no expense.

Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, carved elegant gardens out of the Appalachian wilderness, not far from impoverished mountaineers in one-room shacks.

"The contrast," wrote Vanderbilt forester Gifford Pinchot, "was a devastating commentary on the injustice of concentrated wealth."

Whatever its social merit, Cecil decided in 1960 that Biltmore needed saving.

"It was dreary, it was dark, it was dull, it was getting to be dirty," Cecil remembers. Since 1968, Cecil has spent $35 million on restoration.

This year, Biltmore Co. expects $34 million in revenues.

"`Like merchants, we market Biltmore," Cecil says. "And, like merchants, we expect to do better all the time."

You won't find Cecil dining in Biltmore's banquet hall. He doesn't live at Biltmore.

Instead, he lives nearby with his wife, Mimi, in a four-bedroom house built by his grandmother in the 1920s.

Nowadays, retirement weighs heavily on Cecil's mind.

Cecil knows that when he dies, inheritance taxes could claim 55 percent of his property's value, whatever that is.

Buncombe County gives Biltmore Estate a tax value of more than $31 million.

To pay the IRS, heirs could be forced to sell off property to developers, with the estate shrinking with each generation.

Of course, wealthy families often travel another route: They give property to a nonprofit corporation or government agency.

That prospect horrifies Cecil. He is proud that Biltmore, unlike nearly all historic houses or museums, pays its own way.

"Biltmore takes no grants, has no government subsidies, state funds or anything else," he says. Biltmore pays state and federal taxes - $10 million since 1979, as well as more than $227,000 annually in county property taxes.

Cecil wants properties such as Biltmore to win an indefinite deferral on inheritance taxes. As long as they stay open to the public, and meet rigorous preservation standards, heirs wouldn't have to pay. If a family wanted to sell a property, taxes would then be due. England has such a law.

His idea could be a hard sell. "You have to be very careful about making that kind of decision to give a subsidy to the super-rich," says Bob Hall of the Institute of Southern Studies, a Durham-based group.

Cecil said nearly all his company's profits return to preservation, with a small portion left to support one or two families.

"Biltmore is my only asset," Cecil says. "I don't have secret offshore bank accounts. I don't call on Swiss bankers."

Already, after years of getting nowhere with a Democratic Congress, Cecil says an unnamed Republican lawmaker has voiced sympathy with his cause since the Nov. 8 elections.