Sylvester Owens: Biltmore’s “Azalea King”

A significant and often overlooked employee in Biltmore’s past is Sylvester Owens: chauffeur, “Azalea Hunter,” and head gardener trained by Biltmore’s nursery manager and later estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle. It is because of Owens’ passion and expertise that Beadle’s vision for the Azalea Garden was completed, creating the stunning landscape that we know and enjoy today.

Learn about this important figure in Biltmore’s history and his lasting contributions to our renowned garden landscapes.

Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.
Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.

Sylvester Owens at Biltmore

Owens was born in Rutherford County, NC, in 1897. He received little formal education during his youth and began helping on his family farm at a young age. By his early 20s, he had been married and widowed with two young children, at which time he moved to Asheville to live with his uncle, Jim Owens.

He began his employment at Biltmore as a chauffeur and companion to Chauncey Beadle in 1920. His brother Frank was also employed on the estate, performing maintenance and supplying firewood to Biltmore House.

Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

The Azalea Hunters

Under Beadle’s mentorship, Sylvester Owens progressed to become an assistant gardener and one of the so-called “Azalea Hunters,” traveling around the Southeast with Beadle and several others collecting unique specimens of azalea plants.

According to a 1997 oral history conducted with Owens’ daughter Mabel Owens Hoskins and widow Franklyn Owens, he grew to have a genuine friendship with Chauncey Beadle. When traveling together to gather azaleas, Beadle would not stay or eat at any place that would not also accommodate Owens due to his race.

Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.
Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.

When Chauncey Beadle died in 1950, Judge Junius Adams, president of The Biltmore Company, asked Sylvester Owens to take over Beadle’s work. Judge Adams stated upon his appointment that “His interest in the garden is sincere. He knows more about the plants, their origins, and their characteristics than anyone around and he is thoroughly familiar with Mr. Beadle’s plan.” Owens’ daughter Mabel later said that:

“I believe that he was able to handle Mr. Beadle’s death better because he was able to complete something that they had started together. Otherwise, he probably would have not felt as good about the ending of their relationship because they were very close. As I said, he was not only his chauffeur, but he was his companion too and they were more like friends…the respect that the Beadles had for my father and his family was encouraging, and the kind of thing that makes for a better person.”

Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

Azalea King

Owens was recognized for his work in several newspaper articles as well as in Ebony magazine in 1951 with an article titled “Azalea King.” According to the article, Owens was considered “one of the greatest authorities on azalea culture today.”

An article in The Charlotte Observer from July 1950 quotes Owens’ response to his appointment to carry on Beadle’s work: “I plan to make this spot the most beautiful garden in the world…Like Mr. Beadle, I love the plants—all of them—and I can picture the whole valley in bloom when the work is completed. Mr. Beadle was the finest, kindest man I ever knew. I was surprised and happy to be the one to carry on.”

Sylvester Owens and William Cecil with a truck in front of Biltmore House
Sylvester Owens with William A.V. Cecil in front of Biltmore House, photographed by Toni Frissell in May 1964. In the collection of the Library of Congress.

Sylvester Owens’ Legacy

Today, the Azalea Garden spans around 15 acres, but Owens’ purview extended beyond its current boundaries. He eventually oversaw many of the landscaping crews on the estate. He would travel with them to exhibit their work in Charlotte, and in 1961 they won the President’s Award from the Southeastern Rhododendron Show, which was a great point of pride for Owens, according to his family.

Sylvester Owens retired in 1964 after almost 44 years of service to the estate and after completing Beadle’s plans for the gardens at Biltmore. Owens lived in the Shiloh community until his death in 1989, and some of his descendants remain in the area. He is buried at the Shiloh AME Zion Church Cemetery, and his legacy lives on today through the beauty of Biltmore’s gardens.

Azaleas in bloom at Biltmore
The Azalea Garden offers a spectacular variety of colors each spring.

The Lasting Beauty of Biltmore’s Azalea Garden

Beautiful any time of year, the Azalea Garden at Biltmore puts on a spectacular show each spring and is a testament to the lasting impact of this important figure in Biltmore’s history. From the hearty flame azalea native to the Blue Ridge Mountains to some of the most rare varieties in the world, thousands of vivid blooms provide a kaleidoscope of color for you to enjoy when you visit Biltmore Estate.


