Etched in stone: the façade of Biltmore House

George Vanderbilt and his architect Richard Morris Hunt put careful consideration into each material used to construct Biltmore House. While the underlying walls are brick, the architect chose to add a striking warm stone façade of the house: a layer of limestone from the Hallowell Quarry in Indiana, the country’s richest quarry at the time and the same source for the stone used in Chicago’s 1885 City Hall.

Between February 1891 and February 1892, 287 train cars left Indiana carrying the limestone that would become Biltmore’s façade. Once it came into the depot in Biltmore Village, the stone was transported to the construction site by a narrow-gauge railroad track built specifically for that purpose. The first shipment arrived at the house on March 16, 1891.

Limestone blocks were stored in sheds and protected from the weather until they were ready to be cut and carved. To achieve the texture seen on the house today, the blocks were tooled by hand through a  process called crandalling. Skilled stonecutters cut shallow grooves into the surface of the stone, resulting in a fine, pebble-like surface that looks more elegant and reflects light more dramatically than unaltered limestone.

Once ready, the limestone blocks were lifted into place using wooden derricks powered by hand-drive, geared winches. The first block of stone was put in place in the west garden wall on June 8, 1891.

Although there’s no exact final count, estimates indicate that when the construction was complete, around 60,000 cubic feet of limestone adding up to 5,000 tons had been used in the project. The surface as it’s seen today reflects the beautiful effects of aging in the elements for more than 120 years.

Archival photo of some of the workers and a steam engine that built America's Largest Home

Top: Stonemasons’ shed, 1892, with Biltmore House under construction in the background.

Bottom: Workers and a steam engine on the Esplanade, 1892. Indiana limestone was shipped by rail directly to the Biltmore House building site.

A special bond

Chauncey Delos Beadle began working at Biltmore as nursery supervisor under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted in 1890—five years before Biltmore House and its surrounding gardens were completed. Beadle, who said he came to Biltmore for a month and stayed for a lifetime, lovingly supervised the estate grounds until 1950.

Chauncey Beadle, ca. 1906
Chauncey Beadle, ca. 1906

Ten years after arriving at Biltmore, Beadle and the other staff members helped George and Edith Vanderbilt welcome the arrival of their only child—a daughter named Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt. Later that same year, a cucumber magnolia tree (Magnolia acuminate) was planted in the child’s honor in the area of the estate that would come to be known as the Azalea Garden. According to one newspaper account,

The spot selected is in a beautiful grassy dell near Biltmore House. The tree itself, now but a sapling of twelve feet in height, is expected to be 60 feet above the ground when little Cornelia reaches the age of 20 years. A few years after that event, it is expected that it will reach a height of 100 feet. It lives centuries, and is one of the prides of our beautiful southern forests. 

A special bond

As a young girl, Cornelia developed a special bond with Beadle. He had become estate superintendent and was now responsible for the overall business management of the estate, as well as many of the Vanderbilts’ personal affairs—but he was also a trained botanist and horticulturalist who encouraged Cornelia to take an interest in plants and flowers from a very young age. Together, they undertook such activities as planting a flower garden for the child to tend.

When Cornelia was away travelling with her parents, Beadle wrote letters detailing the garden’s growth and often included pressed flowers for her enjoyment.

Here are excerpts from the charming letters Beadle wrote to Cornelia just before her sixth and seventh birthdays:

August 17, 1906 – To Cornelia in Paris, France:

“I promised you just as you were leaving Biltmore to send you some pressed flowers from your garden, that you may see some of the results of the seeds we planted last spring. Almost all of the seeds grew and thrived and, in particular, I wish you could have seen some large double sunflowers as large as breakfast plates … They were so large that I could not press them and I fear that before your return they will have faded and gone. The little package which I am sending you, however, contains some of the smaller flowers that were easily pressed and, perhaps, before your home-coming, I can send you another lot so that you may be able to enjoy the garden even though you were in Europe…”

August 14, 1907 – To Cornelia at Point D’ Acadie, the Vanderbilt’s home in Bar Harbor, Maine:

“I have sent you by mail a package containing a number of pressed flowers from your garden which you painstakingly planted and watered. Very many of the plants have made a splendid showing… In the package you will find handsome Larkspurs of various shades and mottled colors… and several other flowers that were in blossom…. You will find the names of the flowers written on the inside of the sheets of paper which contain them, and I am very sure that you will soon know them all by name and will be able to recognize them wherever you may see them growing…”

Keeping up a correspondence

George Vanderbilt passed away unexpectedly in 1914, and Edith and Cornelia began spending more time in Washington, DC where Cornelia attended The Madeira School. Beadle continued corresponding with the pair through the years, bringing Edith up-to-date on estate business and describing the gardens in great detail so both ladies could enjoy them even when they were far from home.

