There’s a new overnight offering at Biltmore—a cozy, casual home in a peaceful woodland setting. Introducing the freshly renovated Dairy Foreman’s Cottage on Biltmore Estate™, an historic structure, reimagined to offer today’s guests an oasis of service, style, and charm.
In honor of this exclusive new lodging option, let’s take a step back in time for a closer look at the history of this unique Biltmore residence.
A Family Home for Estate Workers
Originally labeled a “Dairy Worker’s Cottage,” this welcoming home was one of five identical houses designed by Asheville architect Anthony Lord in 1935 for Biltmore Dairy employees and their families. According to archival correspondence from the time, the cottage was built for $535 with materials provided by the estate.
The earliest archival photo of the Dairy Foreman’s Cottage (center of image, top of hill), ca. 1940
One of the first families to live in this house was likely the Allen family in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Ernest Allen brought his family to the estate in 1927, and over his 38 years of employment at Biltmore, primarily as a Farm Foreman, they lived in seven different estate residences.
Ernest’s daughter Martha Allen Wolfe recalled in a 2016 interview with our Oral History Program that they had indoor plumbing and electricity while growing up in the Dairy Foreman’s Cottage.
Archival photo believed to be the Dairy Foreman’s Cottage, ca. 1950
Even with seven brothers and sisters, she remembered the home as being very comfortable. Her brothers slept upstairs, and apparently, they would secretly climb out of the windows at night, engage in some youthful mischief, and then sneak back in the same way.
One of her brothers was Bill Allen, who would eventually follow his father’s footsteps and have a 45-year career at Biltmore—first as Farm Manager and later Vineyard Manager.
Martha said of the Dairy Foreman’s Cottage, “We loved it, and it was home.”
The cottage’s gorgeous gourmet kitchen features stainless steel appliances.
New Life for an Old Cottage
Today, this 1,778-square-foot home has been beautifully updated with modern touches. Accommodating up to five guests, the cottage offers two bedrooms with a king-sized bed in each as well as a pullout sofa in the reading room.
And there’s plenty of room for entertaining: an open kitchen that extends to dining and living areas, a formal sitting room, a screened-in back porch, and an outdoor dining patio.
The charming front porch offers a secluded oasis of rest and relaxation.
The Dairy Foreman’s Cottage puts you just steps away from quiet nature trails, made lush by original forest plantings that contributed to the estate’s National Historic Landmark designation as the birthplace of American Forestry.
This welcoming abode is also located within walking distance of lively activity in Antler Hill Village, tastings of award-winning wines at our Winery, and the luxurious amenities offered at our four-star Inn.
For your next getaway, we invite you to make the Dairy Foreman’s Cottage your home away from home. Delight in the privacy of one of the most exclusive and customized lodging experiences the estate has to offer. Book your stay today.
The Banquet Hall tree has been a Biltmore Christmas tradition for 125 years.
The 35-foot-tall Fraser fir selected for the Banquet Hall each year is always the tallest tree inside Biltmore House. Adorned with hundreds of lights and ornaments, the towering tree is a beloved Yuletide symbol that was introduced during the first Christmas at Biltmore.
Preparing for the first Christmas at Biltmore
While George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, he didn’t formally open the house until Christmas Eve of that year. He invited his extended family from the north to a grand holiday housewarming party.
“Mr. Vanderbilt is to entertain in his chateau 300 guests from New York, who will arrive by special train. The scene of mirth and happiness which the yule-tide season will witness in this modern Aladdin’s palace will be the realization of even that lucky man’s wildest dreams…” – Galveston Tribune as quoted by The Asheville Citizen Times*
Thanks to news articles and correspondence between George and his staff, we know that preparations for the big event were extensive and no detail was left unattended.
Managers debated which nearby county had the best holly and the most desirable mistletoe, while staff scouted the perfect candidate for what would become one of Biltmore’s most prominent holiday elements: the Banquet Hall Christmas tree.
Chauncey Beadle wrote estate manager 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.”
