Biltmore Test Vineyard Offers a Grape Escape

Our test vineyard, located below The Inn on Biltmore Estate®, offers an easy “grape escape!”

Biltmore’s main vineyards are planted on the west side of the estate in an area not normally seen by guests. Opportunities to visit them are limited, but you can get a sneak peek at growing grapes by visiting our test vineyard.

Plantings in the test vineyard

Test vineyard above the Winery at Biltmore
Rows of vines (far left) show the location of the test vineyard between The Inn and the Winery.

According to Philip Oglesby, Vineyard Supervisor, this small display area was planted by the Vineyard team in 2000 to offer guests at the Winery and The Inn an opportunity to see first-hand how Biltmore wine grapes are grown.

There were two acres of plantings originally, but a small portion was removed to make room for the walking path between The Inn and Winery once The Inn was finished in 2001.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice for the test vineyard because that varietal had already proved hardy in our main vineyards,” said Philip. “We have experimented with other varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah at times to see how a particular grape performed in our climate, but Cabernet Sauvignon is still the primary variety you’ll find in this little vineyard.”

Discover each season in the test vineyard

Biltmore test vineyard offers a grape escape
The test vineyard gives guests an opportunity to see how grapes are grown at Biltmore.

Since the test vineyard was developed, guests have been able to see a small-scale version of the grape-growing process in each season, from caring for the vines in winter to bud break in spring and ripening fruit during the summer.

Each fall, the grapes in this small vineyard are harvested for use in Biltmore wines. It typically takes Philip’s harvest crew of approximately 30 people one full day to pick the grapes by hand and bring them down to the crush dock behind the Winery.

Protection from predators

Clusters of ripe red grapes in Biltmore's vineyard
As the grapes ripen in our vineyards, the fruit must be protected from uninvited guests such as robins, geese, and turkeys.

Today’s visitors will notice a fence around the vineyard—it was added to keep deer from damaging the plants and fruit. In addition to keeping the deer out, Philip’s crew places netting on the vines in August every year to prevent bird damage.

“We have to keep birds—especially robins—out of the vineyard or else we would have nothing left there,” said Philip. “Birds aren’t usually a big deal for the west side vineyards during most years, and I honestly do not know why they like to pick on the little Test Vineyard so much!”

For the main vineyards on the west side, Philip’s team has to contend with damage by geese (and turkeys, to a lesser extent), which can lead to fairly significant crop loss.

“During years when there are fewer wild berries and seeds, I have noticed that smaller birds will also seek out grapes as an alternate food source on the west side, but this is not a frequent problem,” said Philip.

Plan your own grape escape now!

Couple drinking Biltmore wine
Enjoy Biltmore wine on the estate and at home.

Visit Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, and see the test vineyard for yourself. Make it a real “grape escape” with overnight accommodations at The Inn, Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate, or one of our private historic Cottages on Biltmore Estate™.

Featured image: The Inn on Biltmore Estate above the test vineyard

George Vanderbilt: A Thoughtful Wine Collector

George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful wine collector, whether at home or abroad.

Taste and style were two hallmarks of his life, and both are reflected throughout Biltmore—his private country estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Visually stunning and technologically advanced, Biltmore House is a testament to Vanderbilt’s vision.

A Thoughtful Collector

Discover Biltmore white wines for outdoor entertaining
George Vanderbilt’s legacy of gracious hospitality lives on with Biltmore wines handcrafted from grapes grown in the estate’s own vineyard or selected from trusted west coast partners

George Vanderbilt was well-known as a collector, travelling the world gathering art, sculpture, furniture, and books. He also enjoyed wine, frequently purchasing it abroad and bringing cases of wine back to his home in Asheville to share with his family and friends.

Vanderbilt’s gracious hospitality was legendary, and a visit to his home was characterized by the best in comfort, entertainment, and attention to every detail, including the wines that graced his table and delighted his guests.

Man in a suit examining the library of Biltmore wines in the Winery
Wine cellars don’t have to be stuffy–evaluate your space and your lifestyle for options!

Wine research at Biltmore

In 2008, wine consultant John Hailman visited Biltmore to look at Vanderbilt’s wine cellar and the vintages stored there, and to review wine-related notes and correspondence from the Vanderbilt era.

Having been a wine columnist for the Washington Post, with his work nationally syndicated for more than a decade, Hailman is considered one of the foremost authorities on wine. In 2006, he wrote Thomas Jefferson on Wine, an examination of Jefferson’s influence as a wine connoisseur and collector in the early days of the nation.