In a letter dated April 14, 1922, Beadle wrote to Cornelia,

“The tulips in the walled garden are so glorious that we are trying out an experiment of sending you a box today by express for Easter. We shall hope they will bring you something of their original beauty and charm to make Easter even more wonderful. Spring is very much advanced here, even the yellow rambler roses are opening.”

Beadle’s gift

In 1923, Cornelia met the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, a British diplomat who had been transferred to Washington, DC after posts in Egypt, Spain and Czechoslovakia. John Cecil came from a very prominent British family, and was a direct descendant of William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, who served Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Cornelia and John announced their engagement later that year, and set a wedding date for April 29, 1924. Although Beadle was in Florida and unable to return for their wedding, he sent a very special gift that commemorated their mutual love of the natural world: fresh orange blossoms from his own garden. Our archival records indicate that Cornelia placed some of the fragrant flowers on her veil and also decorated the toe of each of her wedding slippers with a single, perfect blossom.

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding portrait upon her marriage to John Francis Amherst Cecil, April 1924
Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding portrait upon her marriage to John Francis Amherst Cecil, April 1924

Images

Top: Chauncey Beadle at Biltmore in 1906

Middle: Cornelia Vanderbilt photograph; 1904

Bottom: Cornelia in her wedding dress at the bottom of the Grand Staircase in Biltmore House

Guastavino’s architectural influence in Asheville

When Spanish architect Raphael Guastavino came to the U.S. in 1881, he already had a reputation for creating grand arches, domes, and vaults in Europe. Within a few years, his work caught the attention of Richard Morris Hunt, head architect for Biltmore House.

“Guastavino had introduced an impressive and inexpensive alternative to iron beam construction in the U.S. that resulted in interiors with soaring arches and open spaces,” said Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation. “His tile work was low maintenance, fireproof, and functional.”

He was commissioned by Hunt to create the decorative tile vaulting at Biltmore House, including the hall ceilings around the Winter Garden. His tile work in the Swimming Pool is reminiscent of the vaulting in New York City’s earliest subway stations, another Guastavino design.

“The herringbone pattern on the ceiling of the Porte Cochere as you exit the house is remarkable,” Leslie said.“He also created the beautifully patterned vaults at the Lodge Gate—the acoustical effects when horses passed through there must have been amazing.”

St. Lawrence BasilicaAfter his work on Biltmore House, Guastavino also remained in the area, focusing on two projects near and dear to his heart. His masterpiece—St. Lawrence Basilica in downtown Asheville—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the architect is buried there.  Guastavino finished the plans, including a dramatic freestanding elliptical dome, and gave them to the church but died before construction was complete.

Guastavino built a modest estate known as Rhododendron in Black Mountain. His home, called the Spanish Castle, was a rambling three-story wood structure built with timber from his property. Outbuildings included wine cellars, chapel, bell tower, and kilns where he experimented with tile and glazes.

Unfortunately, the home burned in the early 1940s. Some ruins remain, mostly the kilns and wine cellars, on property which is now part of Christmount Christian Assembly. A walking tour on the property offers a view into this working estate from the late 1800s into the 1940s, including photographs and information from historical sources. The Christmount Guest House hosts a temporary exhibit displaying relics from the house and kiln areas found over the years; the exhibit is open to the public.

Around the country, more than 1,000 buildings feature his designs, including his signature vaulting, including the Boston Public Library, New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, and the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo.

Photos

Main: Swimming Pool in Biltmore House, with tile vaulting created by Raphael Guastavino

Left: St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville, ca. 1909, designed by Raphael Guastavino. Photo courtesy of St. Lawrence Basilica.

Biltmore’s hidden garden

Nestled in the heart of Biltmore’s landscape is a secret garden. Well, maybe not “secret” since it’s contained in the Conservatory, which sparkles as the centerpiece of the Walled Garden.

But it can certainly be considered an “overlooked” garden, because so many guests walk or drive past it without ever opening its lovely arched doors.

When you do venture inside, you are transported to another world—a tropical jungle of ferns, palm trees, and exotic blooms that rivals any South Beach hotspot. No matter the weather, the climate indoors welcomes you with a heady perfume that combines fragrant flowers and damp earth to create a treat for your senses.

