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.

Biltmore Gardens Railway: A Structural Comparison

This summer, 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

Experience the enchantment of Biltmore Gardens Railway now through September 29, 2019. Plan your visit today!

Biltmore Dairy: An Udderly Fascinating History

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

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

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

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

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

Calves in the Calf Barn, ca. 1940

Calves in the Calf Barn, ca. 1940

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

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

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard

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

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

Discover George Vanderbilt’s Railroad Ties

Throughout history, no family has been more closely associated with the rise of the American railroad industry than the Vanderbilts. Theirs is a remarkable legacy, and one that would ultimately contribute to the development of Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s magnificent private estate.

Portrait of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt in the Breakfast Room of Biltmore House

Railroad legacy

The Vanderbilt family’s success began with George Vanderbilt’s grandfather Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt—an entrepreneur from modest beginnings who spent his life building an empire based on shipping and railroad concerns.

His son William Henry Vanderbilt inherited the business after the Commodore’s death in 1877, doubling the family fortune before he passed away nine years later. Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William Kissam Vanderbilt, William Henry’s two oldest sons, followed in their father’s footseps to take on management of the family’s holdings, leaving George Vanderbilt—the youngest of William Henry and Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt’s eight children—free to explore his interests in art, literature, and travel.

George Vanderbilt’s vision

Formal photographic portrait of young George Vanderbilt 

By the time George Vanderbilt was in his twenties, he had begun planning the creation of a country estate similar to those he’d visited in Europe. After settling on Asheville, North Carolina, as the setting for his new home, he purchased considerable acreage in the area, breaking ground in 1889 for what would become Biltmore.

Vanderbilt party near Biltmore Station; March 1891. Seated (L-R) are Margaret Bromley, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, Marguerite Shepard, and two unidentified women; unidentified person seated behind Mrs. Vanderbilt. Standing (L-R) are Margaret Shepard, possibly Frederick Vanderbilt, and George Vanderbilt.

While maintaining a permanent address at his family’s Fifth Avenue home, George made frequent trips to Asheville to oversee the project during the six years that Biltmore was under construction.

Swannanoa

Fittingly for a man whose family made its fortune in transportation, George contracted the Wagner Palace Car Company of Buffalo, NY, to build his private railroad car in 1891. Showing affinity for his new home, George named his railcar Swannanoa after one of the two rivers that flowed through the property.

“Private railcars like Swannanoa were the height of luxury in the golden age of railroad travel, functioning as a home away from home for wealthy travelers” said Darren Poupore, Chief Curator for Biltmore.

For the railcar’s inauguration, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt gave her son an engraved tea service that read “GWV from MLV, November 14, 1891, Swannanoa.” The teapot is currently on display in The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibition at The Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village.

Teapot from Swannanoa’s tea service

Luxury travel

Swannanoa’s mahogany-paneled parlor was furnished with plush chairs and sofas; staterooms accommodated up to 12 people with comfortable beds and other furnishings.

George often sent Swannanoa to Washington and New York to transport family and friends back to Biltmore. While on board, a cook provided elaborate meals from a well-appointed kitchen and a porter tended to every passenger’s needs.

In addition to those comforts, guests could admire scenic views through plate-glass windows in an observation room in the rear of the car. And just like Biltmore House, Swannanoa’s interiors reflected George’s personality and interests, complete with countless books and etchings from his collections.

View of Biltmore’s Rampe Douce and Vista with construction sheds and train in foreground, c. 1892

Estate construction

As work on Biltmore House continued, a contract between estate architect Richard Morris Hunt and the project’s general contractor stipulated that the massive quantities of Indiana limestone required for construction be shipped by rail directly to the house site.

Working with a civil engineer and consulting with the superintendent of the Richmond & Danville Railroad, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out a route for a standard gauge rail line connecting the depot in Biltmore Village to the building site.

The area’s uneven terrain—alternating between deep hollows and ridges—presented an added challenge for the rail line. In order to create a gradual incline from the depot to the building site, five trestles with a total length of 1,052 feet were constructed to carry the train across the gullies.

Steam locomotive in front of the Rampe Douce during construction; June 9, 1892

More railroad ties

George Vanderbilt purchased three steam locomotives for use on the estate. The two standard-gauge locomotives operated on the main railroad line to the Esplanade.