Special thanks to Explore Asheville and the Black Cultural Heritage Trail for collaborating with Biltmore to share these stories throughout historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville.

Live “La Dolce Vita” at Biltmore

Live la dolce vita–the sweet life–at Biltmore this summer, just as the Vanderbilts and their guests did more than a century ago.

Inspiration from Italy and Europe

Family taking a selfie in front of Biltmore House
Capture each memorable moment of the sweet life at Biltmore this summer!

“The idea of la dolce vita is Italian, and it translates to ‘the sweet life’,” said Lauren Henry, Curator of Interpretation. “It embodies the idea of living each moment as it unfolds, and enjoying it for itself. It’s an inspirational way of life that George Vanderbilt experienced during his travels in Italy and other delightful destinations, and it helped him envision Biltmore as a place where his family and friends could enjoy the same timeless feeling.”

The Conservatory at Biltmore surrounded by summer gardens
Biltmore’s historic grounds, including the Conservatory in the English-style Walled Garden, are the perfect place to experience the sweet life.

From the French Renaissance-style architecture of Biltmore House, designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt, to the glorious gardens and grounds created by legendary landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore Estate brought classic European sensibilities to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

“George Vanderbilt assembled a real ‘dream team’ to bring Biltmore to life,” Lauren said. “Together they created a distinctly European-style estate, but with an expansive feel and modern technologies that were hallmarks of the American Gilded Age.”

Discover la dolce vita at Biltmore

Painted ceiling of the Library at Biltmore
The Chariot of Aurora by Italian artist Giovanni Pelligrini graces the ceiling of the Library in Biltmore House

You can still capture the magic of la dolce vita as you explore Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, touched at every turn by inspiration from the Vanderbilts’ journeys around the world.

Inside Biltmore House you’ll discover paintings, sculptures, and objets d’art to delight your mind and buoy your spirits in true la dolce vita fashion, including these highlights:

  • Salon—look for two original landscapes by French Impressionist artist Claude Monet. Both Strada Romana à Bordighera and Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar have recently been restored to their late-19th-century vibrance.
  • Tapestry Gallery—Study the three Renaissance-era silk and wool tapestries that this 90-foot-long room was designed to display. Woven in Brussels circa 1530, the set was originally part of the The Triumph of the Seven Virtues.
  • Library—the ceiling was created to showcase Chariot of Aurora by Giovanni Pelligrini, an 18th-century painting comprised of thirteen separate canvases that depict the Roman goddess of the dawn.

Fresh air gives fresh perspectives

Couple in the Conservatory at Biltmore
The Conservatory at Biltmore is a a wonderful way to experience a tropical getaway while visiting the estate!

Explore miles of scenic trails across the estate by walking, hiking, or biking at your own preferred pace. Here are some of our favorite spots:

  • Conservatory—this elegant, glass-topped greenhouse captures the historic and modern balance of the estate as exotic botanicals popular in the Vanderbilt era overlap with plants we propagate for seasonal displays.
  • Bass Pond—walk down from the gardens to view the newly restored island that was part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original landscape design.
  • Lagoon—spend some time at this scenic spot on the road to Antler Hill Village—it’s perfect for picnicking and for admiring the reflection of Biltmore House in the water.

Savor la dolce vita

Mother and daughter enjoying ice cream cones at Biltmore
The sweet life is even sweeter with ice cream treats from the Creamery in Antler Hill Village.

Whether you’ve worked up a bona fide appetite or simply need a refreshment respite, there are choices to please every palate when you dine at Biltmore:

Ice cream—indulge in a scoop (or two!) of fresh-churned ice cream and other sweet treats from The Biltmore Dairy Bar® adjacent to Biltmore House or the Creamery in Antler Hill Village.

