Creating Christmas at Biltmore takes a village

Written By Jean Sexton

Posted 11/28/16

Updated 11/28/16

For the Home

During the holiday season, gingerbread is usually the most popular building material for houses and villages. Topped with gumdrop roofs and powdered sugar snow, such charming creations are too pretty to eat and too fragile to linger long after New Year’s.

At Biltmore, however, our Christmas village is a more substantial than that—and it took several generations of our Biltmore family to bring it to life!

Biltmore Christmas village in Banquet HallHearth and Home

For 2016, the Christmas at Biltmore theme is Hearth and Home, which brings to mind celebrations around the fireplace, caroling from house to house, and certainly the warmth and hospitality that began with George Vanderbilt welcoming family and friends to his new home on Christmas Eve 1895.

Biltmore Christmas village in Banquet HallIn thinking of this theme, April Partain, a full-time member of Biltmore’s floral team, was inspired to create a miniature village for the Banquet Hall—one of several areas for which she was responsible this year. As she discussed her ideas and plans with her co-workers, however, everyone began to realize that none of the current decorative houses and churches that were readily available were created on the same scale as the Banquet Hall and its massive table on which the village would be displayed.

What’s a floral designer to do when the materials to build her dream Christmas village don’t exist? If you’re April Partain, you go ahead and plan out all the details, knowing that your own village of friends and family will help you make your dreams come true.

“We started thinking about doll’s houses,” said April, “because those are a more appropriate size for the Banquet Hall, and they often have beautiful architectural details that resemble the original structures in Biltmore Village.”

1940s doll house donated by Hannah ParksHand-me-down housing

When word got out about April’s plan to create a Banquet Hall Christmas Village, Hannah Parks of Special Projects offered to donate a doll house that her mother had received for Christmas in 1948—and that had been handed down to Hannah herself on Christmas morning in 1975. With that generous gesture, April’s village was on its way.

And then there were three

Next, April brought in a doll house that her grandfather had built, doubling the size of her Christmas village. Upon hearing the story and the need for more “real estate,” Toymaker’s, Biltmore’s retail shop specializing in old-fashioned gifts and games, donated one of their doll houses to the project.

April Partain works on a Victorian doll house for her villageFamily affair

“By now I had three houses, which was a wonderful start for the village,” April said, “but I needed at least one more to make the display look the way it should.”

April’s mother Susan Partain was watching all the work with interest. Susan had been a floral designer with Biltmore for 20 years until her retirement in 2014, and she knew how much effort it took to make everything perfect for Christmas as Biltmore. Susan remembered that she had purchased a Victorian doll house kit years before, but had never taken it out of the box. A search ensued, the kit was located, and April began building the pretty plaything featuring plenty of the ornate flourishes and details known as gingerbread that are so appropriate for a Christmas village! 

April's father works on a scale model of All Souls ChurchOnce April had gathered the houses she needed for the village, she and her father worked from scale drawings and photos provided by the church historian of All Souls Cathedral in Biltmore Village. Together they created a stunning replica of the striking Episcopal church that George Vanderbilt commissioned from Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of Biltmore House.

“I got my whole family involved in it,” said April. “My dad and I built the church and my brother Jeremiah who works on Biltmore’s Engineering Services team and his 14–year-old son Destin all helped finish the project. My mother helped tremendously in doing the handmade finials for the church with 16 & 18 gauge stick wire, floral tape, and silver spray paint. As Mom said, it takes a family to build a church!”

Replica of All Souls Church in Biltmore VillageHistoric perspective

In fact, the church and all the village houses on the Banquet Hall table are representative of Biltmore Village, located near the entrance to the estate.

In 1889, George Vanderbilt purchased the small town of Best, and renamed it Biltmore Village. The village grew under his direction and a school, hospital, shops, cottages, and church were built. All Souls Church was the center of the village and was the first thing people would see after disembarking at the Biltmore train station. The Vanderbilts often hosted families and children from the village and parish school for tea parties and Christmas celebrations. This welcoming hospitality and spirit of sharing still defines the estate today.

Details of a Biltmore Christmas village houseIt’s all in the details

When you see the Banquet Hall Christmas Village, you’ll immediately notice that the exteriors of all the houses and the church have been painstakingly decorated to resemble their counterparts in Biltmore Village.

“The doll house bases are made of various soft woods, including luan and white pine,” said April. “Then I covered the outer walls with Durabond to create the look of pebbledash and stucco. One of the estate painters who is familiar with the technique helped me refine the finishes. All of the brick trim is made of printed cardstock, and the various roofs are made of different types of wood including cedar shakes and white pine shingles.”

April painted the houses to increase their historical look and found tiny lanterns to attach to them. To give the village a warm glow, she created windows of amber-tinted Mylar for each house. For the church windows, April photographed the actual stained glass of All Souls, printed miniscule versions of it on Vellum paper, and added them to the structure.

Biltmore Christmas village with dog on porchVillage exteriors sport special holiday touches such as miniature wreaths and garlands with decorative bows, all hand-tied by April's mother Susan. Inside, battery-operated lights adorn the greenery in some rooms and add to the sense of enchantment in the village. There are paths and trees and even a small dog on one of the porches, adding to the sense of realism that is sure to keep you spellbound during your visit. The entire display was created with great care and love of details by April—with many helping hands from her own “village” of friends and family—for everyone to enjoy!

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