Exploring Biltmore’s Conservatory in Asheville, NC

Imagine the luxury of having a house full of tropical plants to delight your senses—ranging from 40-foot palms to four-inches tall bromeliads. George and Edith Vanderbilt enjoyed that experience with Biltmore’s Conservatory, a beautifully designed greenhouse built for nurturing plants. 

Beneath its expansive glass roof, the Conservatory contains hundreds of plant varieties grown in several purposefully designed spaces, including the Orchid Room, Hot House, and Cool House. From spring to late summer, the Biltmore Gardens Railway is on display. The seasonal botanical model train display features small-scale replicas of the estate’s structures and includes approximately 800 feet of miniature rails.

Palm House at Biltmore

As you enter into this section of the Conservatory, you’ll immediately see why it was designated as the Palm House on architect Richard Morris Hunt‘s original plans. The grand space rises 40-feet high and contains our tallest plants, including the Queen Palm and Golden Hawaiian Bamboo that reach to the ceiling. Other notable specimens are the Mast Tree, a tall and narrow tree species once used to build ship masts, and the broadest plants in the building: Silver Bismark Palms, spreading 15 to 20 feet wide.

Orchid Room at Biltmore

To the left of the Palm House is the Orchid Room, filled with exotic orchid blooms in myriad colors and forms. There are more than 1,000 orchid plants in the Conservatory’s collection, ranging from the familiar corsage and lady slipper varieties to rare examples that perfume the air with tantalizing fragrance. Our year-round orchid display is made possible by Biltmore’s expansive collection. Blooming orchids are rotated into the room year-round, ensuring an endless show of color.

Exhibit Room

From over-the-top spring floral designs to a holiday wonderland, the Exhibit Room to the right of the Palm House hosts seasonally changing displays. This is a favorite location for guests to capture photos year-round.

Hot House at Biltmore

You might recognize some of the residents of the Hot House, as the tropical environment promotes the lush growth of philodendrons, pothos, and other species sold as popular houseplants.

Cool House at Biltmore

This is a subtropical zone, featuring Australian tree ferns, banana trees, and the aptly-named Lollipop plants and Shrimp plants. Note the overachieving Thai Giant Elephant Ear; with leaves 4–5 feet long, this plant has the biggest leaves in the Conservatory.

Alleys

Each summer, the alleyways adjoining the Hot House and Cool House are filled with plants for guests to enjoy. The Hot Alley features Bromeliads, while the Cool Alley showcases plants from the ginger and Heliconia families.

Potting Room at Biltmore

This workspace in the Conservatory has been used for over a century to re-pot plants as needed.

Enjoy 365 Days of Biltmore with an Annual Pass

Enjoy the grandeur and beauty of the 2,000+ plants in Biltmore’s Conservatory year-round. Purchase a Biltmore Annual Pass so you can return season after season to enjoy our gardens!

The Construction of Biltmore House, Part 2

We continue a look into Biltmore’s photo archives to see more of the construction of Biltmore House. See part 1 here.

Above is a view of the East Elevation from the Vista, 1893

East Facade 1893
Entrance Hall 1893

East Façade and Esplanade looking west, 1893
Bad weather caused problems and delays during construction. Subfreezing weather halted masonry work, as mortar would not set. Spring rains flooded the clay pits along the river, stopping the production of bricks.
 
Entrance Hall and Winter Garden looking south, 1893
The Winter Garden is the hub from which the rooms of the main floor radiate. It creates an “all weather” interior courtyard. Particularly in winter, the lush, subtropical plants provide a green, inviting refuge from the cold and sometimes snowy world beyond Biltmore House’s walls.

Base of Staircase 1894

East Façade, Base of Staircase and Library Wing Looking West, 1894
Stone carvers typically finished ornamental work after rough stone had been set in the wall. The workman standing on the plinth on the Stair Tower provides a sense of scale. 

Biltmore House 1894
Stable Complex 1894

Biltmore House looking southwest, March 10, 1894
After more than four years of construction, the outline of Biltmore House is apparent. In the foreground, the lower story of the Porte Cochere’s tower nears completion along with the curving interior wall of the Stable Courtyard. Note the scaffolding on the Porte Cochere’s dormers where carved ornament is being finished. The steel trusses will support the roof’s slates and copper ornament when completed. In the distance, the South Terrace (with Pergola below) appears finished. 
 
Stable Complex, 1894

East Facade 1894

East Façade looking west, 1894
This photo reveals considerable activity on the Esplanade, perhaps due to the deadline for finishing Biltmore House by the end of the following year. The Library and the Bachelors’ Wing appear nearly complete, but much work still needs to be done on the Main Entrance, Grand Staircase, and the main roof running down the center of the structure.