Exhibition Room door displayThe transition is quite deliberate, and is based upon George Vanderbilt’s original vision for the Conservatory. In the late 1800s, vast glass structures like Biltmore’s Conservatory were the ultimate statement of luxurious living, exhibiting hundreds of blooming flowers, exotic plants, and delicate orchids in abundance.

At the turn of the 19th century, gardening was widely viewed as a healing pastime as well as an opportunity to showcase collections of rare and unique plants. A generation of wealthy collectors dotted the nation with lavish conservatories inspired by similar structures found on Europe estates, including Longwood Conservatory in Pennsylvania and Lyndhurst Conservatory in New York.

While serious gardeners were determined to provide optimal growing conditions for their plants, many owners chose to entertain friends and family amid giant palms and luscious orchids, A few commissioned plant hunters to travel the world’s most remote locations to seek out rare specimens.

Tree fernArchival records indicate George Vanderbilt furnished his Conservatory in a more typical manner—by ordering plants from nurseries around the country. A report in the 1894 issue of American Gardening titled “George W. Vanderbilt’s Palms” mentions he fitted out his new conservatory with some of the largest palms under cultivation in the country. The collection included 15 tree ferns imported from Australia years earlier and described the “long dark green leaves of the finest specimens reach twenty feet into the air.” Additional plants included sago palms and several “immense Palmetto palms from South Carolina.”

Today, the Conservatory continues to bring a taste of the tropics to western North Carolina despite winter’s chill. To help Mother Nature, our gardeners have coaxed spring bulbs into early bloom. Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths brighten the central Palm House and the Cool House now, with Asiatic and oriental lilies adding their intoxicating scent in mid-April. The Cool House also hosts plants who call the subtropics home, including Australian tree ferns like the ones Vanderbilt obtained (although not the same plants), accompanied by banana trees and the evocatively-named Lollipop plants and Shrimp plants.

In the Hot House, you’ll find plants that originate in tropical climes and are familiar as houseplants, such as the philodendron and colocasia (or elephant ear)—but in larger sizes than you’d ever typically see. Among the canopy of foliage, be sure to look for the large Mexican breadfruit.

OrchidsThe orchids are mesmerizing this time of year, brightening even the dreariest of days with amazing colors and forms. The Orchid Room is filled with blooms both recognizable and unusual, from the corsage and lady slipper varieties to more rare examples.

“The lady slipper orchids have lips that look like shoes,” said Marc Burchette, who tends the collection. “We also have small yellow-flowered dancing lady orchids.”

Less common varieties include a large orchid species from Southeast Asia with clusters of red and yellow flowers on a long pendant, and a particularly fragrant orchid with crystalline green blooms from Papua New Guinea

Exotic blooms aside, you really can’t miss the most dramatic plants in the Conservatory, since they are right in front of you! As you enter the Palm House, where the glass roof rises 38 feet high, the towering specimens of Madagascar palm, Bottle palm, and Bismarck Fan palm create a tropical escape in the middle of winter.

Frame Your Travels

Looking for a fabulous way to showcase your travels? The framing professionals at Larson-Juhl suggest creating a custom-frame shadowbox to display collections of photos and treasured keepsakes that bring the journey to life all over again.

Shadowboxes are perfect for this purpose because they add depth to your collections, allowing you to add dimensional objects rather than just flat photos, maps, or postcards. A knowledgeable framer can help you choose the right height to make the most of the items you want to highlight. Professional framing and glass choices can also keep special items from further deterioration and damage. Here are a few ideas we love:

Exotic Travel Adventure

  • Photos from your excursions
  • Foreign currency
  • Special items purchased at a market
  • Ticket stubs or copies of passport travel stamps

Family Beach Vacation

  • Use a map of the beach as the background
  • Family photos taken on the beach
  • Seashells, sand, or driftwood
  • Postcards

Big City Getaway

  • Use the subway system map as the background
  • Tickets from shows, museums or any special place
  • Photos taken in the city
  • Small items purchased in the city

Biltmore Vine To Wine Tour

  • Use the map of the vineyard as the background
  • A bottle of wine from the vineyard
  • Photos of the vineyard
  • Tasting notes you jotted down along the way

Orange Tree Centerpieces from Biltmore House Breakfast Room

Breakfast Room in Biltmore House.

 These vibrant centerpieces bring a hint of traditional elegance and timeless style to your holiday table or buffet, just as they do for the Breakfast Room in Biltmore House.

Molly Hensley, Biltmore Floral Designer, gives us some of her insight:

 We chose oranges to compliment and draw attention to the two Renoir paintings—Young Algerian Girl and Child with an Orange—that hang in the room.

