Biltmore Dairy: An Udderly Fascinating History

George Vanderbilt established Biltmore Dairy operations for three main reasons: to supply dairy products to Biltmore House, to provide an example to others on how to run a successful farm, and to generate income through commercial product sales.

Imagine having a Vanderbilt for your milkman—flavoring your coffee with cream from the dairy of a multi-millionaire. It is enough to make one smack his lips and imagine the product is richer than that of ordinary dairymen.
– “A Millionaire Farmer,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1894

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

Beyond the dairy, original agricultural operations included sheep, hog, and poultry farms, and a substantial market garden for produce. All of these endeavors, collectively named Biltmore Farms, contributed to George Vanderbilt’s ability to fulfill the estate’s mission of self-sufficiency.

However, Biltmore Dairy was the most successful of all of Biltmore’s enterprises, providing the estate with a financial cushion that would see it through George Vanderbilt’s death, two world wars, the Great Depression, and beyond.

Calves in the Calf Barn, ca. 1940

Calves in the Calf Barn, ca. 1940

Much of this success was thanks to the Vanderbilts’ prized herd of Jersey cows. Of all major dairy breeds, Jerseys produce the richest milk—high in butterfat, protein, and calcium. They also produce a higher volume of milk per each pound of body weight than other type of cattle.

The Biltmore Dairy Farms herd, believed to be the largest herd of registered Jerseys in the world, is unquestionably one of the finest and best known.
– “Souvenir Edition Annual Meeting of the American Jersey Cattle Club,” June 3, 1942

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

To ensure that the herd maintained excellent health, staff included a full-time veterinarian and a dairy bacteriologist. Dairy workers kept detailed records on the herd and conducted regular inspections to ensure their living conditions were of the highest quality.

The herd was primarily housed in the estate’s Main Dairy Barn—what is now Biltmore’s Winery. Just down the road was the Creamery, where cream was separated from the milk. Milk was then bottled and sold, while the cream was made into butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and, of course, ice cream.

The Dairy Barn, May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)

The Dairy Barn, May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)

Biltmore’s ice cream played a leading role at estate gatherings, including Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, and May Day festivities. Almost every oral history interview in our archives that mentions a childhood memory on the estate also includes a reference to ice cream.

After Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930, guests could view the milking rooms and processing areas in the Dairy Barn, sample the milk, and buy ice cream. Biltmore Dairy was so successful and its products were so well-known that it became an attraction in its own right for estate visitors.

Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940

Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940

It was around this time that the dairy’s delivery wagons were replaced with trucks and the fleet grew from 30 vehicles to over 400 in just 15 years. Salesmen were now able to market the products as far away as Charlotte, which at the time was a windy, wooded five-hour drive.

Unfortunately, the market shifted. With the advent of chain grocery stores came a cheaper, more way to purchase milk, eventually making door-to-door dairy delivery obsolete. Biltmore Dairy and other smaller, family-run businesses were unable to complete with more expansive commercial operations. In April of 1985, Biltmore Dairy was sold to Pet, Inc.

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard

Today, Biltmore continues to draw inspiration from Biltmore Dairy. The Ice Cream Parlor in the Stable Courtyard has recently been renamed Biltmore Dairy Bar™ to honor this part of our agricultural heritage. Additionally, vanilla ice cream based on a delicious original Biltmore Dairy recipe is offered at both Biltmore Dairy Bar™ and at the Creamery in Antler Hill Village.

*Feature image: Cows in the Main Dairy Barn, ca. 1935.

Pairing Our Gardens with Biltmore White Wines

Spring weather calls for white wines

As the season changes to spring, it’s natural to move from Biltmore’s heartier red wines you enjoyed during the colder winter months to our lighter and more refreshing white wines.