East Facade December 1894

Construction on the east elevation of Biltmore House, including Staircase Tower, 1894 
 
East Façade looking west, December 15, 1894
Biltmore House is nearing completion. The left side of the Esplanade has been cleared and graded, and excavation of the central fountain has begun. The stone carvers remain busy, however, finishing the ornamentation on the exterior walls of the Grand Staircase.

The Construction of Biltmore House

Seeing the majestic appearance of Biltmore House today, you almost believe it was always part of the landscape. In reality, it was a monumental construction project as these photos from the Biltmore archives show in the first of two blog posts.

Workers commuting to Biltmore House 1890

The House Site viewed from the top of the Rampe Douce, 1889
The photo above shows that Biltmore House was sited on the lower slope of Lone Pine Mountain, near the spot where George Vanderbilt had paused in 1888 to admire the view across the French Broad Valley westward towards Mt. Pisgah. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted determined the orientation of the house, intending to maximize “the good distant outlook.” 
  
Workers Commuting to Biltmore House, 1890
Workers constructed a temporary railroad spur from Biltmore Village (where it joined the main line of the Southern Railroad) to the building site. The railroad brought construction materials from the village. Each morning and evening the train also provided transportation. The stone carvers, aristocrats of the labor force, rode in borrowed passenger cars. The rest of the workers sat on supplies and construction equipment in the open freight cars. Although the rail spur was dismantled when construction was finished, remnants of at least one trestle are still visible and may be seen on the Behind-the-Scenes Legacy of the Land Tour.

Approach Road construction workers

Workmen on the Approach Road with Chauncey Beadle, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Vanderbilt, 1891

Foundation construction 1891

On the front row, far right, are shown Chauncey Beadle, hired in 1890 to oversee the estate’s nursery; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted; and George Vanderbilt. In this photograph one is struck by fascinating details that reflect the lives and labor of the men involved in building the great Approach Road—such as the road crew’s lunch pails on top of the masonry wall. The Approach Road remains one of Olmsted’s enduring masterpieces. He wanted visitors to encounter a variety of plants along the sides of the road as one would see “paintings on the walls of a gallery.” The road was to be a wide corridor, with plants carefully graduated: low shrubs nearest the road, then higher shrubs, followed by low spreading trees, then higher growing pines and hardwoods. Olmsted intended “this arrangement …[to be] irregular, of course, with some caprice.”
 
Foundation of the western wall of the South Terrace looking south, 1891
Rough-hewn limestone for the foundations was delivered to the site by rail, and then moved by hand-cranked, geared hoists. Work began with the walls of Olmsted’s Bowling Green—today the South Terrace—which provided a place to deposit earth excavated from other foundations. The construction of the Bowling Green also offered an opportunity to test the organization of work crews and the procedures that would be used once work began on the house.

Rampe Douce 1892
Shrub Garden 1892

View of the Rampe Douce and Vista with construction sheds and train in foreground, Ca. 1892
 
 
The Shrub Garden, or Ramble (left), and Esplanade (right), looking west, 1892
As this photograph reveals, the Esplanade in front of Biltmore House served as the work yard for all construction activities. Note the sheds and yards of the stonecutters and woodworkers; piles of stone, sand, wood, brick, and tile; and the tracks of the railroad. 

Biltmore construction supervisors 1892
Stonemasons' shed 1892

The Supervisors, 1892
Represented in this image are on-site contractors and supervisors. The supervising architect from Richard Morris Hunt’s office, Richard Sharp Smith, appears second from right. Others include F.M. Weeks, chief contractor, and W.A. Thompson, chief engineer. Smith designed many of the houses and cottages on the estate and in Biltmore Village. After the completion of Biltmore House, he left the Hunt firm and established his own architectural practice in Asheville. For the next 30 years, Smith designed many private homes and public buildings in Asheville and Western North Carolina.
Stonemasons’ shed on Esplanade, 1892

Workers and steam engine 1892

Workers and a Baldwin steam engine on the Esplanade, 1892

Walled Garden 1893

Pre-existing Homestead (foreground), the Gardener’s Cottage and Walled Garden (middle), and the foundations of the Bowling Green and Residence looking northwest (background), February 25, 1893
Here a complex of hewn-log farm buildings occupies the foreground, with the Gardener’s Cottage behind. The latter was the first building to be completed on the estate. This reflected the importance placed by both Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted on beginning the massive task of planting the landscape to hide the scars of construction. The Walled Garden appears nearly complete, while Biltmore House rises on the hill beyond.

See more archival photos in part 2 of our construction blog.
 

Remembering the 1898 April Engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Dresser

In celebration of the April 1898 engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, we ask an important question: what would you wear for a portrait commemorating your engagement to America’s most eligible bachelor? 