The first, Engine No. 75 (later renamed Cherokee) was purchased in1890, but had to be modified because it lacked the coal and water capacity to make one trip to the Esplanade. Another standard-gauge Baldwin locomotive, aptly named Biltmore, became the workhorse of the three engines.

Workers with a Baldwin steam engine on the Esplanade, 1892

The third locomotive, named Ronda, was a smaller engine used solely on the narrow-gauge line that ran between the Biltmore Brick and Tile Works and the clay pits on the estate.

After construction ended, the railway was disbanded and the steam engines were sold, but today’s guests can still see remnants of the railroad’s path on our Behind-the-Scenes Legacy of the Land Tour.

Discover Biltmore Gardens Railway

Biltmore Gardens Railway display

From May 24–September 29, 2019, enjoy Biltmore’s historic landscape from a new perspective: accented with model trains and replicas of estate-related structures during Biltmore Gardens Railway.

Complementing the estate’s summer gardens at their peak, this charming exhibition showcases handmade buildings constructed of natural materials like leaves, bark, and twigs and large-scale botanical railways, connecting them with Biltmore and its founder George Vanderbilt in two locations on the estate—the Conservatory and Antler Hill Village & Winery. Plan now to enjoy this one-of-a-kind, fun-for-all-ages garden experience.

Featured image: Unidentified passengers gathered on the back of what is thought to be Swannanoa, George Vanderbilt’s private railway car

Experience Biltmore Blooms in 2019

When winter finally loosens its grip to make way for spring, you know Biltmore Blooms can’t be far behind!

Bringing the outdoors in with Biltmore Blooms

From the earliest flowering shrubs and vivid tulips in our historic gardens to the glorious progression of color along the Approach Road, we’ve been delighting guests with our annual celebration of the season for more than three decades.

The splendid spring show isn’t limited to the outdoors, however; our floral displays team brings the outside inside with beautiful arrangements throughout Biltmore House and across the estate.

Breakfast Room floral arrangement

A lovely floral arrangement highlights the Breakfast Room table

Welcoming the return of spring

“For Biltmore Blooms we create florals that reflect not only the welcome return of spring, but they also showcase the scale and grandeur of America’s Largest Home®,” said Lizzie Borchers, floral displays manager. “This year, we’ve also designed arrangements that enhance our guests’ experience of A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.” 

According to archival notes and records, the Vanderbilts frequently entertained family and friends at Biltmore House in the early 1900s. It is that love of gatherings and celebrations that inspired A Vanderbilt House Party—an exhibition that took more than two years to plan and carry out.

Opera singer mannequin and floral arrangement in Biltmore House Organ Loft

Overlooking the Banquet Hall, a mannequin of opera singer Elizabeth Mayo Dodge shares the Organ Loft with a stunning floral arrangment  

Gracious hospitality

“Because George and Edith Vanderbilt were such gracious hosts, we believe they would have wanted something amazing right at the Front Door to make their guests feel special,” said Lizzie, “so we started with a grand floral display for the Vestibule.”

For the Banquet Hall, which you’ll see at the end of your tour during A Vanderbilt House Party, Lizzie and her team designed an exceptional spring showpiece for the formal table that is set as it would have been for an evening dinner party.

Flower arrangement in the Library of Biltmore House

Flowering spring shrubs add movement to more traditional arrangements

Adding native plants

Throughout the house, there are plenty of beautiful and traditional cut flowers including roses and lilies, but many arrangements incorporate plants that are native to Western North Carolina such as rhododendron, viburnum, and japonica—all of which might have been used during the Vanderbilt era.

Orchids in the Salon

Orchids in pots and Wardian cases add layers of floral interest to the Salon

Bringing it all together

“Using botanical materials that flourish on the estate this time of year is a perfect way to highlight both Biltmore Blooms and A Vanderbilt House Party,” Lizzie said. “In addition, we’ve been able to open the Winter Garden this year, allowing our guests to walk through that amazing space, just as if they were guests of the Vanderbilts. Enjoy all the color we’ve added to this ‘indoor jungle’ for the season—it’s full of bright begonias, crotons, orchids, and anthuriums, which symbolize hospitality!”

Biltmore Blooms floral arrangement in Vestibule
Don’t miss a moment this spring!

