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.
Fall is prime vacation time for those who love “leaf-peeping,” and Biltmore offers the best Blue Ridge Mountains views around. The estate’s ever-changing autumnal color, plus its many seasonal activities and offerings, make it the perfect home base for a fall trip.
Here are 8 great reasons to make Biltmore the center of your getaway:
1. Location, Location, Location!
Nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Biltmore is located minutes from downtown Asheville—a vibrant city known for great dining, quaint shops, and its strong arts community—and just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition to your visit to Biltmore House & Gardens, you could easily spend several days enjoying the surrounding area.
2. Rooftop Tour of America’s Largest Home®
Discover spectacular views boasting every shade of fall color as far as the eye can see. This 60-minute guided tour offers wildly impressive photo ops—during autumn, especially—and provides a closer look at the design and construction of Biltmore House in areas that many guests never visit.
3. Legacy of the Land Tour
Take a motor coach tour of the estate and learn about the history of the land, structures, and former residents with our exciting Legacy of the Land Tour. Enjoy the glorious fall foliage all around you as you visit areas not usually open to guests.
4. Deerpark Carriage & Trail Ride Barn
Located in the heart of the estate, this historic structure is the headquarters for Biltmore’s Carriage Rides and Horseback Trail Rides. Whether you prefer a relaxing journey in an elegant carriage or a western-style adventure on a horse that suits your riding style, few things are as majestic as traveling our woodland trails enveloped in fall color.
5. Live Music Daily
Biltmore turns up the volume with live music daily at the Bandstand in Antler Hill Village! Enjoy special evening performers at Cedric’s Tavern, and on Friday and Saturday eveningsthroughout the season, join us for Live After Five featuring energetic jazz and pop bands, casual dining options, and gorgeous sunsets, making it the perfect way for the whole family to unwind at the end of a fun-filled day on the estate.
6. Get Ready for the Holidays!
After strolling through a kaleidoscope of colors in the Walled Garden, join Biltmore floral design experts at A Gardener’s Place shop beneath the Conservatory for Illuminated Holiday Tablescapes–a complimentary demonstration offered daily on creating a stunning holiday tabletop centerpiece by combining natural elements such as plants, pinecones, and twigs with festive holiday ornaments and lights.
7. Vineyard Harvest Season
Biltmore’s bounty takes center stage at the Winery in Antler Hill Village as we celebrate a successful harvest season. Savor complimentary tastings of more than 20 handcrafted wines, plus specialty wine experiences such as our Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting to see how science and nature intersect as you learn about the estate’s vineyards, discover the unique factors that affect grapes grown in North Carolina, and take an in-depth look at our winemaking process.
8. The Ultimate Fall Getaway
An overnight stay at Biltmore offers the unique experience of waking up on George Vanderbilt’s estate with autumn beauty just outside your door. Enjoy warm hospitality in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere at the charming Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate®, or experience world-class service with a luxurious four-star stay at The Inn on Biltmore Estate®.
Plan your visit today and discover for yourself why Biltmore is the perfect home base for your fall getaway.
Now through Sept. 29, Biltmore’s Conservatory is home to Biltmore Gardens Railway, an elaborate G-scale railway with locomotives and railcars weaving through the historic greenhouse’s exotic botanicals and miniature replicas of estate landmarks – even one of the Conservatory itself! A second railway display is located in Antler Hill Village where trains travel past replicas of the Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge, and other European landmarks visited by George Vanderbilt during his world travels.
Working from original floor plans, drawings with elevations, and photographs of Biltmore House and other estate structures, a team with Applied Imagination constructed the Biltmore replicas using natural materials they gathered from estate grounds. The result is a stunningly accurate version of Biltmore.
Some fun facts and figures to consider about Biltmore Gardens Railway:
“Luxuriant” bamboo, as Frederick Law Olmsted called it when planning George Vanderbilt’s gardens and grounds, was harvested and used as the roofing material on the Biltmore House replica. Grapevine was also collected and fashioned into Biltmore’s iconic gargoyles.
1,700 – The number of hours it took to construct the 10-foot-long replica of Biltmore House, compared to… the 6 years it took to build the 250-room Biltmore House in the late 1800s.
6 – The number of artists it took to build the scale model of Biltmore House, compared to… the 1,000 workers it took to build Biltmore House in the late 1800s.
5,000 – The number of tons of Indiana limestone used to build Biltmore House in the late 1800s, compared to… the 25 types of items harvested from estate grounds to create replicas of Biltmore House and other buildings. This included horse chestnut, magnolia leaves, hickory nuts, lotus pods, bamboo, pine cone scales, acorn caps, winged bean, star anise, grapevine, honeysuckle, ash bark, oak bark, pine bark, elm bark, hickory bark, eucalyptus leaves, day lily stem, rose of sharon, cedar branch, walnuts, stewartia, wisteria, turkey tail fungus, and contorted Filbert.
Artists from Applied Imagination suited up in waders to snip a few treasures from the Italian Garden pools. The lotus pods growing there were just too perfect to pass up, and ended up in the creation of the Stables.
6 – The number of separate railroad tracks running through the Conservatory carrying locomotives and railcars around the buildings. The trains cross bridges and trestles on varied levels and through multiple rooms.
8 – The number of estate building replicas in the Conservatory.
7 – The number of artists it took to create all of the replicas in the Conservatory.
3,745 –The number of combined hours it took to construct eight estate building replicas for the Conservatory exhibition.
8 – The number of buildings in the display at Antler Hill Village.
1,050 – Amount of railroad track in feet required for the displays.
1 – Amount of weeks to install Biltmore Gardens Railway at two locations on the estate.
Biltmore Gardens Railway is a wonderful, fun-for-all-ages feature at Biltmore this summer. Plan your visit now!
“Last year’s harvest yielded enough Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon for us to offer something special—a rosé wine, created from our estate-grown grapes,” said Sharon Fenchak, Biltmore winemaker.
According to Sharon, the only wines considered for the Biltmore Reserve label are those handcrafted from grapes grown in Biltmore’s own estate vineyard and by our North Carolina partners. By law, wines with an appellation and vintage date must contain at least 75% of grapes from the specific region in the year noted.
“Our Biltmore Reserve Rosé 2018 is crafted from select North Carolina Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot grapes,” noted Sharon. “We’ve coaxed beautiful color and subtle complexity from the fruit, creating layered aromas plus flavors of red berries, tropical fruits, and a hint of spice.” Rosés are perfect for outdoor entertaining all summer long
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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.
This summer, Biltmore Gardens Railway brings 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 features replica structures fashioned from all-natural materials, largely collected from the estate, to offer a one-of-a-kind, fun-for-all-ages experience.
Let’s take a 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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Overlooking the Banquet Hall, a mannequin of opera singer Elizabeth Mayo Dodge shares the Organ Loft with a stunning floral arrangment
“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.
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 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!”
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, whichcontinues 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
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.
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.
Glamorous gowns and headpieces grace the covers of the June 1911 and February 1913 issues of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore’s collection
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 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 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.
Edith Vanderbilt attends to the business of Biltmore House while daughter Cornelia and her cousin play with a toy
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
“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
Catharine Hunt, wife of Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt, is shown with a comb in faceted jet to accent her curls
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
Plan your visit now
Experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded AgeFebruary 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