Archival Bltmore wine receipt
A portion of an archival receipt for a wine and spirits order to be delivered to Biltmore House

Through Hailman’s research, we now have a better understanding of George Vanderbilt as a thoughtful wine collector. Archival correspondence, notes, and receipts suggest that Vanderbilt was well-versed in wines, purchasing those he enjoyed sharing.

Vanderbilt was also a practical buyer, preferring high quality vintages at reasonable prices, such as wines from Chateau Pontet-Canet which is still in business today in the Bordeaux wine region of France.

“Good enough for anybody”

Celebrate with Biltmore sparkling wines
Our handcrafted Biltmore bubbles make any occasion more special

Vanderbilt’s trusted wine purveyor Alexander Morten was known for his excellent taste and recommendations, and would have been a worthy provisioner for the Vanderbilt lifestyle. George Vanderbilt relied upon Morten’s suggestions and his outstanding contacts in the industry. In one letter dated February 14, 1914, Morten advises Vanderbilt on a particular vintage for an upcoming ball, suggesting:

“As to Champagne for a ball:- I can strongly recommend Pierlot 1906. This is a good, sound vintage wine, price $32.50, and is used almost exclusively by many of our customers for dances and entertainments of that ilk. If you have the slightest hesitation, however, I can recommend Pol Roger 1906; price $36. We also have Krug, Clicquot and Pommery of 1906 and 1904; but these are more expensive. The Pierlot is good enough for anybody.”

This letter is particularly poignant, as George Vanderbilt passed away in Washington, DC, just a month after he received this letter. We don’t know what type of ball the Vanderbilts might have been planning, but the preparations were apparently abandoned after Mr. Vanderbilt’s unexpected death.

“You have only to examine the amount and variety of crystal and stemware in the Biltmore collection—glasses for every possible occasion and type of beverage—to see the importance of wines and spirits as an integral part of dining and entertaining,” said Leslie Klingner, curator of interpretation.

Crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt's monogram
Delicate crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt’s monogram on the Banquet Hall table

“Knowing that George Vanderbilt collected and enjoyed wine—and served it to his guests—forges a very real and logical connection between the Vanderbilts and the wine business their descendants have developed and continue to nurture today,” Leslie said.

Savor Biltmore Wines

Two couples enjoying white wine outdoors
Enjoy Biltmore wines while visiting the estate or savor them at home

Be sure to visit Biltmore’s Winery and make reservations for a complimentary tasting of some of our most popular wines. Relax and enjoy our wines by the bottle or glass at the adjacent Wine Bar, then stock up on your favorite vintages at estate shops or online.

Featured blog image: John Singer Sargent portrait of George Vanderbilt paired with a selection of our fine Biltmore wines, including our Antler Hill series

Biltmore’s Landscape and Forest Historian

Bill Alexander, Biltmore’s Landscape and Forest Historian, retired in 2018 after 40 years in the fields and forests at surrounding America’s Largest Home®.

He assures us, however, that he’s never more than a phone call away and he continues to work on projects that will keep him returning to Biltmore Estate and its magnificent Blue Ridge Mountain “backyard!”

Bill Alexander examines leaves at BiltmoreBill Alexander amidst the landscape Frederick Law Olmsted designed for Biltmore

Early experience with Biltmore

His love of Biltmore Estate, located in Asheville, NC, began in childhood, growing up close to the main entrance of the property. Some of his earliest memories are of seeing deer in the surrounding woods and visiting Biltmore’s calf barns.

“As a child, I didn’t know that Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape, but it had me from the start,” Bill said. “I loved the wilder areas. It’s where I developed my interest in trees and flowers.”

Bill Alexander unrolls a copy of Frederick Law Olmsted's map

Bill keeps a copy of an original Olmsted map with him on the estate for reference

Becoming a landscape and forest historian

In 1978, Bill met Biltmore’s general manager who encouraged him to consider the estate as a career option. After completing his forestry and wildlife management degree, Bill became one of two education horticulturists for Biltmore.

He rose to become the Conservatory and Walled Garden manager. Later, he also oversaw landscape and forest management, and eventually became the estate’s landscape curator and historian.

