Biltmore House, the American “Downton Abbey”
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The highly anticipated third-season premiere of PBS’ “Downton Abbey” in January has the show’s U.S. fans eager for any details about the Crawley family and their ancestral home, Downton Abbey.
The fictional drama unfolding between Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughters and their staff overlaps the time when George and Edith Vanderbilt lived in the 250-room Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., opened by Vanderbilt in 1895. Biltmore House bears a striking resemblance to the Crawley’s beloved home, and those similarities are particularly evident during two specialty tours of the House: the Biltmore House Butler’s Tour and the Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour.
These tours allow guests glimpse into some of the little-seen areas of Biltmore House while guides discuss the people who visited the Vanderbilts and their descendants when it was their primary home, from 1895 to the early 1930s. Following are some tips for “Downton Abbey” fans on spotting the parallels between life depicted on the fictional program, and life in Biltmore House.
Biltmore House Butler’s Tour
The Butler’s Tour takes guests into unrestored rooms and mechanical areas for an understanding of how the House functioned. Guests also learn about the work of the domestic servants who worked for the Vanderbilts. Points to consider along the tour:
Housekeeper’s Room: Biltmore had Mrs. King; for “Downton Abbey,” it’s Mrs. Hughes. While there were differences in the ways American and English households were managed, the housekeeper played a major role. Mrs. Hughes is known for her collection of house keys and her calm demeanor. Mrs. King served as Biltmore House’s housekeeper and was remembered for her own massive ring of keys. Like Mrs. Hughes, she kept an eye on daily operations. In Biltmore House’s Housekeeper’s Pantry, you can see the desk used by Mrs. King and all of her successors.
Butler’s Pantry: Carson, the butler in “Downton Abbey,” was instrumental in managing how meals were served to the Crawley family and their visitors. The Butler’s Pantry shows where the Vanderbilts’ butler would have organized the staff and meal service.
Technology: Telephones, call boxes, speaking tubes, electric lights, etc., were extremely rare items in the early 1900s. In “Downton Abbey,” there are scenes where the family and staff are uncomfortable around and hesitant to use these new technologies. George Vanderbilt outfitted his home with all of the modern technologies of the day.
Sewing Room and Lady’s Maid’s Room: The lady’s maid was an important servant in the hierarchy of staff, as indicated by the character of O’Brien, lady’s maid to Lady Grantham in “Downton Abbey.”
Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour
The Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour spurs the imagination about staying at Biltmore with the Vanderbilts as your hosts. Bedrooms on this tour are outfitted with clothing and accessories from the 1900s, and tour hosts share stories about customs of the time and the fascinating people who visited Biltmore. Points to consider along the tour:
Biltmore House vs. Downton Abbey: In both Biltmore House and the fictional Downton Abbey, the house itself is a character in many stories. Homes in this time period were important symbols of success, wealth and heritage. They were used for entertaining and designed to host large numbers of visitors and overnight guests.
Louis XVI Room: A writing desk takes up a central area of this bedroom, at a large window overlooking the front lawn of Biltmore House. Letter writing in the era was a crucial means of communicating the news of the day. As such, a writing desk is included in each guest room. On “Downton Abbey,” the characters shared letters filled with news of the day at the breakfast table.
Van Dyck Room: The story of Edith Wharton, a frequent visitor at Biltmore House, is told in the Van Dyck Room. Wharton chronicled changing times, including the emergence of the women’s rights movement and political issues; in “Downton Abbey,” the youngest sister Sybil is portrayed as getting involved in politics and the changing role of women.
Morland Room: In this room, tour hosts discuss George and Edith Vanderbilt’s marriage and honeymoon. It’s touching to note that Edith and her three sisters married for love, and were not “forced” into marrying for money or titles (although they all ended up marrying well). In “Downton Abbey,” the eldest daughter Lady Mary is constantly expected to marry “successfully” in order to keep the family home afloat.
Preserving the home: One of the primary themes in “Downton Abbey” is the importance Lord Grantham and his family place on preserving and maintaining their home for succeeding generations. This has been a prime concern at Biltmore for George Vanderbilt’s descendants.
American heiresses marrying British nobility: Another central premise in “Downton Abbey” is based on Cora, an American heiress who married Lord Grantham; he needed her money to keep his ancestral home operating. One of the sources for this storyline is “To Marry An English Lord,” a book detailing how Consuelo Vanderbilt (one of George Vanderbilt’s nieces), was one of the first American heiresses to go to Europe in search of a titled husband. She married the Duke of Marlborough, which started a rush of newly wealthy American girls going overseas in hopes of finding husbands (who needed their money).
For more information about Biltmore, please visit www.biltmore.com.
Marissa Jamison LeeAnn Donnelly