A legacy of loving care
Written By Jean Sexton
When George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, he wasn’t alone—a stately pair of lions were already there, flanking the entrance to his new home.
While the lions may appear to be made of terra cotta, closer inspection reveals the unique and beautiful color patterns of Italian rose marble (Rosso di Verona) ranging from beige to orange to red. Today’s visitors may notice some areas where the surface has been polished to a high sheen.
“For more than a century, these friendly beasts have greeted guests as they enter Biltmore House,” said Kara Warren, Preventive Conservation Specialist. “So that sheen is actually the result of millions of hands rubbing the marble away through the years.”
Kara oversees the care for the lions and 37 other outdoor statues and historic plaques through the implementation of the estate’s ongoing preventive conservation program. The job requires a combined knowledge of material science and artistic skill in order to properly analyze, treat, and restore the sculptures.
According to Kara, the longevity of any outdoor statue depends on the nature of its construction, environmental exposure, and the maintenance it receives. Records in our archives indicate restoration to the garden statuary began as early as 1934.The descriptions of repair work have become part of the history of each piece, documenting the care it received over the years.
To help preserve our collection of outdoor statuary, each piece is examined, photographed, cleaned, and stabilized as needed every six months. Sometimes the statues simply need a gentle spray of water and an antimicrobial wash to reduce biological growth. Other times, patching or repair is required.
“Outdoor sculptures are vulnerable because they are exposed to so many types of deterioration,” said Kara. “Our preventive maintenance program is important because pollution, biological growth, and even repeated touching can damage these vulnerable objects. Cyclical maintenance allows us to gently clean, repair, and stabilize the original material before severe damage occurs.”
Most of Biltmore’s outdoor sculptures were purchased from France and Italy in the late 1800s, and some date to earlier times. The collection includes bronze, marble, limestone, granite, and terra cotta sculptures. As with all our efforts to preserve Biltmore, the loving care our statuary receives allows these sculptures to be enjoyed by today's guests, our Annual Passholders, and future generations.
Archival image: The marble lions out of their shipping crates and awaiting placement in front of Biltmore House, circa 1895
Modern image: Museum Services staff Genevieve Bieniosek (left) and Kara Warren (right) work together to clean an outdoor statue on the South Terrace