While visiting western North Carolina this month I toured two houses built in the 19th century, each high on hilltops overlooking the mountains surrounding them. My mind likes to link things, I couldn’t help but look at them as a pair.
The first house was named Connemara by an owner that lived there in between the man who had it built and the man whose shade I’d come to visit. The man who had it built was Christopher Memminger who had enslaved workers to build it. Memminger eventually became the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, so he must have known something about money and the slavery that helped accumulate it.* The later owner was a poet and writer who somehow found his own words remunerative enough to afford it, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was said to have found the place a bit baronial for a socialist poet, at least on first sight — but his beloved wife wanted temperate pastureland for her dairy goat herd, and this place had that. She’d helped and stood by Carl through his unlikely rise from hoboing between short-lived work, to being an aide to a mayor of Milwaukee, to daily journalism in Chicago, to becoming a prize-winning poet and multi-volume biographer of Lincoln.
The second house is Biltmore, built for George Vanderbilt II. If you know your Gilded Age, the Vanderbilts were likely the first great fortune family of enormous wealth in 19th century America. Brief accounts I’ve read of him don’t make him sound like someone all that interested in business or growing wealth. He was bookish, a bit shy — but also very rich and looking to use that wealth to put his mark on things, to enclose his life in the best as he saw it. If one wonders at the two socialist second-generation immigrants living in the large farmhouse of Connemara, Vanderbilt’s house makes that place look like an outbuilding. Biltmore’s not just bigger, it’s thought to be the biggest residence ever built in the United States, with around 4 acres of floor space beneath huge high-vaulted common rooms. The estate surrounding it was over 100,000 acres, and Vanderbilt had it landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who had worked on a much smaller canvas with the 800 acres of New York City’s Central Park.
The mix of manicured and wild seeming landscape is beautiful in the Olmsted manner. We biked along a trail through 8 miles of it, past lagoons and along the banks of the French Broad river —and as we rolled over a wood-rimed rise down past a pasture I was delighted to see three hawks at tree-top level swooping over us, so low that the shadows of one passed over me rolling beneath them.
The two houses have similarities, if not in scale. Both Carl and George were packrats, though at the wealth level of a Vanderbilt, it’s called being an art collector. The Sandburg house was donated to the US government just after Carl’s death. His wife and two live-in adult children packed up as if going on vacation and left the house for residence in Asheville. The Park Service has maintained it ever since in Marie Celeste ghost-ship-shape. One of Carl’s cigar butts sits in an ashtray on the set-for-a-meal dinner table. Piles of books and magazines cover many surfaces as if they were just set down this week. Sandburg has thousands of books in bookcases everywhere around the house, and there are busts of Carl and his long-term subject Lincoln, art photographs by his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, and scattered knickknacks. Vanderbilt had even more thousands of books, all stored in a large floor-to-two-story-high ceiling library room, all arranged with leather and gilt bindings a-plenty. Life-size John Singer Sargent portraits abound and above giant elaborately surrounded fireplaces. Hallways are hung their entire length with framed etchings. Large Flemish tapestries showing Biblical virtues completely cover walls of a big room. Servants kept it all clean and ordered then, and that’s how it’s displayed now.
Vanderbilt Biltmore Library and a Sandburg bookshelf. Some Sandburg clutter.
The mood of the two places, as I sensed it, was very different however. Biltmore seemed dark, and though some of that was likely due to preservation of valued pieces from bright lights, both my wife and I had simultaneous Citizen Kane thoughts by the large tables and giant fireplaces. She nudged me and asked if I’d like to put together a jigsaw puzzle. In contrast, the Sandburg house seemed domestic in a familiar way to me. The metal handles on the hand-touch-patinaed Sandburg kitchen cabinets — chrome ones fluted like a Pontiac’s hood — were the same that were in my childhood’s kitchen. The clutter there, like my clutter.
The Sandburg house kitchen
In the lengthy tour of the Vanderbilt house, the highlight was when we detoured outside onto a long stone veranda with splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We sat on deck chairs, as we might sit on our own home’s rickety screen-porch, and gazed not at a multicultural Midwestern neighborhood, but on the far hazy peaks as swallows darted to and fro just over the railing as they likely did when the Cherokee could not dream of steamboat millionaires or multi-volume biographies.
There’s a wicker chair out on a large flat granite rock, yards from the Sandburg house. It too offers a view of the tree-covered mountains, but with no roof over one’s head or seats for others. Carl Sandburg would go to that chair and sit to write first drafts. That unkempt shock of white hair of his would blow like leaves in the breeze, and the sun would remind him how blank the new page was.
Sandburg lived at his hilltop house bought with the proceeds from his own literary labors for two decades. Though George Vanderbilt was rich the day he was born, he had only about the same number of years to enjoy the extraordinary elaborate one he had built to his desires. Some of us still read Sandburg’s work in our homes — only tourists will now see Vanderbilt’s commissioned magnum opus.
I told you I like to connect things — and these two houses around Asheville are a natural pair — but I also look for the more tenuous connections. Last time I said that Sandburg’s most lasting influence, obscured by time and the others influenced by him, was being an original “roots” or “Americana” popularizer, the man with poems, a guitar, and songs from all corners and sub-cultures of America. What is perhaps the greatest lasting fruit of the extended Vanderbilt family tree? Not steamboats. Not gilded age mansions. Not art collections. Maybe not even philanthropic donations to long-lasting institutions. In 1910, Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, descended matrilineally from the Vanderbilts, gave birth to John H. Hammond. There’s no room to tell you all John Hammond gave us, so here his Wikipedia entry is linked. Why would you want to click that link? Here are names you’ll see linked to John Hammond there: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Robert Johnson, Harry James, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Freddie Green, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russell, Jim Copp, Asha Puthli, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mike Bloomfield, and John H. Hammond’s own son John P. Hammond.
Today’s post is dedicated to my life partner of two decades today, Heidi. For a musical piece here’s one of Sandburg’s chief influences whose birthday also happens to fall today, Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” In his song Whitman reminds us of our labors, and as the son of a house carpenter, he knew directly who built the houses. Graphical audio player below for some, backup link here if you don’t see it.
*Carl Sandburg, Lincoln biographer, was not a Confederate, and was a proud “Civil Rights” supporter. When the tour guide noted the incongruence of this, I put on my village explainer hat and told the tour group that poet Longfellow, he of patriot poems like “The Ride of Paul Revere,” lived in a house built by a Tory who fled the American Revolution.