Bill Alexander indicates a possible house site at Biltmore

The possible location of an original house site near the Bass Pond

The importance of Olmsted

Bill also developed a deeper appreciation for Olmsted, which led to research trips to study the landscape architect’s work and papers at other locations—and a lot of sifting through materials in Biltmore’s archives.

Bass Pond dam and spillway at BiltmoreOlmsted’s design for the Bass Pond dam and spillway are still functional today

“The more I researched Olmsted the more I realized how important Biltmore was in his life. We needed his notes and plans to help others understand how to stay true to his designs for Biltmore, so I helped develop guidelines that we use today,” said Bill.

Future projects

Although he’s enjoying spending more time with his family—which now includes eight grandchildren—Bill is still working on several book ideas related to Biltmore’s history.

“After completing a book on the story of George Vanderbilt’s Pisgah Forest as the cradle of forestry in this country,” said Bill, “I’m focusing on another project regarding documented accounts of the early settlers, farmers, and landowners prior to Vanderbilt’s purchase of the acreage that would become part of his private estate.”

Through his research, Bill has learned that much of the land encompassed by Biltmore is strongly connected to the early history of Western North Carolina, including an ancient Native American trade route that came through what it is now Biltmore’s Lodge Gate on its way to Tennessee and Ohio. In addition, a village existed 1500–1800 years ago adjacent to that long-ago highway.

Bill Alexander with Biltmore's Bass Pond bridge behind himTwo Biltmore icons: Bill Alexander and the Bass Pond bridge

“God willing and granted that my health holds,” Bill said, “I will continue to document and write about the fascinating history of this region. I don’t think there’s another historian who’s had this unique opportunity and experience I have had.”

Featured blog image: Bill Alexander on the wooden bridge over the Bass Pond dam at Biltmore

Discover Biltmore’s Distinctive Shrub Garden

Summer at Biltmore is a glorious season–and the perfect time to discover Biltmore’s distinctive Shrub Garden.

Discover Biltmore’s distinctive Shrub Garden

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed many of the areas closest to Biltmore House as a series of outdoor rooms that beckoned guests to step outside and enjoy their surroundings.

Discover Biltmore's distinctive Shrub Garden
A family enjoys an outdoor picnic in the Shrub Garden

Biltmore’s Shrub Garden, located between the Italian Garden and the Walled Garden, invites guests to lose themselves among the winding paths and lush plantings.

Stone steps in Biltmore's Shrub Garden
Stone steps beckon you to discover new delights in the Shrub Garden

Caring for this distinctive space

For Brooke Doty, a member of the estate’s landscaping team since 2017, Biltmore’s Shrub Garden offers a subtle beauty in striking contrast with other portions of Olmsted’s design.

“It’s not as obvious as the Walled Garden with all its bright, blooming flowers, but the Shrub Garden is a place of deep shade and clean structure. The shapes of the mature trees and the open, airy feel of the pathways make it the perfect place for wandering,” said Brooke.

Jack-in-the-pulpit plant in Biltmore's Shrub Garden
Uncovering a native jack-in-the-pulpit plant

In caring for Biltmore’s Shrub Garden during the past several years, Brooke has come to appreciate more than just the overall plan of the area.

“I constantly see things I never saw before,” Brooke said. “Things that you don’t notice immediately. There are plantings that are tucked back away from the paths, and specimens that you won’t find in most gardens.”

Notable specimens

Discover Biltmore's distinctive Shrub Garden
Brooke examines the decorative fruits of the Japanese Snowbell tree

Styrax japonicus or Japanese Snowbell is one such horticultural gem; the tree is known for producing cascades of flowers in the spring, interesting fruits in summer, modest fall color, and shapely limbs for winter interest.

The Shrub Garden is also the home of two state champion trees. One is the golden rain tree (Koelreutaria paniculata) with clusters of small yellow seed pods that hang from its nearly weeping branches in early summer.

Discover Biltmore's distinctive Shrub Garden
State champion river birch with cables to support its branches

The other is a massive river birch (Betula nigra) with distinctive, cinnamon-colored curling bark. In addition to its champion status, the river birch is one of the original plantings in the garden.

“From champion trees to the ‘bones’ of Olmsted’s design, Biltmore’s Shrub Garden offers something interesting for every season,” said Brooke. “I’m always encouraging guests to spend more time here exploring the paths, enjoying the quiet beauty, and discovering the little surprises that await you around each turn.”