Celebrate spring by entertaining outdoors with Biltmore white wines

Think outside the house

From patios to picnics to pool parties, Spencer Knight, Winery Tours Supervisor, offers this basic tip on serving and appreciating wine outdoors in spring:

“Just follow the ‘20-Minute Rule’,” said Spencer. “Remove white wine from the refrigerator 20–30 minutes prior to serving so the flavor profile has a chance to expand. During warmer weather, it’s also a good idea to return open wine bottles to a container of ice and water between refills, especially if you’re entertaining outside.”

Biltmore White Wine & Garden Pairings
 

Bottle of Biltmore white wine

Biltmore white wines are perfect by the glass or bottle

Biltmore’s beautiful gardens all have distinct “personalities” that we’ve playfully paired with our wines—plus suggestions for enjoying our wines with your favorite flavors. This spring, we encourage you to get to know our white wines in the great outdoors. Choose the one that best suits your mood, or try them all!

Diana at Biltmore

This elegant site overlooking Biltmore House offers a classic setting that calls to mind our outstanding sparkling wines. Brighten any special occasion with our Pas de Deux Moscatohandcrafted in traditional méthode champenoise to create fine, tiny bubbles, this aromatic semi-sweet sparkler features the essence of orange blossom and flavors of wild strawberry and lemon. Enjoy with fresh fruit, chocolate covered strawberries, or cheesecake. 

View of Biltmore House from Diana at Biltmore

Temple of Diana overlooking Biltmore House

Shrub Garden

Savor the beauty of Biltmore’s Shrub Garden—a picture-perfect pairing for Biltmore Estate Riesling as the wine’s fresh and fragrant style is reminiscent of early-blooming spring shrubs. Beautifully balanced with sweet apricot aromas, light honey flavors, and a crisp finish, our Riesling makes a surprisingly savory companion to spicy Thai dishes as well as fruity desserts.

Shrub garden in bloom at Biltmore

Colorful blooms in the Shrub Garden

Walled Garden

Stroll the paths of this grand garden and enjoy the sun-warmed stone walls that enfold you with tradition, much like the classic taste of our Biltmore Estate Chardonnay. Smooth and balanced with subtle floral aromas, crisp fruit flavors, and hints of oak, our Chardonnay shines when served with favorites including chicken and grilled vegetables, pasta with cream sauce, and even hard-to-pair fare like squash dishes.

White wisteria in Biltmore's Walled Garden

 White wisteria blooming in the Walled Garden

Rose Garden

Our rambling rose garden is a perfect match for our Biltmore Reserve North Carolina Rosé 2018. Crafted from select North Carolina Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, our pretty-in-pink rosé blossoms with beautiful color, layered aromas, and flavors of red berries, tropical fruits, and a hint of spice. Enjoy with cheese plates and pizza.

Biltmore's historic rose garden and Conservatory

Biltmore’s historic Rose Garden in front of the Conservatory 

Azalea Garden

The informal feel and bright colors of the Azalea Garden make it a natural match for our fragrant and food-friendly Biltmore Spring Release White Wine. Handcrafted to capture the essence of the season, this is the perfect wine for warmer weather and picnics. You can also spice up spring by pairing it with zesty sausage and Indian food!

Azalea garden at Biltmore

Azaleas blooming in late spring

Purchase Biltmore wines today

Whether you’re stocking up on favorite varietals or trying new ones, you can purchase Biltmore wines on the estate, online, or close to home through our Retailer Locator.

Meet the Staff: A Look at Servant Life at Biltmore

In addition to boasting the latest and greatest in technology, Biltmore required an exceptional team of domestic staff to ensure the house operated like a well-oiled machine.

In the days when George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt resided at Biltmore, they employed up to 40 staff members who each played a crucial role in the day-to-day operations of the house and stable. With large house parties of guests coming and going throughout the year, Biltmore functioned more like a luxury hotel than it did a house. As soon as guests arrived on the estate, the domestic staff made sure that each and every one of their needs were met.

