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Biltmore Estate owner William Cecil dies at 89 Vanderbilt’s grandson preserved landmark, made it self-supporting
Tuesday, 05 December 2017 00:34

Vanderbilt’s grandson preserved landmark, made it self-supporting

 From Staff Reports

William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, owner of the Biltmore Estate, died Oct. 31 in his Asheville home at age 89. 

He was credited as a champion of the estate’s preservation and success.

Cecil was the grandson of George Washington Vanderbilt III, who is famed for building the 250-room chateau on 125,000 acres of woodland.

Bill Cecil Jr., William Cecil’s son and president and chief executive officer of the Biltmore Co., which owns and operates Biltmore Estate, said in a press release, “My father’s legacy is immeasurable to our family. 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 noted that his father devoted himself to the estate’s preservation, and he was determind 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 hosting 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 Amhert 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, he married Wall Street lawyer Mary “Mimi” Ryan, and three years later, he moved the family back to Asheville and the Biltmore Estate. Associates say he had two goals: making the estate self-sustaining and promoting local tourism.

The estate had been completed in 1895, and Cecil’s parents opened it to the public in 1930. In spite of industry analysts’ insistence that he could not make a historic home a profitable endeavor, Cecil persisted, and in 1969, the estate turned its first profit — just under $17.

Before that, the estate had been losing $250,000 a year in taxes and operating expenses, the Biltmore Dairy being the enterprise’s only profitable venture.

As president and CEO of the Biltmore Company until retiring from daily operations in 1995, Cecil was engaged in all phases of marketing the estate. In the early years, Cecil often paid estate expenses out of his own pocket.

The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, and more recently, Cecil oversaw the completion of the winery and retail shops at Antler Hill Village. The Biltmore Estate now employs 2,400 at its seasonal peak, hosting 1.4 million tourists annually.

Cecil was still serving as chairman of the board of the estate when he died. 

His service in the local tourism industry included posts as president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Southern Highlands Attractions Association. Two decades ago, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority set up the William A.V. Cecil Award for Tourism Leadership in his honor. 

Cecil is survived by son, William A.V. “Bill” Cecil, Jr.; daughter-in-law Virginia “Ginger” Cecil; daughter Diana “Dini” Cecil Pickering; son-in-law George “Chuck” Pickering; five grandchildren; and two-great-grandchildren.

He is also survived by his brother, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil, age 92. Until recently, George ran Biltmore Farms, the developers of, among other projects, Biltmore Park and Biltmore Lake.

A private funeral was held Nov. 3 at All Souls Cathedral in Biltmore Village, followed by a private family burial and, later,  a  reception at Deerpark at the Biltmore Estate. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that memorials be made to the Building Preservation Fund at All Souls Cathedral, 9 Swan Street, Asheville, N.C. 28803.

Nonprofit leader Mimi Cecil, 85, dies; wife of William Cecil

From Staff Reports

Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil, a leader in the Asheville community and supporter of area nonprofits, died Nov. 17 at her home at age 85.

Her late husband, William A.V. Cecil, died less than three weeks earlier at age 89. 

Together, they owned The Biltmore Company, which owns and operates Biltmore Estate.

Born Mary Lee Ryan on Dec. 11, 1931, she was the daughter of textile manufacturer John J. Ryan, Jr., and granddaughter of the prominent New York banker, lawyer, and builder James T. Lee. 

She graduated with a B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1953. Notably, she was in the first class of female graduates from the University of Michigan Law School. She was elected to the Law Review in 1956 and was a partner in the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. 

In 1957, she married William A.V. Cecil at St. Vincent Ferrer’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City. In 1960, the Cecils moved to Asheville to raise their family and to oversee the management and preservation of Biltmore, which was created by his grandfather, George W. Vanderbilt III. 

While supporting her family’s endeavors at Biltmore, Mrs. Cecil became known within the Asheville community for her relaxed and approachable manner. She was a familiar figure in the world of nonprofit leadership, and devoted her life to making a difference in the areas of education, social inequities, the environment and the arts.

She was a trustee and served 14 years as chair for North Carolina Environmental Defense. 

Mrs. Cecil is survived by her son, William A.V. “Bill” Cecil Jr., and daughter-in-law Virginia “Ginger” Cecil; her daughter, Diana “Dini” Cecil Pickering and son-in-law George “Chuck” Pickering II, brother John J. Ryan III, and sister-in-law Jacqueline Ryan; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.



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