Colorful summer blooms against the brick tunnel bridge in the Shrub Garden
Colorful summer blooms against the brick tunnel bridge in the Shrub Garden

Plan your summer visit today

Kids in Biltmore's Azalea Garden
Guests of all ages love discovering Biltmore’s “outdoor rooms” like the Azalea Garden

In addition to exploring our glorious historic gardens during peak season, enjoy all that Biltmore offers this summer, including Biltmore Gardens Railway, on display in Antler Hill Village July 1–September 7.

Featured blog image: Brooke Doty at work in the Shrub Garden

Restoring Our Roots, One American Chestnut Tree at a Time

When George Vanderbilt first visited Asheville, North Carolina, in 1888 and began envisioning his private estate, the wooded slopes of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains included vast numbers of American chestnut trees.

The edible nut of the chestnut tree in its spiny burr covering

Seeds from one of Biltmore’s hybrid chestnuts encased in a spiny, protective “burr”

History of the American chestnut tree

Known as an all-purpose tree, American chestnuts grew quickly to great size. The wood was strong and resistant to rotting, making it a prized material for foundations, fencing, and railroad ties while the edible nut was an important source of food for cattle, hogs, and wildlife.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) struck the American chestnut tree, effectively destroying the species as a source of food and lumber. The blight doesn’t kill the tree’s underground root system, but once an American chestnut sprouts from an existing stump, it succumbs to blight before it matures into a tree.

​​Scaly, thickened bark on this branch shows evidence of chestnut blight

Restoring our roots

In 1997, Biltmore partnered with the American Chestnut Foundation (AFC) to provide a test site for hybrid chestnuts as part of the AFC’s work to restore this heritage tree. The AFC collected pollen and seeds from the estate and crossed the genetic material with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees. The seedlings were planted on a sunny slope near Deerpark Restaurant.

“In a way, we’re restoring our roots,” said Jason Mull, Landscaping Supervisor for many of the outlying historic areas of the estate, including the Approach Road and the chestnut plantings. “This project has a natural tie to the importance Vanderbilt and Olmsted placed on landscaping and managed forestry.

Jason Mull points out one of three original hybrid chestnut trees at Biltmore

Jason Mull indicates one of the original hybrid chestnut trees planted at Biltmore in 1997

The project continues

Jason has been involved with the chestnut project since the beginning and has now cared for several generations of trees. The test site includes a mix of American-Chinese hybrids plus full Chinese chestnuts that act as a control group.

“There are only three hybrid chestnuts left from the original planting,” Jason said. “They’ve grown pretty well in the last 20 years. They do show effects from the blight, but it hasn’t killed them.”

According to Jason, some of the more recent plantings carry a much higher percentage of American chestnut DNA than the originals because the hybrids have served their purpose in helping increase resistance to the blight.

Students from a local charter school help plant new hybrid chestnuts at Biltmore in 2013

Planting a legacy

“We’re continuing to work with the AFC to establish another planting site on the estate—preferably in the kind of wooded area that chestnuts tend to prefer,” Jason said. “If our trees continue to do well over time, that’s a wonderful legacy to leave for future generations.”

Featured blog image: Jason Mull and a student from a local charter school plant a hybrid chestnut tree near Deerpark Restaurant in 2013

The Top 5 Most Naturally Romantic Spots on the Estate

Biltmore’s stunning natural beauty and long tradition of hospitality have earned it recognition as a romantic destination for more than a century. But with 8,000 acres to explore, it can be hard to pick the perfect must-see spot to share with your loved one. Take a look at our list of the top five most naturally romantic locations on the estate.

Tea House

Strategically set on the far west corner of the South Terrace, this secluded spot offers sweeping views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain vistas.Tea House

Tennis Lawn

Tucked away between the Pergola and the Shrub Garden is the Tennis Lawn, an often overlooked “outdoor room” with a fairy-tale view of America’s Largest Home®.Tennis Lawn

Conservatory

Indoor enchantment awaits in Biltmore’s Conservatory, a private tropical oasis that houses a wide variety of exotic plants beneath its grand glass roof.Conservatory

Bass Pond Waterfall

An easy stroll down our Azalea Garden path leads to this rewarding view of the Bass Pond Waterfall—a picturesque backdrop for many Biltmore proposals.Bass Pond Waterfall

Shores of the Lagoon

Perfect for a picnic or a pleasant stroll, the shores of the Lagoon offer a number of quiet, cozy spots that have a marvelous view of Biltmore House in the distance.Lagoon

Biltmore is an ideal place to spend special time with your sweetheart. Plan your visit today.