Archival portrait of Edith Vanderbilt

For Edith, the choice was a beautiful blue velvet gown—the perfect backdrop for a diamond and ruby brooch she received from her fiancé as an engagement gift.

During the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, see not only a stunning re-creation of Edith’s gown, but also a replica of her exquisite brooch—part of a set of jewelry that also included a tiara and necklace. 

The groom-to-be also appears in the Tapestry Gallery of Biltmore House, stylishly attired in a formal evening suit befitting the man labeled “Cupid’s richest captive” in newspapers around the country. Vanderbilt’s engagement was a hot topic for the papers; in the U.S. alone, more than 60 articles were published about his forthcoming wedding. 

While George Vanderbilt drew much public interest, his bride-to-be was mostly unknown outside New York and Newport society. So how did this relationship blossom? 

It’s likely the couple met through George’s match-making relatives. Edith—a decade younger than her future husband—was friends with several of his sisters and nieces. She and her sisters were living in Paris after the death of their parents and grandparents, and it was in Paris and London where Edith and George renewed their acquaintance and embarked on a transatlantic courtship. 

The news of the engagement was welcomed by friends, including the author Paul Leicester Ford, who wrote to George:  
“My dear George,
I am very glad. Marriage is quite good enough for you, and is one of the few really fine things you haven’t had in your life. I wish I knew Miss Dresser better, but the mere glimpse I had of her was enough to make me like her, and time will perhaps fulfill my wish. That you both have my every felicitation, and hope for your happiness, need not be said…..It is a pleasure to me to think of you as having this great happiness added to your life. But in the big love, save a little if you can, for your affectionate friend
Paul.”

Re-creation of Edith Vanderbilt engagement dress

Chauncey M. Depew, who served as New York Secretary of State and president of the New York Central Railway, was a family friend who had known George Vanderbilt all his life. On May 13, 1898, he wrote:
“My Dear George,
Accept my cordial congratulations on your engagement. Possessing as you do every thing to make a happy home, and Miss Dresser so charmingly forming the complement. Surely the future is (illegible) secure for married life as the fates have arranged it for you…
Faithfully yours,
Chauncey M. Depew”

Just three months after their engagement was announced, Edith Dresser and George Vanderbilt wed in Paris with family and close friends attending. After an extended European honeymoon, the newlyweds arrived at Biltmore in October 1898, and Edith Vanderbilt began a new role as hostess of Biltmore.

Learn more about how the Vanderbilts entertained at A Vanderbilt House Party –The Gilded Age continuing through May 27, 2019.

Photos

Main image: Re-creation of Edith Dresser’s engagement gown by Cosprop Ltd. of London, shown with George Vanderbilt evening clothing from the Cosprop collection.

Right: Edith Dresser’s engagement portrait, 1898.

Left: Close-up of re-creation of Edith Dresser’s engagement dress, headpiece, and brooch.

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt’s Visit to Japan

Time travel with us to explore George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan that began on September 1, 1892.

George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan

Just as visitors do today, Vanderbilt and his cousin, Clarence Barker, toured countless temples and other cultural sites during their visit to Japan. But they apparently worked in some shopping as well, as Biltmore’s archives indicate.

Ni-o guardians, carved wood. Edo period (1603-1868).

Like most of us, George Vanderbilt purchased souvenirs to remind him of the fascinating places he visited. Unlike us, however, he had a 250-room home under construction with plenty of space for accessories!

Perceptions of other places

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Nagasaki, Takabato Island. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how “foreign” Japan seemed to Americans at the end of the 1800s. The country had been closed to most Westerners for 200 years, only opening somewhat to trade beginning in the 1850s.

In Vanderbilt’s time, Japan was viewed as a place untouched by the west’s industrialization and modernization. Popular literature of the time evoked a far-off land where feudal traditions persisted and its people lived a simpler life.

Netsuke souvenirs from George Vanderbilt's trip to Japan
Carved netsuke, originally used as toggles on kimonos

To many Americans, Japan and its culture was exotic and rooted in tradition, offering a blend of spirituality and aesthetic beauty. To George Vanderbilt, deeply interested in history, the arts, and collecting, the allure must have been irresistible.

A far-east adventure

Invitation to Emperor of Japan's birthday celebration, 1892.
Invitation to Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration, 1892

The trip itself was an adventure. Vanderbilt and Barker—one of his favorite traveling companions—had just returned from Spain when an invitation arrived to attend the Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration. Soon after, they packed their trunks and, on September 1, 1892, embarked on the first leg of a 10-week itinerary.

