Housekeeping in High Altitudes

“I feel like a kid, climbing up on a jungle gym,” said Samantha Bridges, as she secured her hard hat. Stepping onto an elaborate scaffold built by Biltmore’s in-house carpentry team to safely access a 1,700-pound chandelier, she starts work on a multi-day cleaning project. The dusting of this enormous light fixture happens annually in Biltmore House.

The dramatic Grand Staircase chandelier dates back to 1895, the year George Vanderbilt moved into the home. The staircase’s appearance from the outside is one of the home’s most distinguishable architectural features. Arguably, thousands of our guests have taken pictures of this engineering marvel.

Samantha and co-worker Cindy Crabtree spend the next hour carefully dusting the fixture’s top-level candle lamps. Using goat hair brushes and vacuum cleaners, the women stand inside the fixture, slowly working their way around its perimeter gently swooshing away dust and cobwebs.

Focused on the intricate iron designs around the lamps, Cindy steps back slightly, and holds up her brush. “It’s swaying,” she said, pausing to let the chandelier settle back into place. The chandelier is suspended by a single bolt, held in place by a copper dome on the rooftop of Biltmore House.

Above the lamps on this level is a decorative element so high up that Cindy and Samantha must extend long-handled dusters as far as they’ll stretch to reach it.

With rooms that soar high above, the housekeeping team is accustomed to working several stories up. Safety precautions are taken to make sure they are secure, and that equipment is out of guest pathways.

Cindy says that any nerves she might have about working at such heights have diminished over the years, as this is her third year working on the Biltmore housekeeping team. Samantha said she keeps in mind to be aware of her surroundings. “Know your space and what’s around you and if you move, you know you have to remember that something fragile is around you.”

Even a 1,700-pound chandelier is considered a “fragile” heirloom? Indeed.

Cindy Crabtree and Samantha Bridges, Biltmore Housekeeping Team Members

The National Gallery of Art calls on Biltmore during World War II

Did you know the Music Room in Biltmore House stored priceless works from the National Gallery of Art during World War II? It was during the winter of 1942 when an unusual array of guests arrived at Biltmore House. Accompanied by guards on their journey from Washington, D.C., 62 paintings and 17 sculptures from the National Gallery of Art were carried into the house and placed in the Music Room.

It was a critical time in the nation’s capitol, and in 1941 during World War II, American leaders based there began to fear the possibility of an attack.  An air raid on a major U.S. city seemed likely. German submarines had been sited along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina, bringing the war uncomfortably close to the American shore.

Perhaps one of the best known works that Biltmore House stored for the National Gallery of Art was Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1478/1482).
Perhaps one of the best known works that Biltmore House stored for the National Gallery of Art was Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1478/1482).

With that thought in mind, and with information from European sources about Hitler’s relentless efforts to seize and stockpile art—much of which was damaged or destroyed in the process—David Finley, the new director of the National Gallery of Art, contacted Biltmore to discuss the possibility of sending some of the nation’s most important art treasures there for safekeeping.

Finley had visited Biltmore previously as a guest, and felt that Biltmore House was the perfect choice with its fireproof features and remote location. Edith Vanderbilt graciously agreed.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self-Portrait (1659) was among the works stored at Biltmore House during World War II. Rembrandt was coincidentally one of George Vanderbilt’s favorite artists.
Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self-Portrait (1659) was among the dozens of works stored at Biltmore House during World War II. Rembrandt was coincidentally one of George Vanderbilt’s favorite artists.

The unfinished Music Room on the first floor of Biltmore House was refitted with steel doors and other protective measures were taken, as outlined by the National Gallery of Art. On January 8, 1942, the paintings and sculptures arrived in Asheville.

Biltmore had opened to the public in 1930 as a means of promoting tourism in Asheville. Guests walked by the Music Room, unaware that some of the world’s greatest artwork was secretly hidden on the other side of the wall. The priceless artwork remained under 24-hour armed guard at Biltmore until the fall of 1944, well after the danger of bombings or invasion had ended.