Raising the Banquet Hall tree is a Christmas tradition at Biltmore
Christmas Eve 1895
On the evening of December 24, guests gathered in the Banquet Hall, which showcased the splendidly tall and beautifully decorated tree laden with gifts for estate workers. At the foot of the tree was a table piled high with family gifts.
“The Imperial Trio furnished music for the occasion, and the rich costumes of the ladies, the soft lights and the tastefully draped garlands of evergreen and mistletoe, interspersed with the shining leaves and red berries of the holly, created a beautiful scene to look upon.”
– The Asheville News and Hotel Reporter, December 28, 1895
George’s mother, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, attended as well as several of his brothers and sisters with their spouses and children.
One of George’s nieces, Gertrude, daughter of Cornelius and Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, kept a series of Dinner Books recording of all the parties and formal dinners she attended. The first Christmas dinner at Biltmore was Gertrude’s 193rd event that year, listed in the second volume of her 1895 Dinner Book.
In her seating diagram for the occasion, she listed 27 Vanderbilt family members, including “Uncle George,” “Grandma,” and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins.
A detailed seating chart of the first Christmas dinner at Biltmore House from the 1895 Dinner Book kept by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney**
The lofty holiday event was a Vanderbilt family reunion of sorts. It was said to have been the largest gathering of the family since the death of George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt, almost ten years earlier.
Ultimately, 40 family members and close friends signed the Biltmore House Guest Book throughout the holiday season.
Christmas Day 1895
At the time, Biltmore’s full domestic staff had yet to be hired, though George had temporarily employed local men and women for service during the holidays. On Christmas Day, George invited the estate’s many temporary and permanent employees and their children to the first Biltmore employee Christmas Party.
Still a bachelor at the time, he enlisted the help of Mrs. Charles McNamee to purchase gifts for the guests. (Edith Vanderbilt enthusiastically assumed this role after she and George married in 1898.)
George greeted everyone in the Banquet Hall mid-afternoon, where family members helped distribute gifts.
We imagine that most of the employees and their children had never seen anything like the Banquet Hall tree. At the time, fewer than 20% of US families brought Christmas trees into their homes, much less such an oversized tree with electric lights and hundreds of presents wrapped beneath it.
A beribboned velvet ornament featuring the elegant Vanderbilt monogram
The tradition continues
George Vanderbilt’s hosting of family and employees at Christmas is a tradition that has continued for 125 years.
Local and national newspapers published accounts of seasonal celebrations at Biltmore almost every year. And every year, those celebrations took place in the Banquet Hall, next to the tallest Christmas tree in Biltmore House.
*Sourced by an uncited newspaper from our Museum Services history files. **Photo courtesy of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers. Gift of Flora Miller Irving.
Witches, bats, and black cats don’t usually come to mind when you think of Biltmore, but deep in the basement of America’s largest home, there’s a cavernous room with brick walls painted in brightly-colored murals depicting such creatures.
The paintings include characters from folklore, a platoon of wooden soldiers, and other imaginative imagery that eventually caused this area to be dubbed The Halloween Room.
Soldiers depicted in Halloween Room mural
For many years, the colorful murals remained a bit of a mystery, with some thought that the room was the scene of a 1920s Halloween weekend house party during which guests of John and Cornelia Cecil were invited make their mark on the walls.
Subsequent research revealed, however, that the paintings were created in December 1925 to prepare the room for a New Year’s Eve celebration–but that still didn’t explain the slightly eerie tone of the murals.
Theatrical program for La Chauve-Souris
Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation, recently discovered an obscure connection between the scenes on the walls and an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris, which translates to The Bat.
The troupe toured America in the 1920s, performing on Broadway in 1922 and again in 1925. The vaudevillian comedic acts were set off by abstract sets designed by two Russian artists, Sergei Sudeikin and Nicolai Remisoff. The show met with great success, triggering a rage for all things Russian in New York City and beyond.