Image credits
Feature image: Stephanie Wilson
Tea House image: Yu Lin Hsu
Tennis Lawn image: Jason Rosa
Conservatory image: The Biltmore Company
Bass Pond image: Breanoh Lafayette-Brooks
Lagoon image: Gary Horne

Like Being Inside a Bottle of Sparkling Wine

If you’re visiting Biltmore during Christmas, you will not want to miss the stunning holiday vision situated high above Biltmore’s Winery.

Inspired by the over-the-top holiday decor in a New York City-based restaurant, 7,000 ornaments ranging from large to gigantic are suspended from the ceiling over the winery’s main Tasting Room.

Michaela Schmidlin, a member of Biltmore’s marketing department, lived in New York City for years, and knew of the restaurant’s annual eye-catching holiday hall-decking traditions. She proposed a similar – albeit scaled-down – version for Biltmore’s Winery.

Using monochromatic metallic tones, she and Biltmore’s floral displays manager created a look that mimics the bubbles inside of a champagne bottle, a perfect homage to the winery’s popular selection of sparkling wines.

Close-up of bubble decorations

And now, the globe-shaped ornaments in gold and champagne tones are dazzling our guests as they sample wines in the Tasting Room. When the light hits them just right, the ornaments look almost like they’re as fizzy as the bubbles in Biltmore’s sparkling wine.
Couple interacting with wine host with decorations in background.

Saving Wines to Savor Later

Many wines are ready to drink when released, but some taste even better if they are correctly stored and allowed to age.

Chooseing a bottle from Biltmore's wine cellarWhy age a wine?

We asked Biltmore winemaker Sharon Fenchak for tips on why and how to age a wine.

“The reason to store a wine is because you believe it will improve with age. At first tasting, if the wine dries and coats your mouth then it’s obvious you should hold it to drink later. I call it ‘pucker power,’” she said.

Sharon notes that some wines, primarily reds, have more initial tannins at bottling. Aging softens those tannins, creating a more balanced and pleasurable wine experience. As the tannins soften, sediment often settles at the bottom, so don’t be surprised to find sediment in aged wines. With proper decanting, the sediment can be removed, allowing the wine to be more easily enjoyed.

Antler Hill wines suitable for agingSuccessful aging tips

Wines age most successfully if you store them in the coolest, most temperature controlled place in your home, and allow for some humidity. Place the bottles upside down to keep the cork from drying out, and keep the wine away from vibrations.

Sharon recommends select red wines from our Vanderbilt Reserve or Antler Hill® series for cellaring (as the experts refer to the process) for up to five years.

Ladies enjoying a glass of red wineDeciding how long to store a wine is literally a matter of taste. “If you really like a wine, buy a case and in two years try a bottle and take notes,” she said. “If you think it will benefit from more aging, try another bottle in two more years. If you feel it needs more time, open another bottle the following year,” Sharon advised.

Discover our award-winning wines at your local retailers or online.

Featured image: Biltmore winemaker Sharon Fenchak
First image: Choosing a bottle from Biltmore’s wine cellar
Second image: Antler Hill red wines suitable for aging
Third image: Friends enjoy a glass of well-aged red wine

Mrs. Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil

Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil died on Friday, November 17, 2017 in Asheville, NC. Mrs. Cecil and her late husband, William A.V. Cecil, were active members of the Asheville, NC community as owners of the historic estate, Biltmore.

Born Mary Lee Ryan on December 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, NC to raise their family and to oversee the management and preservation of Biltmore, which was created by his grandfather George W. Vanderbilt. Upon their return, Biltmore was transformed into a privately owned, profitable, working estate that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963. Mrs. Cecil

While supporting her family’s endeavors at Biltmore, Mrs. Cecil became a legend in her own right within the community. Known for her relaxed and approachable manner, she was a familiar figure in the world of non-profit 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. In 1995, in recognition of her devotion and support of the organization, the Board of Trustees and Staff elected her Chair Emeritus, expressing their deep and lasting appreciation, respect, and love for her dedication to the welfare of the organization and her lifelong efforts to insure the overall betterment of North Carolina.

Mrs. Cecil was a founding board member of the Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Smokies, and was recognized for 20 years of stewardship by the National Park Service for her work with Friends of the Smokies. She also served on the Board for the North Carolina Zoological Society.