Biltmore wine—Savor a complimentary tasting at Biltmore’s Winery to sip award-winning vintages, then pair your favorites–including Italian varietals like our Biltmore Estate® Pinot Grigio and Biltmore Estate® Limited Release Sangiovese–with charcuterie, cheeses, and chocolates next door at our relaxing Wine Bar. Choose outdoor seating to make la vita as dolce as possible!

Field-to-table freshness

Couple dining outdoors at Biltmore
Enjoy a wide range of fine and casual dining options while visiting Biltmore.

Enjoy fine and casual dining options featuring estate-raised and locally sourced dishes. Favorites include our European-style Bistro at the Winery, English pub far at Cedric’s® Tavern in Antler Hill Village, and four-star, white-linen luxury at The Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate.

Encounter Europe like never before

Several guests immersed in the Italian Renaissance Alive exhibition at Biltmore
Immerse yourself in the grand multi-sensory experience of Italian Renaissance Alive at Biltmore!

You won’t need a passport to undertake a European odyssey when you visit our newest exhibition as we host Italian Renaissance Alive, created and produced by Grande Experiences, now through January 7, 2024, on the grounds of the estate.

With the purchase of an exhibition ticket, you’ll be surrounded on all sides by the sights and sounds of some of the most remarkable masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, including Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and more. There’s even a signature scent to enhance your experience.

Postcard exhibition at Biltmore
Ciao! From Italy features large-scale sculptural postcards based on the Vanderbilts’ travels in Italy.

Continue your old-world travels with our Ciao! From Italy Sculptural Postcards display in Antler Hill Village. Created by the artists from Applied Imagination using botanical materials such as bark, pine cones, pods, and leaves, each oversized 4’x6’ image highlights the Vanderbilts’ visits to Italy, complete with quotes from George Vanderbilt himself.

This charming complement to Italian Renaissance Alive is including with estate admission now through February 19, 2024.

Discover la dolce vita at Biltmore for yourself!

Woman in a bathrobe admiring the view at The Inn on Biltmore Estate
Embrace la dolce vita at The Inn on Biltmore Estate or one of our other properties.

Come to Biltmore this summer to create your own memories of living la dolce vita, and make your visit even sweeter with an overnight stay at The Inn on Biltmore Estate®️, Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate®️, or one of our private historic Cottages on Biltmore Estate.

Featured blog image: A Biltmore guest enjoys la dolce vita with a flute of sparkling wine on the terrace of The Inn on Biltmore Estate. Photo courtesy of @georgia_sheffield.

Painting Conservation For A Landmark Destination

A painting conservation project for two original landscapes by Impressionist artist Claude Monet is just one of many preservation-related efforts that help make Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, such a landmark destination.

Creating an impression

Claude Monet's signature on an original oil painting
Along with his signature, Claude Monet’s paintings show the characteristic style of his brush strokes.

“From 1860–1905, a dynamic group of Paris-based artists led by Claude Monet challenged the norm and began painting in a much less formal manner than the Old Masters who came before them,” said Meghan Forest, Associate Curator.

Monet’s work followed the textures of his subjects; the length of his brush strokes mimicked flowers and foliage, rippling water, and boats and structures. It was his 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise that sparked the term “Impressionists” from an art critic who felt this new style had an unfinished look.

The trailblazing group of artists took the name as their own, arousing even more interest and curiosity about the new way of creating and viewing art.

George Vanderbilt collected Impressionist art

Two paintings of children by Renoir
(L-R) “Young Algerian Girl” and “Child with an Orange” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Both are on display in the Breakfast Room of Biltmore House.

True to his visionary approach, George Vanderbilt was an early adopter of the new Impressionist movement. His affinity for the style ultimately resulted in a collection of 16 Impressionist paintings by Monet, Renoir, Maufra, Manet, and Whistler.

Strada Romana a Bordighera
“Strada Romana a Bordighera,” an Italian landscape by Claude Monet, is installed in the Salon at Biltmore House.

“Mr. Vanderbilt purchased three paintings by Claude Monet, and two of them remain in the Biltmore collection,” said Meghan. “One is a landscape entitled Strada Romana à Bordighera. Monet captured this colorful Italian scene in 1884 and Vanderbilt purchased it from Durand-Ruel, a noted dealer of Impressionist art, in 1892.”

Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar seascape painting by Claude Monet
“Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar” by Claude Monet is part of the Biltmore collection and is now displayed in the Salon of Biltmore House.

In addition, Vanderbilt acquired a Monet seascape entitled Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar, painted in 1886.

“When we examined the paintings for display in Biltmore House, we found that they were structurally stable, but there was a layer of varnish that was added in the early 1980s that had grayed and dulled over time and there were a few areas where paint had begun to flake off,” Meghan said.

The process of painting conservation

Meghan Forest, Associate Curator with Biltmore’s Museum Services team, gives an overview of George Vanderbilt as a collector and shows highlights of the painting conservation process for the two Monets in the collection.

Biltmore worked with painting conservator Ruth Cox who has treated a number of works in our private collection.

Based in Durham, North Carolina, Ruth offers a wide range of professional services for the conservation of easel paintings in museum and private collections.

“Ruth worked in stages to carefully remove the synthetic varnish and add paint to the areas where there was paint loss so that the paintings could look as close as possible to how they would’ve looked when Monet completed them in the late 1800s,” said Meghan.

In addition, the materials Ruth used for painting conservation are readily distinguishable by scholars and reversible so that future conversation can be accomplished more easily.

“The total conservation process for each painting took about 4-6 months, so it was nearly a year before both were ready for display,” Meghan noted.

See the results for yourself

Two men handle a landscape painting by Claude Monet
Trip Hudgins and Greg Schmidt carefully lift Monet’s “Strada Romana a Bordighera” painting in its ornate frame.

Plan a visit to Biltmore so you can see the results of this painting conservation work for yourself. Both paintings are displayed in the Salon on the First Floor of Biltmore House. Take time to see Monet’s process up close, including his brushwork, atmospheric effects, and study of light.

Featured blog image: (L-R) Trip Hudgins, Engineering Operation Manager; Lori Garst, Curator; Nancy Rosebrock, Director of Conservation and Collections; and Greg Schmidt, Engineering Services, examine Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar by Monet before hanging it in the Salon at Biltmore House.

George Vanderbilt: A Passion For Italy

George Vanderbilt–traveler, collector, and patron of the arts–appreciated the finer things in life, but had a special passion for the culture and creativity of Italy. His trips there and other regions he visited across Europe helped shape his appreciation for art, architecture, and fine wine.

“Throughout his life, George Vanderbilt traveled the world, first with family and friends, and after he married, his wife Edith and their daughter Cornelia often accompanied him,” said Meghan Forest, Associate Curator.

George Vanderbilt’s first Italian visit

Archival image of the Colosseum, 1887. Rome, Italy
Archival image of the Colosseum, 1887. Rome, Italy.

Based on correspondence in our archives, Italy seems to have been a favored destination for George Vanderbilt. He first visited the country in 1880 when he was 18 years old, taking in notable sites such as Rome and Vatican City.

The visit included a stop in Milan where the church and Dominican convent of Sante Maria della Grazie was of particular interest as its refectory contains The Last Supper fresco painted by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.

Further travels in Italy

The Last Supper fresco painting by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper fresco painting by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1495–1498.

In 1887, George Vanderbilt took an extended trip to Italy, taking in some of the well-known sites including Pisa Cathedral with its famously tilted bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

He also visited Venice with its winding canals and Florence, the city long considered the epicenter of Italian Renaissance art and culture. Florence offers some of the most iconic treasures of the era, including the Uffizi Museum and the Cathedral de Santa Maria dell Fiore, generally referred to as the Duomo because of its two free-standing domes.

Archival photo of three passengers and two rowers in a gondola in Venice, Italy
George Vanderbilt (seated, far right) with unidentified men riding a gondola in Venice, 1887

Seven years later, George Vanderbilt returned to Italy with members of his family including his niece Adele Sloan. They visited Taormina and the ruins of the Taormina Amphitheatre built by the Greeks and renovated 600 years later by the Romans. Such sites were popular destinations during the American Renaissance of the late 19th century as travelers sought to understand the ancient world.