 To add a bit more texture and richness to the look, place the finished centerpiece on a decorative flat plate or a raised cake stand. We chose Cake Stands from Belk’s Biltmore for Your Home Collection to give our centerpieces an extra bit of height plus a hint of metallic silver detailing.

Materials needed

  • Hot glue
  • Wooden floral picks
  • Small knife
  • Artificial oranges (amount needed depends on size of centerpiece you want to create)
  • Artificial leaves, orange blossoms
  • Ribbon (optional)

  Assembling the centerpiece

 If using ribbon in your design, wrap the ribbon once around the orange and attach it with hot glue.  Do this with all oranges you are using for the centerpieces.  We used a bright citrus green ribbon for a seasonal pop of color against the oranges.

 Lay out a first layer or base of oranges in a circular/wreath-type pattern on your work surface.  Make a small hole on opposite sides of each orange, insert a wooden pick* in the hole, and use the pick to attach each orange to the next.  For extra support, fill the hole with hot glue before inserting a pick.  Work with care and protect your hands from hot glue!

 *Note:  depending on the size of your picks, you may need to cut them so all oranges rest flush against each other once picks are inserted.

 Once the base is completely dry, begin building the rest of the centerpiece in a “pyramid” fashion.  Using hot glue, affix the oranges on the top part of the base where the picked oranges attach. Continue building upward, gradually decreasing the amount of oranges you are using.  This can be accomplished by affixing the oranges slightly to the back of the layer you are attaching it to (almost in a stair step manner). 

 When the desired height is reached, put the last orange on the very top with a bow attached.  To fill in open spaces, glue an assortment of leaves or orange blossoms in the gap. 

  Make the look your own

 Consider using limes rather than oranges, or rich, red apples to enhance your holiday décor. 

The Heart of Biltmore

Explore a suite of Biltmore’s grandest rooms and discover stories of what made Biltmore House a home.

One of the rooms in the suite, the Louis XV Room, is perhaps the true heart of Biltmore. This room served as the birthplace of George and Edith’s only daughter, Cornelia, in 1900. Years later, Cornelia selected the Louis XV Room to deliver her two sons, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil in 1925 and 1928, respectively.

With the opening of the suite in April 2009, more stories were revealed about the people who lived in, worked in, and loved America’s largest home.

If you choose to add our audio guide to your visit, you will hear stories about the excitement surrounding Cornelia’s birth in 1900 and firsthand accounts of friends and family members who wrote of their time at Biltmore.

Historic Splendor

Biltmore’s team of curators, conservators, and craftsmen has spent years researching and sourcing materials from around the globe to authentically restore this exceptional part of Biltmore House. Biltmore’s experts engaged in extensive detective work throughout the restoration process, including:

 

Please note these rooms are not accessible by wheelchair.
See accessibility information.

 

 
  • Piecing remnants of original wallpaper found underneath door moldings and drapery brackets to determine wallpaper patterns for the reproduction process.
  • Traveling to France to collaborate with fabric and wallpaper company designers to ensure the original samples were reproduced exactly.
  • Hours of conserving the objects from George Vanderbilt’s collection, which have been kept in storage, away from public view, since the 1930s.
  • Conducting paint analysis to determine and match the original paint colors.

How Did Our Christmas Tradition Begin?

Although George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, the house did not officially open to guests until Christmas Eve of that year. Great efforts were made to ensure all (or most!) would be ready by this special day. Mr. Vanderbilt was still a bachelor during the first Biltmore Christmas and his mother, Maria Louisa, presided as hostess.

Correspondence between Vanderbilt and his staff indicates that planning was intensive and no detail was left unattended. Managers debated which nearby county had the best holly and the most desirable mistletoe, while staff scouted for the perfect candidate for the Banquet Hall Christmas tree.

Chauncey Beadle writes estate manager, Mr. Charles McNamee:

“I quite agree with you that we should have a very large tree for this occasion; in fact, I think a twenty foot tree in that large Banquet Hall would be rather dwarfed”.

When George’s mother, several of his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and assorted nieces and nephews arrived, they were greeted in the Banquet Hall by a splendidly tall tree laden with gifts for estate workers. At the foot of the tree was a table piled high with family gifts. Because of this, the Banquet Hall has always been the focal point for Christmas celebrations in Biltmore House.