The Cecils must have been fans of the cabaret as they and their friends created their own version of La Chauve-Souris on the basement walls of Biltmore House. Most of the murals were drawn directly from Remisoff and Sudeikin’s illustrations for the theatrical program.
Leslie Klinger looks at an archival copy of the La Chauve-Souris program
After three weeks of painting, the Cecils hosted a gypsy-themed ball on December 30, 1925, as part of their New Year’s celebration.
“This connection was really exciting to me because we didn’t expect it at all,” Leslie said. “It wasn’t until I read an autobiography of a local man who went to that party that I put it together.”
“The best party I have ever attended”
Painted scenes in the Halloween Room
The Charleston Daily Mail reported that 100 guests attended the Cecil’s New Year’s Eve festivities. One costumed attendee, local resident James G.K. McClure, recalled arriving in the basement of Biltmore with his wife Elizabeth, armed with a guitar and an old accordion, to find a room full of “all kinds of gypsy atmosphere such as cauldrons and pots and glowing fire … all around.”
Enchanted by the unexpected theatrics, he wrote a detailed account of the holiday soiree to a friend, describing “a gypsy dance at Biltmore House which was the best party I have ever attended.”
Originally designed for storage, The Halloween Room currently showcases a video about the creation of Biltmore and the collaboration by estate founder George Vanderbilt, architect Richard Morris Hunt, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Almost a century and a quarter ago this month, George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House.
Have you ever moved into a custom-designed new home? If you have, you know that the punch list never seems quite buttoned-up on moving day. Little details seem to linger even after the last box is unpacked—and it was no different for the owner of America’s Largest Home.
Ground was broken in 1889, and during the course of the six years that followed, George Vanderbilt had been in close touch with his supervising architect Richard Sharp Smith, Biltmore House lead architect Richard Morris Hunt, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Hunt passed away in August 1895, just months before completion of the house, but Sharp Smith was able to complete the plan.
When he came to stay for periods of time at the construction site, George Vanderbilt stayed in what was called the Brick Farm House, a property he purchased from Asheville entrepreneur B. J. Alexander in 1889. Sharp Smith renovated the property, which included a mill and farm buildings, so that it was comfortable enough to accommodate Vanderbilt and his project team when they visited to check on the estate’s progress.
In the months leading up to the official opening, carpentry and cabinetry were among the final touches. With George Vanderbilt’s move-in scheduled for October, archival information shows that Richard Sharp Smith hired 16 additional cabinetmakers to speed up progress.
On his first night at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt slept in the Bachelors’ Wing because his bedroom wasn’t finished. There was another issue, too, described in the papers of Frederick Law Olmsted:
When the water was turned on in the stable… to get ready for the servants to occupy, it was found that it would not go up to the second floor where the servants [sic] rooms are.
The problem was soon fixed and water flowed a few days later, but there were still a few outstanding details to hammer out. With family and friends expected for Christmas 1895, Sharp Smith hired an additional 10 cabinetmakers in December. While almost all the carpentry was finally completed in 1896, additional cabinetry projects extended into 1897.
Today, when you visit Biltmore House, you can see first-hand the incredible attention to detail that went into every aspect of the house. But as you might imagine, even this architectural masterpiece was subject to the challenges faced in any home-building project. By seeing the vision of the project through until the end, George Vanderbilt and his design and construction team created a landmark with enduring quality that we still enjoy today.
When George Vanderbilt began planning his grand estate in Asheville, North Carolina, more than a century ago, he envisioned a self-sustaining home and stewardship of the land and its resources for years to come. Though it is hard to imagine now, portions of the lush forest surrounding Biltmore House was once overworked farmland and overcut woodland.
Following the recommendation of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Vanderbilt hired trained forester Gifford Pinchot—who later served as first chief of the United States Forest Service and founder of the Society of American Foresters—to develop a forest management plan for his land holdings, which eventually totaled approximately 125,000 acres.
scientific forestry plan (the management and conservation of forest lands) was
the first of its kind in the United States and
served as a national model. In turn, George Vanderbilt was the first American landowner to implement
scientific forestry on a large scale.
