Shedding New Light on Biltmore’s Halloween Room

Written By Jean Sexton

Posted 10/10/19

Updated 12/18/23

Estate History

There’s no doubt that the unusual wall decor in the Halloween Room of Biltmore House has raised many questions throughout the years. Ongoing archival research and discoveries from our Museum Services team allow us to shed new light on the origins of this brightly-colored room.

Soldiers painted on the walls of Biltmore's Halloween Room
Painted soldiers depicted in Halloween Room mural

Naming the 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 an array of such creatures.

The paintings include characters from folklore, a platoon of soldiers, and other imaginative imagery that eventually caused this area to be dubbed the “Halloween Room.”

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 to 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
Theatrical program for La Chauve-Souris

Uncovering the inspiration behind the murals

Our Museum Services team 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.

Staff looks at an archival copy of La Chauve-Souris theatrical program
Leslie Klingner reviews an archival copy of the La Chauve-Souris program

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. 

After three weeks of painting, the Cecils hosted a Bohemian ball on December 30, 1925, as part of their New Year’s celebration.

“This connection was really exciting to us because we didn’t expect it at all,” said Curator, Leslie Klingner. “It wasn’t until we read an autobiography of a local man who went to that party that we put it together.”

Painted scenes in the Halloween Room

“The best party I have ever attended”

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 “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, reminiscing that it was “the best party I have ever attended.”

Halloween Room mural in Biltmore House
Painted scenes in the Halloween Room

A new look inside the glamourous soiree

“We know that John and Cornelia Cecil were interested in many aspects of Russian culture, and Biltmore House wasn’t the only place Cornelia painted using these sorts of images. Combine that with their flair for entertaining, and you get what must have been the social event of the Asheville season,” shares Curator, Meghan Forest.

We also know that friends and family traveled from far and wide to attend the exciting soiree. Among the attendees were Cornelia’s recently remarried mother, Edith, and her second husband, Senator Peter Gerry from Rhode Island. Also present was John Cecil’s brother and his family from England.

According to Meghan, a recently discovered newspaper article also mentioned that Edith and Cornelia wore similarly styled costumes featuring bright colors, bouffant skirts, and brilliant shawls befitting the theme. “For a social event of this profile, they were likely wearing clothing that was custom-designed for them,” shares Meghan.

The article also stated that the nearby dressing rooms were used as private dining rooms for small groups, helping us better understand how the family and guests would have utilized the vast basement level of Biltmore House during this era.

Panels from
Our Building Biltmore House exhibition explores the construction of George Vanderbilt’s magnificent home—a massive project that took hundreds of workers seven years to complete.

On display in the Halloween Room: Building Biltmore House

In addition to piquing the curiosity of our guests, the Halloween Room currently showcases our Building Biltmore House exhibition which features additional in-depth information about the people, circumstances, and innovations surrounding the building of George Vanderbilt’s magnificent estate.

Building Biltmore House also offers a special focus on the craftsmanship and labor of the employees who worked on the project rather than just the construction techniques.

White V

What was George Vanderbilt’s vision for Biltmore? How does the legacy live on today?