The Banquet Hall tree is a Christmas tradition at Biltmore
The Banquet Hall tree is a Christmas tradition at Biltmore

The family and guests gathered around the forty-foot Banquet Hall table for elaborate dinners served both evenings. Mr. Vanderbilt’s niece Gertrude kept a series of Dinner Books in which she recorded the seating arrangements of all of the parties and dinners she attended as a young woman, and she was one of the guests at the first Christmas dinner here in Biltmore House. Gertrude kept two Dinner Books in 1895, and the Christmas meal at Biltmore House was the 193rd formal dinner that she attended that year. In her diagram of the dinner, she listed 27 Vanderbilt family members. It was said to be the largest gathering of the family since the death of William Henry Vanderbilt, George’s father, in 1885.

In addition to the grand meals and festive décor, stockings hung on mantles, plum puddings and mince pies were served, and George’s mother read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ to the children. All in all, it must have been a grand time—one article even stated that the family exchanged gilded and jeweled Christmas cards.

Savor North Carolina Wines and Flavors

May is North Carolina Wine Month and Biltmore is proud to have a long-standing role in our state’s emerging importance in the grape-growing and wine industries.

In honor of North Carolina Wine Month, as well as Biltmore’s long agricultural and culinary heritage, Estate Executive Chef Mark DeMarco has created a very special menu that highlights some of North Carolina’s most traditional and delicious dishes.

As winemaker for Biltmore, I suggest pairing the meal with our North Carolina Biltmore Reserve Riesling because of its food-friendly character and balanced, refreshing acidity, hints of honey, and just the right touch of spice.

Country Fried Mountain Trout, Biscuits, and Pepper Jelly

Biscuits
• 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
• 4 teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon baking soda
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• 4 tablespoons cold, diced butter
• 1 cup buttermilk

Method
Preheat oven to 450°. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Using your hands, incorporate butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and add buttermilk. Combine just until a dough is formed.

Transfer to a counter top and knead 5–6 times, using additional flour as needed to prevent excessive sticking. Dust a rolling pin with flour, and roll dough into a 1-inch thickness. Cut with a 2-inch cutter. Baked on a greased cookie sheet for 15–20 minutes, or reserve dough in freezer.

Pepper Jelly 
• ½ cup red pepper puree*
• 13 cup finely diced red pepper
• 2 ½ cups granulated sugar
• ¾ cup cider vinegar
• ½ tablespoon dry pectin

Method
In a small sauce pot, combine puree, vinegar, half of the sugar and the pectin. Bring to a boil, and stir in remaining sugar. Cook at 180° (or just under a boil) for 5 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in diced peppers. Chill jelly.

*Simmer diced, seeded fresh peppers in salted water until tender. Cool to room temperature, and puree in blender, adding a little water from the cooking process if needed. (Or puree canned premium peppers.)

Trout 
• 4 (6-ounce) trout fillets
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon rubbed sage
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 1 tablespoon coarse cracked black pepper
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 4 tablespoons prepared hot sauce
• 1 cup vegetable oil

Method
Place trout in gallon zip lock bag with buttermilk and hot sauce and refrigerate overnight. Add vegetable oil to a wide, heavy bottomed skillet and set over medium heat. Combine flour, salt, pepper, and sage in a second zip lock bag. Add trout to flour mixture, and shake well.

Check oil; temperature should be 350°. Adjust heat as necessary. Shake off excess flour from trout, and fry approximately 3 minutes per side. Reserve cooked trout on paper towels in a preheated 220° oven, uncovered. Serve trout over biscuits and top with pepper jelly. Serves 4.

Kale Salad with Pickled Patty Pan Squash

Ingredients
• 6 quarts fresh kale, stemmed, washed, and chopped small
• 1½ cup drained canned chickpeas
• 13 cup olive oil
• 1 pound baby summer squash cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 cup cider vinegar
• 2 cups water
• ½ cup sugar
• ¼ cup kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons pickling spice
• 2 lemons, zested and juiced

Method
Bring vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and pickling spice to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, strain out pickling spice, and add squash. Let stand 10 minutes.

Preheat large sauce pot over high heat. Add ¼ cup olive oil and kale. Lightly season with salt, and cook, uncovered, until tender, stirring frequently, and adding small amounts of water as needed to prevent burning. Kale cooking times will vary depending on variety and maturity.

To assemble, combine kale, remaining olive oil, chick peas and pickled squash. Toss with lemon juice and zest. Enjoy at room temperature or chilled. Serves 4.

Tips: Everything on this menu, except for the trout, can be made a day ahead.
• Freeze uncooked biscuits, and bake from frozen at 375° instead of 450°.
• Jelly recipe can be scaled up in direct proportion to accommodate a bumper crop of summer peppers.
• If kale salad is made in advance, undercook kale slightly, as acidity of lemons will tenderize it further.