In 1895, the same year as the opening of Biltmore House, German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck succeeded Pinchot and expanded the forest management plan over the next 14 years, including the development of a comprehensive management plan for Vanderbilt’s vast Pisgah Forest holdings. During his tenure at Biltmore, Dr. Schenck also founded the Biltmore Forest School—the first school of forestry in the United States—graduating more than 300 of the nation’s first professionally-trained foresters.
The contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot and Dr. Carl Schenck transformed what was once a landscape of overused terrain into America’s first managed forest on such a large scale, improving the health of the land while producing sustainable wood and other resources, establishing the birthplace of American Forestry.
In May 1914, Edith Vanderbilt, completed her late husband’s wishes of selling an 86,000-acre tract of Biltmore to be managed by the U.S. government as public lands, creating one of the first national forest east of the Mississippi River: Pisgah National Forest. In an excerpt from a letter declaring her family’s interest in preserving the property, Edith stated:
“Mr. Vanderbilt was the first of the large forest owners in America to adopt the practice of forestry. He has conserved Pisgah Forest from the time he bought it up to his death, a period of nearly twenty five years, under the firm conviction that every forest owner owes it to those who follow him, to hand down his forest property to them unimpaired by wasteful use.”
“I make this contribution towards the public ownership of Pisgah Forest with the earnest hope that in this way I may help to perpetuate my husband’s pioneer work in forest conservation, and to ensure the protection and use and enjoyment of Pisgah Forest as a National Forest, by the American people for all time….”
Views from Biltmore today.
Biltmore’s Forestry Legacy Continues
Today, Biltmore Estate and its resources continue to be managed by those original guiding principles to ensure future vitality, honoring George Vanderbilt’s legacy of conservation and environmental stewardship.
Nearby, the Cradle of Forestry is a 6,500-acre Historic Site within Pisgah National Forest, set aside to commemorate the beginning of forest conservation in America and the lasting contributions of George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot, and Dr. Carl Schenck.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition ended September 7, 2020. Please enjoy this archived content.
Did you know everyday life in Biltmore House bore striking resemblance to fictional life at Downton Abbey? In honor of Biltmore playing host to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, let’s take a look at some of the similarities—and differences—between these two grand homes.
A Working Estate
The greatest overarching parallel between Downton Abbey and Biltmore is the idea of both as working estates overseen by one man and his family. While Downton Abbey is set in England, George Vanderbilt’s vision for Biltmore was heavily influenced by the model of similar English estates. There were numerous tenant families working the land, and the Vanderbilts grew to know each of these families closely over the years.
Within the houses, the standards of domestic service were much the same between the Crawleys and the Vanderbilts. While there were some differences in the ways American and English households were managed, the housekeeper played a major role. At Biltmore, this role was primarily filled by Mrs. King; for Downton Abbey, it’s Mrs. Hughes—both known for their massive house key rings and calm demeanors.
Though numerous characters within the Downton Abbey household, both above stairs and below, expressed concerns about advancements in technology, they were widely embraced at Biltmore. Even in 1895, Biltmore House was constructed with many of these in mind: telephones, elevators, forced heating, mechanical refrigeration, an electric servant call bell system, electric lighting, and more.
Preserving the Home
One of the primary themes in Downton Abbey is the importance Lord Grantham and his family place on preserving and maintaining their home for succeeding generations. This has also been a prime concern at Biltmore for George Vanderbilt’s descendants. Today, the estate is owned and overseen by the fourth and fifth generations of the family.
Twice a year, the Conservatory is transformed into a wonderland of creativity. Discover Biltmore Gardens Railway, featuring miniature estate landmark replicas made of all-natural materials gathered from Biltmore’s grounds. Let’s take an up-close look at the attention to detail paid to the recreations of these historic structures.