First, they accompanied Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt to Chicago to see his preliminary work on the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Photo of George Vanderbilt's cousin Clarence Barker
Clarence Barker, George Vanderbilt’s cousin and frequent travel companion, ca. 1890

From there, the pair continued westward, stopping in Yellowstone National Park at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. Upon reaching San Francisco, they boarded ship for the week-long journey to Yokohama to begin their exploration of Japanese culture and customs—and evidently, quite a bit of shopping!

Shopping for souvenirs

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Ceremonial samurai swords with decorative display stand

Antiques shops and art dealers were obviously part of the itinerary, as Vanderbilt eventually shipped 32 cases of art and decorative objects back to America. Among his purchases were:

  • Satsuma ceramics, including a koro or ceremonial incense burner, for $85—a significant sum 122 years ago
  • Two suits of samurai armor along with spears and swords
  • Netsuke—miniature sculptures originally used as kimono toggles
  • Bronze sculptures
  • Lacquer boxes and sculptures
  • Varied screens and fans
  • Bamboo curtains
  • 1,000 festive paper lanterns

Time travel today at Biltmore

Aerial view of Biltmore House
Aerial view of Biltmore House and the Italian Garden

Although this year has presented some unique travel challenges–especially for large-scale journeys like George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan, we hope you’ll consider Biltmore in your current and future plans. It’s an excellent place to “time travel” into our storied past!

If you’d prefer to visit without leaving the comfort of home, be sure to enjoy virtual tours of the estate, or indulge in a bit of shopping in our online store.

Featured image: Pagoda at Horinja-Nana. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892

Behind Biltmore’s Hidden Doors

Designed both for aesthetics and hospitality, Biltmore’s hidden doors, such as the one pictured above in the Billiard Room, were designed to create a seamless appearance but provide access for staff providing service and convenience for guests; in this case, gentlemen who wanted to retire to the Smoking Room after a game of billiards.

Concealed servant's entrance in the Breakfast Room
Concealed servant’s entrance in the Breakfast Room

When you’re in the Breakfast Room, your attention is bound to be drawn to the two Renoir portraits “Young Algerian Girl” and “Child with an Orange.” If you look just below “Child with an Orange,” you’ll notice the doorknob to the concealed door, designed to create a seamless appearance on the wall but allow servants to enter with hot meals.

Biltmore House Library Hidden Door
Doors in the Library lead to a passageway connected to the Second Floor Living Hall.

Have you ever wondered what’s behind the doors on the top floor of the Library? Here’s your peek. The doors located on both sides of the overmantel lead to a passageway connected to the Second Floor Living Hall.

Hidden closet door in Mr. Vanderbilt's Bedroom in Biltmore House
Concealed closet door in Mr. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom

Every detail of the architecture at Biltmore was carefully considered. To avoid the break in symmetry that would be required by a door frame, closet doors were concealed in certain rooms, such as this one in Mr. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom.

Door in the floor of the Winter Garden
Door in the floor of the Winter Garden

Although early plans indicate that there was to be an elevator in the Winter Garden, one was never installed and instead, there’s a ladder. The door is covered in marble slabs and is rarely opened except to allow for ventilation in the employee break room below it in the summer.

Read more about the intricate details of Biltmore House, here

Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film

This wedding dress worn by Emma Thompson in “Sense and Sensibility” will appear in “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film,” an exhibition of film costumes at Biltmore House in 2016. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY ©1995 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Save the date! Exhibition of wedding gowns in film coming in February 2016.

Just a couple of days before Valentine’s Day next year, brides from an array of eras will fill the rooms of Biltmore House. Not quite time travel, and no, not 250 brides (that would be one per room, you see), but our guests may feel as if they’ve stepped onto a movie set.

“Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film,” an exhibition of wedding attire worn in some of the film industry’s most iconic movies, will grace the rooms of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s house beginning Feb. 12, 2016, for a stay through July 4, 2016.

Biltmore has been a location for weddings and romantic getaways since the Vanderbilts married in 1898. Bringing these gowns to such a romantic place seems like a natural match.

Displayed throughout Biltmore House, the award-winning costumes from span 300 years of wedding fashion from films set in the years 1645 to 1935. The exhibition features 19 classic films, including the iconic Jane Austen romances of “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” and “Pride and Prejudice.”

Elaborate floral arrangements will complement each film’s era and costume. Biltmore’s renowned floral design team is already making plans!

The exhibition will continue in the Legacy building in Antler Hill Village with stories of Vanderbilt and Cecil Family weddings, along with the first-ever display of the wedding veil worn by Mary Lee Ryan Cecil and her cousin Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. Mrs.  Cecil is married to William A.V. Cecil, grandson of George Vanderbilt.

To recognize the artistry of costume design, renowned costumiers Cosprop, Ltd., London will recreate the wedding gown worn by Cornelia Vanderbilt in her marriage to John Cecil in 1924. The gown will be on display.

Admission to “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film” will be included in the general admission ticket price.