George Vanderbilt not only provided room, board and uniforms to his staff, but he also compensated his employees with New York wages, a substantially higher rate than the Asheville standard. Staff wages could be up to $2 for higher ranking staff, which is substantial given that a week of room and board typically cost $2.50.

Demographically speaking, the domestic staff was majority female. While many of the servants were native North Carolinians, there were also a number of employees from around the globe including an English Head Housekeeper, a French cook, a Swedish laundress, and an Irish Butler.

The domestic staff members were classified into two groups: upper and lower staff. The higher the ranking, the more defined the responsibilities of their role. While each member of the staff provided invaluable service to the Vanderbilts, there were a few upper roles that maintained the standard of service and hospitality Biltmore is renowned for.

The wardrobe of Biltmore’s Head Housekeeper was recreated for the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, and even included chatelaine (an accessory used to carry keys) the Head Housekeeper would wear at all times. 

HEAD HOUSEKEEPER

  • At Biltmore, the Head Housekeeper was among the highest ranking staff members, and the chief female servant. She reported directly to Edith Vanderbilt at Biltmore.
  • Whether she was single or married, the Head Housekeeper was always addressed as “Mrs.” out of respect.
  • The Head Housekeeper supervised all lower ranking female staff, with the exception of the Chef’s kitchen staff.
  • She oversaw the cleaning of the house, household inventory, and held keys to the storerooms, pantries, china closet and still room.
  • The Head Housekeeper typically dressed in a black dress.
  • Read more about Emily King, one of Biltmore’s first housekeepers.

BUTLER

  • As the highest ranking male staff member in Biltmore, the Butler was responsible for all lower ranking manservants.
  • His primary responsibility was to ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt and their guests were seamlessly served three meals daily, as well as afternoon tea.
  • The Butler was also tasked with maintaining  the family china, crystal, and silver (which was stored in the aptly named Butler’s Pantry)
  • Other duties of the Butler: creating floral arrangements; overseeing the storage, decanting, and serving of wine; maintaining the clocks; greeting guests upon arrival; and assisting with the departures and return of Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, as well as their guests.
  • The Butler’s livery was formal, and often included a coat with tails and multiple monogrammed buttons.

An archival photograph of Edith Vanderbilt’s Lady’s Maid Martha Laube. Photograph courtesy of A. Babette Schmid Schmaus.

LADY’S MAID

  • The Lady’s Maid served as a personal companion to Edith and/or Cornelia Vanderbilt.
  • The Lady’s Maid traveled with her mistress and managed her correspondence, and she was also responsible for dressing her mistress and combing her hair.
  • The lady’s maid was also expected to be quite skilled at sewing, as her responsibilities included mending and packing Mrs. Vanderbilt and Cornelia’s clothing.
  • Instead of a uniform, the Lady’s Maid wore dresses gifted or no longer worn by her mistress, which was regarded as a privilege.
  • The lady’s maid was referred to by her last name.

VALET

  • The valet was one of the older and more experienced members of the male staff (typically in his 30s) who reported directly to George Vanderbilt.
  • The valet traveled with George Vanderbilt and attended social functions and events with him.
  • His responsibilities included making travel arrangements for George Vanderbilt. (Mr. Vanderbilt would travel first class, while his valet traveled in second.)
  • The valet would be familiar with foreign languages, and be an expert of fishing and hunting to assist Mr. Vanderbilt.
  • He did not wear a uniform and, like the lady’s maid, he was addressed by his last name.
  • Read more about George Vanderbilt’s personal valet here.

Experience Biltmore House as if you were a cherished guest of the Vanderbilts in our latest exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age. For a more in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore, guests can enjoy the Biltmore House Revealed tour.

Join us February 8 through May 27 for this one-of-a-kind exhibition featuring immersive audio storytelling and displays of elegant clothing recreated from archival Vanderbilt photos and portraits. 

Head Over Heels for Hats and Headpieces

For Edith Vanderbilt and her peers, the fashion demands of the Gilded Age included regular visits to their favorite milliners for stylish hats and headpieces to match every outfit and activity from strolling in the gardens to attending fancy dress balls.