About the Lodge Gate Recreation
Materials collected from the estate: horse chestnut, magnolia leaves, pine bark, hickory nuts, lotus pods, contorted Filbert, bamboo, winged bean, pine cone scales, and acorn caps
Time to complete: 275+ hours
About the Conservatory Recreation
Materials collected from the estate: horse chestnut, pine bark, anise, honeysuckle, ash, winged euonymus, contorted Filbert, and oak bark
Time to complete: 350+ hours
About the Biltmore House Recreation
Materials collected from the estate: baby acorns,
acorn caps, star anise, pine cone, contorted Filbert, grapevine,
honeysuckle, eucalyptus leaves, bamboo, ash bark, oak bark, and elm bark
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, Asheville, NC
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, Asheville, NC
The Legacy of Biltmore Dairy
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, Asheville, NC
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 in Asheville, NC, May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)
The Tasty History of Biltmore Ice Cream
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, Asheville, NC
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 efficient way to purchase milk, eventually making door-to-door dairy delivery obsolete. Biltmore Dairy and other smaller, family-run businesses were unable to compete with expansive commercial operations. In April of 1985, Biltmore Dairy was sold to Pet, Inc.
A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyardat Biltmore in Asheville, NC
Enjoy Biltmore Ice Cream Today
Today, Biltmore continues to draw inspiration from Biltmore Dairy. The Biltmore Dairy Bar™ in the Stable Courtyard was named in honor 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.
In the summer of 2019, Biltmore Gardens Railway brought large-scale model railroads and handmade buildings connected with Biltmore and its founder George Vanderbilt to two locations on the estate—the Conservatory and Antler Hill Village.
The exhibition featured replica structures fashioned from all-natural materials, largely collected from the estate, to offer a one-of-a-kind, fun-for-all-ages experience.
Enjoy a special look at the structures and stories that inspired Biltmore Gardens Railway.
Conservatory Display: Structures from the estate and surrounding area
Photograph of Biltmore House from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1910
Biltmore House with Fountain & Rampe Douce Completed in 1895, Biltmore House was a collaborative effort between George Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt. It took six years to construct America’s Largest Home®. The 250-room French Renaissance chateau contains more than four acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.
Photograph of the Stable Complex construction from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1894
Stable Complex An important part of a turn-of-the-century country home, the stables housed the Vanderbilts’ 30–40 driving and riding horses. Correspondence in Biltmore’s Archives indicates that George Vanderbilt made every effort to procure the best horses possible for the estate. Original horses’ names included Ida, Pamlico, and Maud.
Photograph of the Conservatory from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1910
Conservatory This grand structure was built to provide flowers and plants for Biltmore House year-round—a role it continues to fulfill today. Carefully placed at the lower end of the Wall Garden so as not to obstruct the view from Biltmore House, the Conservatory includes a Palm House and an Orchid House and spans more than 7,000 square feet.
Photograph of All Souls’ Church from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1906
All Souls’ Church Commissioned by George Vanderbilt, All Souls’ Church was the anchor—architecturally, spiritually, and socially—of nearby Biltmore Village. The church as well as the rest of the buildings in the village were the result of a collaboration between Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Photograph of the Biltmore Passenger Station from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1899
Biltmore Passenger Station* The Passenger Station in Biltmore Village was the first stop for many of the Vanderbilts’ guests when they arrived in Western North Carolina on their way to the estate. Family and friends were met there by the Vanderbilts’ carriage or car and brought up the breathtaking three-mile Approach Road to Biltmore House.
Photograph of deer at the Bass Pond Waterfall from the Biltmore collection, ca. 1950
Bass Pond Waterfall Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Bass Pond was created by greatly enlarging an old creek-fed millpond. In order to keep the pond free of sediment and debris caused by heavy rains, Olmsted engineered an ingenious flume system to divert debris and storm water through a conduit laid on the lake bed.
Photograph of The Gardener’s Cottage from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1892
The Gardener’s Cottage One of the first buildings completed on the estate, the Gardener’s Cottage served as the residence of Biltmore’s first head gardener. The one-and-a-half story stone cottage was originally occupied Mr. Robert Bottomley, who was the estate’s head gardener until November 1903.
