The Banquet Hall Tree: A Christmas at Biltmore Tradition

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.”

Celebrate Biltmore's tree-raising tradition virtually
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.

Seating chart drawn by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1895
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.

The Banquet Hall Tree: A Christmas at Biltmore Tradition
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.

Tree raising goes virtual in 2020

Although we are unable to host our annual tree-raising event for a live audience in 2020, we invite you to join us online for a special virtual event featuring an exciting, behind-the-scenes look at the installation and decoration process on November 4 at 5 p.m.

In addition, make reservations now to visit during Christmas at Biltmore or Candlelight Christmas Evenings and experience the enchantment of this beloved Yuletide symbol.

*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.

Shedding New Light on Biltmore’s Halloween Room

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 painted on the walls of Biltmore's 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.

New Discoveries

Theatrical program for La Chauve-Souris
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. 

Staff looks at an archival copy of La Chauve-Souris 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”

Halloween Room mural in Biltmore House
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.

Moving into America’s Largest Home

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.

Archival image of Biltmore House under construction, May 8, 1894
Archival image of Biltmore House under construction, May 8, 1894

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.

Archival image of the Brick Farm House, circa 1889
Archival image of the Brick Farm House, circa 1889

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.

Biltmore House contractors, including Richard Sharp Smith (second from right), circa 1892
Biltmore House contractors, including Richard Sharp Smith (second from right), circa 1892

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.

View of front façade of Biltmore House
View of front façade of Biltmore House

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.

Biltmore: The Birthplace of American Forestry

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.

Over forested Asheville
Poor Woodland, c. 1892; © The Biltmore Company

The Birthplace of Modern Forestry Management

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.

Pinchot’s 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.

White Pine Planting Asheville, North Carolina
White Pine Plantings, c. 1929; © The Biltmore Company

America’s First Managed Forest

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.

Edith Vanderbilt American Forestry
Edith Vanderbilt (far left) and Cornelia Vanderbilt (second from right) attending Pisgah National Forest dedication to the memory of George Vanderbilt, c. 1920; © The Biltmore Company

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….”

Biltmore Estate American Forestry Today
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.

Comparing Biltmore House to Downton Abbey

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.

Archival image of estate workers during harvest season at Biltmore, ca. 1900

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.

Servants' Hall in Biltmore House
The Servants’ Hall in Biltmore House, where staff could relax and socialize

Household Staff

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.

Detail of electrical switchboard in the sub-basement of Biltmore House

Technological Advancements

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. 

Restoring the wallcovering of the Louis XV Room in Biltmore House
Restoring the wallcovering of the Louis XV Room in Biltmore House

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.

Join us November 8, 2019 through April 7, 2020 to experience Downton Abbey like never before—amid George Vanderbilt’s magnificent estate—with Downton Abbey: The Exhibition at Biltmore.

Feature image: Biltmore House, ca. 1910

Biltmore Gardens Railway: A Structural Comparison

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.

Image 1: Photograph of the Lodge Gate from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1900
Image 2: Applied Imagination’s recreation, on display in the Conservatory’s Exhibition Room

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
  • Dimensions: 28”x22”x15”
  • Time to complete: 275+ hours
Image 1: Photograph of the Conservatory from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1910
Image 2: Applied Imagination’s recreation, on display in the Conservatory’s Orchid Room

About the Conservatory Recreation

  • Materials collected from the estate: horse chestnut, pine bark, anise, honeysuckle, ash, winged euonymus, contorted Filbert, and oak bark
  • Dimensions: 21”x52”x14”
  • Time to complete: 350+ hours
Image 1: Photograph of Biltmore House from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1910
Image 2: Applied Imagination’s recreation, on display in the Conservatory’s Palm House

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
  • Dimensions: 66”x122”x55”
  • Time to complete: 1700+ hours

The enchantment of Biltmore Gardens Railway is a semi-annual event at Biltmore. Check our event listing for upcoming dates and plan your visit today!

Biltmore Dairy in Asheville, NC: 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, 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

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

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, May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)

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

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 Courtyard

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard at 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.

Biltmore Gardens Railway: A Fun-For-All-Ages Experience

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.

Recreating a Masterpiece: Edith’s Boucheron Brooch

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

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.

Place Vendôme in Paris, site of the Boucheron flagship store, ca. 1890–1900

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)

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)

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)

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)

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 recreated brooch

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.

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 (which was on display February 8, 2019, through May 27, 2019). The detailed recreation included a 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.

For a more in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore, guests can enjoy the Through the Servants‘ Eyes Tour.