Story Ideas for Biltmore House
Follow a day in the life of Biltmore’s 13-person Museum Services Department for a look at how they unravel Biltmore’s past. Their findings inform the foundation of the guest visit and ensure a historically accurate representation of Biltmore House at the turn of the century. Large restoration projects require the team to spend hours poring over old records, analyzing clues – such as original wallpaper scraps found hiding behind drapery brackets and wood molding – to achieve a final product that is an authentic representation of the rooms during the height of their glory.
What does it take to verify a hunch? Biltmore’s Museum Services team routinely conducts detective work to make sure that the information we share with our guests is accurate. A prime example of this mystery-solving process took place for months before we opened The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibition. While researching the Vanderbilts’ extensive world travels, the staff confirmed a longtime hunch that the Vanderbilts were scheduled to sail on the Titanic. “While going through the estate’s archives, we were able to piece together a fascinating story about why the Vanderbilts did not board Titanic,” said Darren Poupore, chief curator. “We share the fateful decision that ultimately saved Vanderbilt’s life for the first time in this exhibition.”
PBS’ acclaimed “Downton Abbey” has created a huge U.S. fan base, and many among them are also Biltmore fans. “Downton Abbey”-themed posts to our Facebook page during the third season instigated impassioned comments from our 85,000+ fans on how much Biltmore reminds them of the show. And it’s no wonder: The drama unfolding between the Crawley family and their staff overlaps the time when George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt lived in Biltmore House. The thematic parallels are uncanny. For example, during the Butler’s Tour of Biltmore House, guests discover how Biltmore House functioned, with its own “Mrs. Hughes,” i.e., Emily King, head of household and assistant to Mrs. Vanderbilt. As for the opulence upstairs, guests can imagine what it would have been like to stay at Biltmore (circa 1895 to the early 1930s) with the Vanderbilts as their hosts during the Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour (offered seasonally).
Very few places in the U.S. have as much art under one roof as Biltmore House. To say that George Vanderbilt was a great collector and appreciator of art is an understatement. The collection he amassed for his home in North Carolina during his world travels is legendary. Six John Singer Sargent portraits hang in Biltmore House, including portraits of Frederick Law Olmsted and Richard Morris Hunt, the two men with whom Vanderbilt collaborated to create Biltmore. Add in 1,500 prints, 194 paintings with works by James McNeill Whistler, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet; 16th-century Flemish tapestries; and sculptures by Karl Bitter. Vanderbilt even purchased a ceiling painting in Europe that now “overlooks” his massive Library.
When World World II struck, the nation stopped and paused. Suddenly everything centered on the war efforts. Biltmore House played a significant, but secret, role in the war – which our Museum Services team didn’t know about until recently. Although Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930 in an effort to boost tourism and the economy, it closed temporarily in 1942. The National Gallery in Washington, DC, sent a partial collection of the nation’s art treasures to Biltmore House for safekeeping. Sources feared the nation’s capital would be bombed and the priceless art collection would be lost forever. Under 24-hour armed guard, the artwork was housed in what is now one of the most popular rooms on the self-guided house tour – the Music Room.
In the depths of Biltmore House’s basement is a room unlike any other. Called the Halloween Room, this basement room is a living testament to a lively party of bygone days. The bright yellow walls are adorned with giant murals depicting everything from wood soldiers to witches and goblins. Just recently, our Museum Services staff discovered this room was inspired by an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris (aka The Bat). The troupe toured America in the 1920s and was met with great success. Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil must have been a huge fan, as the images on the walls were inspired by the illustrations on the show’s theatrical program. Painting the room with the massive murals required three weeks. To celebrate the completion, the Cecils hosted a gypsy-themed ball on December 30, 1925. Local resident and guest James G.K. McClure recalled it as “the best party I have ever attended.”
The Library in Biltmore House is one of the most memorable rooms in the home. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold around 10,000 volumes of Vanderbilt’s 23,000-book collection. The collection includes books ranging from architecture to agriculture in eight languages. This library contains trophies such as the Gutenberg Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. And while some may speculate his book collection was merely for show, history disagrees. Vanderbilt’s passion for books was authentic and sincere. At the age of 12, he began to record the books he read in a small notebook. This practice continued through his life, and at the time of his death (at age 51), he had read 3,159 books. Our guests often cite that the Library is their favorite room in the house. We bet it was also Vanderbilt’s favorite.
Who Visited the Vanderbilts?
While Biltmore House was a family home, it was also a welcome retreat for family and friends. With 35 bedrooms, the house hosted more than a few overnight guests. As a sign of good times to come, George Vanderbilt opened his home for the first time on Christmas Eve 1895. It was a grand holiday gala for family and friends, most of whom spent the holidays at Biltmore. Famous friends included author Henry James, who visited in February 1905 and again in December 1905, staying for weeks at a time. Another author, Edith Wharton, was a friend and visited Biltmore in 1902 and 1905. Her letters sent back home described the Vanderbilts’ gracious hospitality.
When George Vanderbilt built Biltmore House, western North Carolina was a rural and isolated area. It was surprising for the time, and certainly the region, that the house was filled with extraordinary examples of modern technology. Biltmore House boasted central heating, electricity, and a central plumbing system that piped fresh water from a mountain reservoir. In addition, there were fire alarms, telephones, refrigerators, call boxes for summoning the servants, speaking tubes, elevators, and electric dumbwaiters – all significant luxuries for the time. Biltmore House’s specialty guided Butler’s Tour gives detailed information about the home’s technology and takes guests to the subbasement, Boiler Room, Dynamo Room, Transformer Room, and Refrigeration Room.