Photograph of the Lodge Gate from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1900
Lodge Gate Located at the entrance to the estate from Biltmore Village, the Lodge Gate provided round-the-clock security by means of a resident gatekeeper. Other entrances to Biltmore also had gatehouses and gatekeepers, though the Lodge Gate was considered the main entrance to George Vanderbilt’s grand estate.
Antler Hill Village Display: Landmarks from George Vanderbilt’s travels
Photograph of Pisgah National Forest Entry Gate, ca. 1916-1936
Pisgah National Forest Entry Gate – Transylvania County, North Carolina Just before George Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, he was involved in negotiations to sell a large portion of his estate to the federal government in hopes that it would become a forest preserve. His wife Edith later completed this undertaking, selling 87,000 acres of the estate to establish the core of what later became Pisgah National Forest.
Photograph of Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, ca. 2009
Vanderbilt Mansion – Hyde Park, New York George Vanderbilt’s brother Frederick Vanderbilt and his wife Louise created a seasonal home in Hyde Park, NY. The house was inspired by a classical Palladian villa and was surrounded by formal and informal gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who later served as the landscape architect for Biltmore.
Photograph of a Dutch windmill taken by George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A. V. Cecil, ca. 1950
Windmill & Three Classic Canal House Façades – Amsterdam, The Netherlands The Vanderbilt family line originated in Holland in the village of De Bilt, not far from Amsterdam. The Vanderbilts’ ancestors immigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland around 1650, eventually settling near present-day Staten Island, New York. George Vanderbilt visited his family’s homeland in 1897.
Photograph of the Eiffel Tower from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1890
Eiffel Tower – Paris, France This Paris landmark was already an icon when George and Edith Vanderbilt were married on June 1, 1898 in a civil ceremony after a whirlwind courtship abroad. An understated religious ceremony was held the following day at the American Church of the Holy Trinity, attended only by family and close friends.
Photograph of the Arc de Triomphe from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1885
Arc De Triomphe – Paris, France After the Vanderbilt’s Parisian marriage ceremony, the wedding party attended a breakfast at the apartment Edith shared with her sisters on Rue Vernet, just an avenue away from the iconic Arc de Triomphe. Edith’s sister Natalie provided two bottles of champagne that their maternal grandfather had set aside at Edith’s birth to be served on her wedding day.
Colorized photograph of Tower Bridge, ca. 1900
Tower Bridge – London, England In June 1897, George Vanderbilt rented an apartment on London’s Pall Mall to witness the celebration surrounding Queen Victoria’s 60-year reign. Among his guests viewing the festivities from the balcony was his future bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, likely marking the beginning of their romance.
Engraving of the USS Vanderbilt, ca. 1862
USS Vanderbilt – Transatlantic Service Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt’s grandfather and founder of the family fortune, commissioned a steamship in 1856 dubbed the Vanderbilt, once hailed as “the largest vessel that has ever floated on the Atlantic Ocean.”
*Feature image: Recreation of Biltmore Passenger Station; this structure is on display in both the Conservatory and Antler Hill Village.
To create A Vanderbilt House Party, our Museum Services team worked with designer John Bright and his team at Cosprop, London, to recreate clothing worn by the Vanderbilts, including George and Edith’s ensembles from their engagement portraits.
In addition to Edith’s striking blue velvet gown, there is another vital piece that completes her look in the archival photo: the diamond and ruby brooch George gave to her as an engagement gift. Our team decided that the elaborate piece simply had to be recreated in order to truly capture Edith’s look in the portrait.
Place Vendôme in Paris, site of the Boucheron flagship store, ca. 1890–1900
First Things First
The first step for our team was to determine the jeweler that crafted the original brooch, which was part of a set that also included a choker necklace and tiara. One of our curators had a hunch that the piece resembled the work of Boucheron, a high-end French jewelry house established in 1858.
Boucheron’s company archivist was able to confirm that they indeed had a receipt of George Vanderbilt having purchased the set on May 7, 1898—just after his and Edith’s April engagement and prior to their June wedding.