Ladies also kept up with trends by reviewing elegant magazines like Les Modes for the latest looks from couture design houses in cities such as Paris and London.

Front covers of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore's collection

Glamorous gowns and headpieces grace the covers of the June 1911 and February 1913 issues of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore’s collection

In style

Now through May 27, experience a fabulous array of hats and headpieces ranging from beautifully beaded butterflies and dove gray velvet to iridescent peacock feathers during our new exhibition: A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age. 

“We spent two years planning this exhibition,” said Leslie Klingner, curator of interpretation, “and we re-created many pieces of clothing from the original wardrobes of the Vanderbilts and their guests. We also looked at sources such as newspaper clippings and Edith Vanderbilt’s collection of Les Modes magazine in our archives for inspiration. The beautiful attire you’ll see in this exhibition would not have been complete without matching accessories.” 

An engaging headpiece

One of Leslie’s favorites is a velvet gown that Edith Dresser wore for her photographic portraits commemorating her engagement to George Vanderbilt. “The color is so deep that it looks black,” said Leslie, “but we know from newspaper articles and archival sources that it was actually midnight blue.” 

The matching headpiece features a diamonte ornament and a feathery black plume that adds additional height and elegance to the ensemble.

Edith Vanderbilt's engagement headpiece

Edith Dresser’s re-created engagement headpiece on display in the Tapestry Gallery

Feeding the swans

A vignette in the Second Floor Living Hall features Edith’s sister Pauline Merrill with the Vanderbilt’s only child Cornelia, dressed for walking out to feed the swans. While Pauline’s blue-gray tweed jacket and skirt seem sturdy enough for the outdoors, her hat is a delightful confection of soft gray velvet trimmed in matching ostrich plumes.

Pauline Merrill's gray velvet hat from A Vanderbilt House Party

Pauline Merrill’s stylish velvet hat draped in matching feathery plumes

Lady of the house

As the lady of the house, Edith Vanderbilt would always have been dressed appropriately for conducting her household responsibilities and attending to her family and guests. The elegant dress and hat featured in the Oak Sitting Room vignette were reproduced from an archival photograph.

Mannequins of Edith Vanderbilt and her daughter Cornelia

Edith Vanderbilt attends to the business of Biltmore House while daughter Cornelia and her cousin play with a toy 

George Vanderbilt's mannequin wearing a hat

George Vanderbilt’s mannequin sports a jaunty hat perfect for enjoying a stroll around the estate

And let’s not overlook the fashionable gentleman of the era. They, too, would have visited their trusted haberdashers for the finest bespoke styles—including hats—tailored to their needs and specifications.

Headpieces worthy of a grand gala in the Banquet Hall

Edith Vanderbilt mannequin with peacock feather headpiece

“For events like grand dinner parties, Edith Vanderbilt and other ladies would have worn stylish headpieces that coordinated with their gowns and accentuated their ornate hairstyles,” Leslie said. 
Edith Vanderbilt with an elegant spray of peacock feathers tucked into her chignon hairstyle

Katherine Hunt's mannequin with beaded comb in hair

Catharine Hunt, wife of Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt, is shown with a comb in faceted jet to accent her curls

Beaded butterfly headpiece for Florence Vanderbilt Twombly's mannequin

The pièce de résistance: Florence Vanderbilt Twombly wears a beaded butterfly headpiece to match her exquisite gown, originally designed by the House of Worth. This stunning ensemble and many others were re-created for A Vanderbilt House Party by John Bright of Cosprop Ltd in London
 

A Vanderbilt House Party - The Gilded Age at Biltmore

Plan your visit now

Experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age February 8–May 27, 2019, and discover how the Vanderbilt family planned and prepared turn-of-the-century house party celebrations for their special guests. Receive our new Exhibition Audio Guided Tour featuring custom content created exclusively to enhance your visit—FREE when you purchase your estate admission online!