Experience all the excitement of Biltmore Blooms now through May 24 and A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, which continues through May 27. Both events are included with your daytime admission to Biltmore.

— Featured image: Vivid florals for Biltmore Blooms
— Left inset image: Grand arrangement in the Entry Hall of Biltmore House
 

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.

Head Over Heels for Hats and Headpieces

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

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

Front covers of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore's collection

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

In style

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

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

An engaging headpiece

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

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

Edith Vanderbilt's engagement headpiece

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

Feeding the swans

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

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

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

Lady of the house

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

Mannequins of Edith Vanderbilt and her daughter Cornelia

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

George Vanderbilt's mannequin wearing a hat

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

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

Headpieces worthy of a grand gala in the Banquet Hall

Edith Vanderbilt mannequin with peacock feather headpiece

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

Katherine Hunt's mannequin with beaded comb in hair

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

Beaded butterfly headpiece for Florence Vanderbilt Twombly's mannequin

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

A Vanderbilt House Party - The Gilded Age at Biltmore

Plan your visit now

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

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

Remembering the 1898 April Engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Dresser

In celebration of the April 1898 engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, we ask an important question: what would you wear for a portrait commemorating your engagement to America’s most eligible bachelor? 

Archival portrait of Edith Vanderbilt

For Edith, the choice was a beautiful blue velvet gown—the perfect backdrop for a diamond and ruby brooch she received from her fiancé as an engagement gift.

During the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, see not only a stunning re-creation of Edith’s gown, but also a replica of her exquisite brooch—part of a set of jewelry that also included a tiara and necklace. 

The groom-to-be also appears in the Tapestry Gallery of Biltmore House, stylishly attired in a formal evening suit befitting the man labeled “Cupid’s richest captive” in newspapers around the country. Vanderbilt’s engagement was a hot topic for the papers; in the U.S. alone, more than 60 articles were published about his forthcoming wedding. 

While George Vanderbilt drew much public interest, his bride-to-be was mostly unknown outside New York and Newport society. So how did this relationship blossom? 

It’s likely the couple met through George’s match-making relatives. Edith—a decade younger than her future husband—was friends with several of his sisters and nieces. She and her sisters were living in Paris after the death of their parents and grandparents, and it was in Paris and London where Edith and George renewed their acquaintance and embarked on a transatlantic courtship. 

The news of the engagement was welcomed by friends, including the author Paul Leicester Ford, who wrote to George:  
“My dear George,
I am very glad. Marriage is quite good enough for you, and is one of the few really fine things you haven’t had in your life. I wish I knew Miss Dresser better, but the mere glimpse I had of her was enough to make me like her, and time will perhaps fulfill my wish. That you both have my every felicitation, and hope for your happiness, need not be said…..It is a pleasure to me to think of you as having this great happiness added to your life. But in the big love, save a little if you can, for your affectionate friend
Paul.”

Re-creation of Edith Vanderbilt engagement dress

Chauncey M. Depew, who served as New York Secretary of State and president of the New York Central Railway, was a family friend who had known George Vanderbilt all his life. On May 13, 1898, he wrote:
“My Dear George,
Accept my cordial congratulations on your engagement. Possessing as you do every thing to make a happy home, and Miss Dresser so charmingly forming the complement. Surely the future is (illegible) secure for married life as the fates have arranged it for you…
Faithfully yours,
Chauncey M. Depew”

Just three months after their engagement was announced, Edith Dresser and George Vanderbilt wed in Paris with family and close friends attending. After an extended European honeymoon, the newlyweds arrived at Biltmore in October 1898, and Edith Vanderbilt began a new role as hostess of Biltmore.

Learn more about how the Vanderbilts entertained at A Vanderbilt House Party –The Gilded Age continuing through May 27, 2019.

Photos

Main image: Re-creation of Edith Dresser’s engagement gown by Cosprop Ltd. of London, shown with George Vanderbilt evening clothing from the Cosprop collection.

Right: Edith Dresser’s engagement portrait, 1898.

Left: Close-up of re-creation of Edith Dresser’s engagement dress, headpiece, and brooch.

Dinner is Served

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

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

Bread plate on Banquet Hall table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tulips in the Walled Garden: A Brief History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tulips
The Tradition Continues

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

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

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