Feature image: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (1795)—an iconic portrait of the nation’s first president—was safely stored in America’s Largest Home from 1942 to 1944.

The Smallest Yuletide Details Inside the Largest Room

While standing in the Banquet Hall during the Christmas season, it’s easy to be mesmerized by the magnificent towering Christmas tree that anchors the southern end of the room. The tree is the heartbeat of Biltmore House each holiday season, and for good reason. It stands 35 feet above ground, has long, flowy branches, and is full of ornaments so large they might be mistaken for shiny basketballs.

A smaller display sits across the room, though it is as enchanting, especially since some of this tremendous room’s tiniest yuletide details reside there. Underneath the two ornament-packed trees gracing either side of the three-bay fireplace you’ll find classic toys that reflect this year’s design theme, “An 1895 Christmas.”

Joslyn Kelly, a Biltmore floral designer who decorated the Banquet Hall this year, says she placed them there for a specific reason. “I wanted to focus on classic toys that span the test of time, toys that all children can and probably have enjoyed in some capacity.”

Joslyn’s list of toys included jack-in-the-boxes, dolls, tea sets, tops, yo-yos, and even a pair of ballerina slippers. “I feel like these tiny toys have brought many people joy throughout the years from George Vanderbilt’s time until now,” says Joslyn, “and that joy is what I wanted to bring to the Banquet Hall this year.”

Enjoy these details from Joslyn’s Banquet Hall design now, and on your Biltmore visit!

This adorable doll on her velvet couch is one of the exquisite design details in the Banquet Hall.
This jack-in-the-box, an ever-classic toy, is ready to amuse his Biltmore guests.
Boys and girls throughout history have found a yo-yo or two under the tree on Christmas morning.
This tiny tea service looks right at home in Biltmore House.
Ballet slippers ready for dance and play.

Creating Curb Appeal at Biltmore House

To say that the summertime curb appeal of America’s Largest Home veers toward the dramatic would be accurate! Towering palm trees flank the front door, all of them carefully arranged in terracotta pots sturdy enough to keep the contents secure. For plantings this huge, their containers can measure up to 40 inches tall and 50 inches wide.

Some of the containers are replicas made in Impruneta, Italy, the same town in which the home’s original pots were made in the late 1800s. For the reproductions, the faces and garlands were matched with the ones on the original pots.

This year, Biltmore gardener Todd Roy created the plant design for the containers at the front of the house, the terrace that crosses the facade, as well as the pots at the base of the Rampe Deuce, across from the house.

Guests often ask Todd and his cohorts on the horticulture team questions on how best to get the Biltmore look in their home gardens. Here are some of Todd’s favorite tips for creating dazzling container gardens at home.

“Thriller, Filler and Spiller”
To achieve a balanced container, Todd says to design with these basic components.

• “Thrillers” are the upright, tall component.

• “Fillers” are medium-height, middle-area plants.

• “Spillers” are the plants that hang over and around the edges of the container.

Select plants with similar watering needs
Consult the plant tags for watering requirements so you are choosing plants that share the same maintenance schedule.

Texture
And finally, select plants with differing leaf sizes and colors for a full and lush effect.

More about Biltmore’s historic gardens may be found here.

…And the winner is…

The Coral Knock Out Rose has captured the top prize at the recent finals of the 2019 Biltmore International Rose Trials.  Bred by William Radler and distributed by Star Roses & Plants, Coral Knock Out Rose (RADral) took home the George and Edith Vanderbilt Award for Most Outstanding Rose of the trials.

Coral Knock Out Rose by Star Roses & Plants

The winning rose was among a collection of roses planted for trials in 2017 in Biltmore’s award-winning and historic Rose Garden. Since 2011, Biltmore’s Rose Garden has been home to the trials in which more than 200 varieties from growers and breeders worldwide have been planted and cared for by Biltmore’s expert horticulturalists. A permanent jury of rose experts judged the plantings four times a year during the trial’s two years.