Main image: Clothing reproduced from archival photos of Pauline Merrill and Cornelia Vanderbilt 
 

Sip the essence of spring in a glass

Each spring, Biltmore winemaker Sharon Fenchak handcrafts something special that captures the essence of the season.

Seasonal spring wine release

For 2019, Sharon has created a fragrant white wine that opens with a scented bouquet of tropical fruit, coconut, pineapple, vanilla, and clove.

“As you sip, you’ll experience tastes of rich tropical fruit with a complex body,” said Jill Whitfield, senior marketing manager for Biltmore Wines. “The wine has a smooth, balanced finish and mild acidity, so it’s perfect for pairing with your favorite warm weather fare and outdoor picnics.”

To complement this year’s wine, the label features original artwork of Biltmore’s iconic Winery clock tower. Bryan Koontz of Asheville, North Carolina—the same artist who created both our stunning 2018 Christmas at Biltmore wine labels—was selected to paint a scene that echoes the beautiful blossoms of our annual Biltmore Blooms celebration.

Let’s take a look at the process for creating a commemorative label:

“We initially asked Bryan to present several concepts for the label,” Jill said. “He offered four options of the Winery’s clock tower showing different angles and perspectives, and we talked through each one, narrowing the choices down to a pair of sketches.”
The original four concept sketches Bryan Koontz presented for the 2019 spring wine label

Back to the drawing board

Bryan went back to the drawing board–literally–and worked the two sketches selected by Biltmore Wines and Lisa Vogel, art director, into more refined pencil drawings.

Bryan’s two drawings in the process of being refined

Interpreting the season

“We’ve worked with Bryan on several wine label projects,” noted Lisa, “and he is always able to quickly grasp the tone and manner that we need for a certain season or type of wine and to interpret it into a beautiful piece of art.”

Bringing the drawings to life with vibrant watercolors

All in the details

“We loved both versions of Bryan’s vivid watercolor paintings,” said Jill, “and it was hard to choose between them. I think it was his charming little detail of the bluebirds in the tree branches that finally decided the winner!”

Bryan finalizes details for the 2019 spring wine label

Biltmore Wines 2019 spring wine bottleSip a glass full of spring with us

Join us on April 5 in the Delille Room at the Winery from 5–6 p.m. for a special event honoring our 2019 spring release.

In addition to tasting the wine, you can meet artist Bryan Koontz and have him sign your bottles.
Make reservations now for this delightful opportunity by calling 800-411-3812. You can also purchase our 2019 spring release wine on the estate or online.

Featured blog image: Detail of the 2019 Spring Release label 

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.
 

Dinner is Served

The Banquet Hall table in Biltmore House has been set for dinner. Won’t you join us?

For the first time in many years, the 40-foot-long table in the Banquet Hall is set with its full Gilded-Age finery, as it was when George and Edith Vanderbilt entertained their guests in Biltmore House. 

Bread plate on Banquet Hall table.

Set for our new exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, the table is adorned with the Vanderbilt family’s stunning Baccarat crystal, monogrammed Spode china, silver, candelabra, and linen damask napkins. Sumptuous and elaborate floral designs fill the table, assembled in multi-tiered silver pieces.“Dinner at the turn of the last century was an important form of social interaction,” said Darren Poupore, Biltmore’s chief curator. “A dinner party was an opportunity to see and be seen and to practice the art of conversation. Dining etiquette had become formalized to the highest degree, with strict rules that dictated elegant manners and proper behavior.”

During A Vanderbilt House Party, the table is set for a seven-course meal for 18 guests based on an actual meal served in the great hall in 1904. A single place setting for one person contains 18 pieces, with a place card displaying the guest’s name written by hand. Add to that salt cellars, salt spoons, multiple serving trays, and bread baskets. Depending on the number of food courses, a guest would sit down at the dinner table and see as many as 40 pieces of porcelain, crystal, and silver that he/she would use throughout the various courses of the meal.