Luckily, Boucheron was also able to share with us the original 1898 photo of brooch from their archives, which turned out to be an incredibly helpful reference in the recreation of the piece.
Left: Edith Vanderbilt’s engagement portrait, 1898; Right: archival catalog photo of the original brooch (Courtesy of Boucheron Heritage Department)
A Master Artisan
John Bright and the Cosprop team recommended artisan Martin Adams for the job. Martin specializes in making jewelry and jewelry-related props, including crowns, tiaras, regalia, and the like.
In his 43 years of prop-making, Martin has worked on countless notable movie, television, and theater productions, including Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Titanic, The Crown, Downton Abbey, Hamilton, and the list truly just goes on and on.
Given the high demand and prestige of Martin’s work, our team considered themselves fortunate that he undertook the brooch recreation project—and that he gave it such time.
Early sketch of the recreated brooch’s frame (Courtesy of Martin Adams)
The Recreation Begins
We supplied him with Boucheron’s archival photo of the brooch, which captured its fine details, as well as our photos of Edith wearing it, which showed the brooch from various angles, displaying its depth.
But in order to determine the actual size of the piece, the Cosprop team made photographic cut-outs of the brooch in various scales—under Martin’s direction—to see which size appeared to be most accurate against the backdrop of Edith’s gown as it, too, was being recreated.
Comparing the archival photo of the original with an early trial stage of construction (Courtesy of Martin Adams)
Martin then set to work on the frame of the piece, which he pierced from flat sheet copper. He filed the copper to give it steeply sloping sides, which gives the appearance of being delicate, while still maintaining its strength. The whole frame was them gently hammered over a dome-shaped block to give the brooch the correct dimension and depth.
Struggles with Stones
With the exception of two stones, all of the diamonds in the original brooch were boat-shaped stones, known as a marquise or navette cut. Martin estimated that the piece’s 46 diamonds were in five different sizes—from 6mm long (just under a quarter of an inch) to 14mm long (a bit more than half an inch).
He chose to use cubic zirconia which, particularly for a piece that will be viewed closely, would provide a much better representation of diamonds than would foil-backed stones, which are commonly found in costume jewelry.
Both the largest and smallest stone-mounts used in the recreation (Courtesy of Martin Adams)
As for the rubies, Martin obtained samples of the richest red stones available, including red cubic zirconia, synthetic rubies, and red paste stones—but none of them had deep enough color. He finally found just enough rich red Swarovski stones in the four main sizes he needed.
However, Martin had to settle for using a synthetic ruby as the massive cushion-shaped stone in the center. Although to the trained eye the stone may appear a slightly lighter shade than the rest, he simply could not find a better alternative to fit the size.
Comparing the accuracy of the custom-made mounts (left) with pre-made mounts (right) (Courtesy of Martin Adams)
And Struggles with Stone-Mounts
After a few failed attempts using ready-made stone-mounts, Martin realized he needed to make the mounts from scratch in order for the piece to be as authentic as possible.
This required him to make 10 different mount models—the main body of the brooch consists of five different stone-mount sizes, there are four different joint mounts, and one mount just for the central stone. He used the models to make molds, from which he then cast each of the mounts.
Martin’s final challenge was to grind down and polish the 14 “diamond” wafers for the pendant sections, as nothing like this was available to buy.
He then set all of the stones in their mounts individually. And after upwards of 200 hours of work, the brooch was complete.
The completed recreation of Edith Vanderbilt’s Boucheron brooch
The Finished Piece
“This turned out to be one of the most complicated and time-greedy jobs I have ever done,” said Martin. “It has also been one of the most rewarding.”
From start to finish, the entire process took nearly 8 months and the final result is nothing short of stunning. Having a recreation of this quality allows us to tell more of the Vanderbilts’ romance and courtship story through a tangible, exceptionally beautiful object.
We are overjoyed that it is now part of Biltmore’s permanent collection. The brooch is on display in the Tapestry Gallery of Biltmore House now through May 27 as part of our A Vanderbilt House Party exhibition.