In addition to winning the Best in Show Award, Coral Knock Out won the Chauncey Beadle Award for Most Outstanding Shrub Rose. Additional winners this year were:

Sweet Hips (KAPswehp) – Winner of the William Cecil Award for Best General Impression, and the Lord Burleigh Award for Most Disease Resistant Rose, Sweet Hips is available from Weeks Roses.

Sweet Hips, available from Weeks Roses

Cupid’s Kisses (WEKtriscala) – Winner of the Gilded Age Award for Best Climbing Rose. Bred by Christian Bedard, it is available from Weeks Roses.

Cupid’s Kisses

Bliss Parfuma (KORmarzau) – Bred by Kordes Roses in Germany, Bliss Parfuma won the Edith Wharton Award for Best Floribunda. It is available from Star Roses & Plants.

Bliss Parfuma

Moonlight Romantica (MEILkaquinz) – Winner of the Pauline Merrill Award for best Hybrid Tea went to Moonlight Romantica, bred by Meilland in France. It is available from Star Roses & Plants.

Moonlight Romantica

Trials of this type are open to rose breeders around the world – from professional to beginner. Competing roses are evaluated for overall health and rigor; fragrance; disease resistance; and ability to repeat bloom.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Dinner is Served

We hope you enjoy this archived content. A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age was a special exhibition hosted in 2019.

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 was 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 special 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, the table was adorned with the Vanderbilt family’s stunning Baccarat crystal, monogrammed Spode china, silver, candelabra, and linen damask napkins. Sumptuous and elaborate floral designs filled 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 was 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 contained 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 included: 

  • 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 – one each 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. 

Biltmore Goes to Great Heights for Preservation

Biltmore goes to great heights for preservation, because our mission is to preserve the estate for the enjoyment of future generations.

This means that every aspect of Biltmore must be cleaned, inspected, repaired, and restored on a regular basis.

Great heights for preservation

Cleaning the Grand Staircase and Chandelier at Biltmore
Cleaning the Grand Staircase and its 4-story chandelier takes preservation to new heights!

It also means that our guests sometimes get amazing glimpses of the work that goes on behind the scenes in America’s Largest Home.

Winter Garden woodwork

In September 2016, for example, Connie Dey, Housekeeping Supervisor, and members of her team utilized a 40-foot scaffold to clean the oak woodwork that surrounds and supports the glass ceiling in the Winter Garden.

Couple views Winter Garden in Biltmore House
The beautiful Winter Garden woodwork undergoes a deep cleaning every three years

Part of our ongoing preservation efforts, treating the wood that supports the glass takes place about every three years. Sun damage is evident closest to the top of the ceiling, which dates back to the late 1890s.

This area receive full sun for several hours on bright days. Making sure the wood stays moisturized is key to keeping it protected–sort of like applying sunscreen every three years.

Connie and her team vacuumed and wiped dirt away to ready the surfaces for an application of a special wood polish containing beeswax, carnauba wax, and orange oil. The entire project took about a month.

High standards of cleaning

Going to great heights for preservation includes cleaning the Banquet Hall
Staff members go to great heights to clean the Banquet Hall

While some projects like the Winter Garden ceiling are done every few years, Biltmore House itself gets a thorough deep cleaning each winter after Christmas at Biltmore ends.

“Winter is usually our quietest season,” said Connie Dey, “so it’s the perfect time to clean things without getting in the way. And visitors often enjoy watching the process–my team gets lots of questions from guests about how to clean their own homes!”

Our mission of preservation

Temple of Diana overlooking Biltmore House
Temple of Diana overlooking Biltmore House

Our mission to preserve Biltmore as a privately-owned, profitable, working estate emphasizes preservation first. Learn more about our efforts to preserve, restore, and conserve this National Historic Landmark with the help of our in-house conservation department.

Featured image: Connie Dey stretches over the Winter Garden to reach every inch of wood with her dust mop to prepare the wood for its moisturizing treatment