Each place setting on the Banquet Hall Table includes: 
• 1 dinner plate 
• 4 forks – 1 each for the entrée, roast, fish and game courses 
• 3 knives – 1 each for the entrée, roast and fish courses 
• 1 soup spoon 
• 6 glasses – a glass for sherry, claret, champagne, burgundy, a hock glass and a tumbler for water
• 1 napkin 
• 1 piece of bread inside the napkin 
• 1 place card 

Also on the table: 
• 8 salt cellars
• 8 salt spoons
• 4 salvers (serving tray)
• 5 tazzas (serving dish with pedestal)
• 9 baskets
• 4 candelabra
• 1 tablecloth
• 1 epergne (tiered serving piece)

Guests would linger for hours over dinner and engage in conversation. Each received an assigned seat, as arranged by Mrs. Vanderbilt earlier in the day. Our archives tell us she always placed Mr. Vanderbilt and herself at the center of the table opposite of each other. She would seat the male and female guests of honor to the right of the host and hostess. Making sure to follow proper etiquette of alternating ladies and gentlemen, she then seated the rest of the party. 

Now through May 27, 2019, you’ll have your chance to experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age. Receive the custom Exhibition Audio Guided Tour for FREE when you purchase estate admission tickets online. 
 

Too Pretty To Eat: Creating Faux Food For Our New Exhibition

With all the glamorous details for A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, including clothing reproduced from the Vanderbilt family’s photos and portraits, the stunning array of crystal and china place settings on the Banquet Hall table, and the new custom Audio Guided Tour, you may have overlooked one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition: the food!

Banquet Hall table set for A Vanderbilt House Party

Biltmore House Party

“In keeping with the house party theme, we wanted the foods we featured to be visually interesting and representative of a “typical” dinner at Biltmore. We also wanted to showcase some of the Vanderbilts’ favorite foods, and some that are unfamiliar to most of our palates today,” said Lauren Henry, Associate Curator.

“We chose the dinner menu from November 12, 1904, because we have a detailed record of what was served on that date from the archival 1904 Menu Book, kept by Biltmore cook Esther Anderson.”

Biltmore House 1904 Menu Book

1904 Biltmore House Menu Book open to November 12 date

Too pretty to eat

Lauren discovered New Jersey artist Sandy Levins who researches, designs, and creates historic faux foods and room settings for museums and exhibitions. She crafts beautiful reproductions of everything edible from spices to smoked sausages using materials such as Crayola Model Magic, papier maché, plaster, antique molds, and non-toxic acrylic paints.

“Sandy’s work is not only unbelievably realistic,” noted Lauren, “but it’s also designed to be museum-safe so that it doesn’t release any harsh chemicals that might damage our collection. Each piece is a true work of art on many levels.”

To create the replica of a roast turkey—one of George Vanderbilt’s favorite dishes—Sandy Levins applied a silicone mold over a real turkey, then filled the mold with plaster. The beautifully detailed faux turkey was then painted to complete its appetizing appearance.

Latex mold opened to reveal a plaster turkey

Unpainted plaster turkey from silicone mold of a real turkey; photo by Hoag Levins

Among the dishes Sandy created for A Vanderbilt House Party is a white fish mousse that she cast in a fish-shaped copper mold, very similar to the way the real item would have been prepared during the Vanderbilt era. The mousse is displayed with star-shaped crackers and very realistic lobster claw garnishes

White fish mousse reproduction for A Vanderbilt House Party

White fish mousse with lobster claw garnish

“We’ve staged it in the dumbwaiter,” said Lauren, “as if it’s ready to go upstairs to the Banquet Hall table.”

Full-course menu

Because Lauren wanted to show some of the dinner courses in different stages of completion, the Main Kitchen features a raw beef tongue on a butcher’s block.