In 2007, The French Broad River Garden Club and The Garden Club of America presented the Zone Conservation Award to Mrs. Cecil for her inspiring dedication to the conservation of our environment, natural resources, and mountain heritage.

She served as Chairman of the Community Foundation of North Carolina board for a decade, and was Chair of the Warren Wilson College Board of Trustees from 1998–2005.

Mrs. Cecil was a supporter of the Asheville Symphony and Guild, the Asheville Art Museum, the Health Adventure, the United Way, and the National Forest Foundation. She was also active with the Buncombe County Board of Education, Hospitality House, John C. Campbell Folk School, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

She volunteered with the Mission Health System for 20 years and was a long-time member of The Biltmore Company’s Board of Directors.

Mrs. Cecil was devoted to her family, sharing her love of travel especially with her five grandchildren. As each grandchild reached the age of ten, they were able to pick a travel experience to share with her, creating a memorable tradition that spanned generations.

In the book Lady on the Hill, Mr. Cecil recognized Mimi Cecil for her integral part in Biltmore’s success story and in supporting those efforts for more than 45 years. “She has been a wonderful wife and mother and has offered her considerable gifts, skills, and abilities to our community, our mountains, and our country. I am profoundly in her debt,” he stated.

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.

Mrs. Cecil in Antarctica

Photos

Top: Mr. and Mrs. Cecil at their wedding, 1957.

Right: Mrs. Cecil. Photo by David Dietrich.

Bottom: Mrs. Cecil in South Georgia, Antarctica, 2004.

Biltmore Furniture Conservator is a Desk Detective

Although her day-to-day responsibilities may include anything from cleaning 100-year-old china to inhibiting biologic growth on outdoor statuary, when Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator, tells you she has a desk job, she means it literally.

Desk detective

Biltmore furniture conservator is a desk detective
Photo of the desk paired with some of its component parts, including six of the eight legs

Biltmore’s Museum Services team has been working for several years to return the Oak Sitting Room to its original appearance during the Vanderbilt era of 1895-1914.

Like detectives, team members carefully sift through photographs, letters, and other details for clues to the furnishings and objects that were found in the room originally.

Historic details

One prominent item that will be displayed in the Oak Sitting Room is a massive desk or bureau Mazarin, named for its association with Cardinal Mazarin, a chief minister to Louis XIV, the king of France in the seventeenth century.

This type of desk was developed in France in the mid-1600s and functioned as a writing table with drawers on either side of a kneehole.

Such furnishings were often decorated with intricate wood and brass marquetry in the style of Andre-Charles Boulle, a royal cabinetmaker to Louis XIV.

While thes desk is original to the Biltmore collection, itt only appears in archival photos dating from the 1930s when the house was first opened to the public.

Conservator's tools
A selection of tools needed for this project

A massive project takes shape

That’s where Genevieve’s expertise comes into play. “The desk was probably already an antique when George Vanderbilt purchased it,” Genevieve said. “When we began this project, the desk had been stored as separate pieces for many years. There are multiple layers of old repairs, from both before and after Vanderbilt used it.”

In addition to locating all the pieces, like the legs that were discovered in a drawer in the conservation lab and a bag of tiny brass shapes that had come off the desk over the years, Genevieve must be able to understand how earlier repairs were made, including the mix of adhesives that might have been used to reattach sections of delicate brass marquetry that have lifted or come loose from the desk’s elegantly veneered ebony surface.

Rubbings taken from pieces of brass
Rubbings are created from sections of brass and identified according to its original placement

Slow and steady progress

“We originally allowed two years to complete the repairs,” said Genevieve, “and three or four people have been working on the desk on and off during that time. We are re-gluing sections of brass and wood that are loose, and in cases where the brass or veneer is missing, we make templates and cut replacement pieces to fit.”

Pieces of brass marquetry for the desk
New brass marquetry shapes cut to fit the original desk

The original brass marquetry was also engraved in fine detail, adding depth to the design, but Genevieve says they will paint the lines rather than cutting them, to distinguish modern repairs from the original.

A decorative desk leg showing old and new brass marquetry
Desk leg shows contrast of newly repaired and polished design with original

“It’s important that we document everything we’ve done so that future conservators don’t have to wonder or guess,” Genevieve said. “Not knowing how or why something was done makes the repairs that much more difficult and time-consuming.”

Featured image: Genevieve Bieniosek carefully polishes the decorative brass marquetry on one of the desk’s eight legs