“While the beef tongue would have been cooked before it was served, Sandy did a spectacular job on the raw version and that helps us show how much work went into a grand dinner party,” said Lauren. “Everything had to be made from scratch, and much of the food served at Biltmore during the Vanderbilt era came from farms on the estate—a tradition we continue today in our restaurants.”

Another delicacy of that day and time was braised calves’ brains served on toast rounds; you’ll also find that dish in the Main Kitchen.

Charlotte Rousse dessert in Pastry Kitchen at Biltmore

Charlotte Russe embellished with a ribbon

According to Lauren, other faux food highlights include a stunning Bavarian cream Charlotte Russe dessert in the Pastry Kitchen and two 20-pound roast turkeys.

“The turkey in the Rotisserie Kitchen is missing a leg,” notes Lauren. “You’ll find out who the culprit is by listening to our new audio tour!”

Mannequins of chef and assistant in Main Kitchen of Biltmore House

Main Kitchen scene featuring a variety of foods, including roast turkey

Plan your visit today

Experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, now through May 27, 2019. Receive the custom Exhibition Audio Guided Tour FREE with your valid Biltmore Annual Pass or when you purchase estate admission tickets online.

Featured blog image: Recreations of Biltmore House staff clothing and food in the Main Kitchen

Tulips in the Walled Garden: A Brief History

Each spring, thousands upon thousands of beautiful and brightly colored tulips fill the formal flowerbeds of Biltmore’s Walled Garden. Their vivid hues—this year, boasting warm shades of reds and purples—are a favorite part of the season for many guests.

But preparation for the show actually begins long before warmer weather arrives.

“Planting for spring in the Walled Garden begins months before you see the results,” explains Parker Andes, director of Horticulture. “One reason we get continuous color is because we plant several varieties of up to six bulbs per hole!”

In honor of the start of this seasonal celebration, let’s take a quick look at the history of tulips in the Walled Garden.

The Vegetable and Flower Garden (now the Walled Garden), circa 1895
The Vegetable and Flower Garden

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted originally envisioned the Walled Garden as a multipurpose space, providing fine fruits and vegetables as well as fresh flowers for Biltmore House. The design was inspired by English kitchen gardens, which were often walled to protect them from wind and wild animals.

George Vanderbilt, however, did not share this vision. Instead, he thought the Walled Garden should be one of “ornament, not utility.” While fruits and vegetables were grown there intermittently, most of them were gradually phased out over time.

Tulips in the Walled Garden, circa 1930
The Earliest Hint of Tulips

It is difficult to say exactly when tulips made their debut in the Walled Garden. However, one letter in our archives tells us the blooming bulbs have been planted there for almost a century.

On April 14, 1922, Estate Superintendent Chauncey Beadle wrote to Cornelia Vanderbilt:

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. 

The showy flower was perhaps chosen for the dramatic beds of the Walled Garden as an homage to the Dutch heritage of the Vanderbilts—and the term “Biltmore.” The name selected for the family’s country retreat derives from “Bildt,” the town in Holland where George Vanderbilt’s ancestors originated, and “more,” an Old English word for open, rolling land.

Tulips have served as a status symbol for the Dutch since the height of “Tulipmania” in the mid-1600s when speculation on rare bulbs created an investment bubble and the price of one bulb was equal to ten years of income.

Tulips
The Tradition Continues

Displays highlighting tulips have long been a favorite element of the Walled Garden. Even before Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930, the Vanderbilts allowed some public access to the area a few days a week during spring so that locals and out-of-state visitors alike could enjoy estate gardens in bloom.

This tradition continues today with Biltmore Blooms, our seasonal celebration of the estate’s ever-changing progression of springtime color. Plan your visit today and join us as we delight in the more than 50,000 tulip bulbs that lend their dramatic color to the Walled Garden. 

Archival Images
First: The Vegetable and Flower Garden (now the Walled Garden), circa 1895
Second: Tulips in the Walled Garden, circa 1930