Honeymooning in Italy

Villa Vignolo near Stresa, Italy, c. 1898.
Villa Vignolo on the shores of Lake Maggiore near Stresa, Italy, c. 1898.

“Another reason we believe George Vanderbilt had a passion for Italy is because he chose to take his new bride Edith there after they were wed in Paris in 1898. The Vanderbilts spent the first six weeks of their four-month honeymoon at Villa Vignolo on the shores of Lake Maggiore near Stresa, Italy,” Meghan said.

While there, the Vanderbilts took short trips to various museums and galleries, taking in sights such as the iconic Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice. In Edith, George found a partner who shared his passion for history, literature, and the arts.

In a letter to artist James McNeill Whistler, George wrote of their time in Italy, “It was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s first visit… It has been an added pleasure of course to see her delight and interest… “ *

Italian Renaissance wellhead, c. 1500
Made of Rosso di Verona marble, this fountainhead was likely originally used to decorate and protect an active well in Venice during the Italian Renaissance, c. 1500. It has become known as the “Hunt Fountain” as it is depicted in the John Singer Sargent portrait of Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt.

Explore Ciao! From Italy Sculptural Postcard Display

As a delightful complement to our new Italian Renaissance Alive exhibition, we’ve partnered with our friends at Applied Imagination to create a series of eight sculptural postcards that showcase George Vanderbilt’s Italian travels in a big way.

Located in Antler Hill Village from April 1, 2023 to February 19, 2024, Ciao! From Italy combines intricate botanical designs with authentic messages from the Vanderbilts in a large-scale format that’s sure to charm all ages. The experience is included with estate admission.

Featured blog image: George Vanderbilt (seated, far right) with unidentified men riding a gondola in Venice, 1887

*George Washington Vanderbilt to James McNeill Whistler. 10 Jul 1898. The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler. Glasgow University Library, University of Glasgow: 05919.

Create A Biltmore-Inspired Spring Centerpiece

Create a Biltmore-inspired spring centerpiece with easy ideas from our Floral team and the glorious arrangements they design for Biltmore House during our annual Biltmore Blooms celebration!

Spring is a favorite season at Biltmore

Spring centerpiece in Mrs. Vanderbilt's Bedroom at Biltmore
See stunning spring arrangements like this in Biltmore House during Biltmore Blooms

“I think spring is a favorite season for many of us at Biltmore,” said Lizzie Borchers, Floral Manager. “We love to celebrate the season by creating spring centerpieces and arrangements that harmonize with the décor in Biltmore House, and we also love to highlight special features with our designs.”

Spring arrangement in the Library at Biltmore House
Lovely blooms, including early spring branches, add interest to any spring centerpiece

Each year during Biltmore Blooms, Lizzie and her team delight guests with lush floral arrangements that highlight some of the priceless portraits and fantastic furnishings in America’s Largest Home®.

Ready to create your own spring centerpiece inspired by Biltmore?

Blue and white spring blooms
Create a stunning centerpiece that’s perfect for spring!

With some helpful suggestions from our Floral team, you can create a stunning design that evokes the fresh feeling of spring with a classic blue-and-white theme.

“Although we’re used to making arrangements that suit the grand scale of Biltmore House, you can use our techniques to achieve a spring centerpiece that works for your space,” said Lizzie. “Just choose a smaller container as your starting point!”

In addition to the blue-and-white blooms recommended below, try adding pretty pops of color with unexpected touches like peacock feathers or a decorative egg-filled bird’s nest as a special nod to spring.

Suggested Materials:

  • Neutral-colored container
  • Floral oasis foam
  • Dutch iris
  • Caspia (white and lavender varieties)
  • Cream-colored stock
  • Pittosporum (potted version used in this arrangement)
  • White roses
  • White hydrangea
  • Peacock feathers (optional)
  • Decorative bird nest with eggs (optional)

Begin by cutting a piece of floral oasis foam to fit snugly inside your container. Soak it well, then begin adding the larger flowers first. Step back from time to time to see the overall effect. Once you’re satisfied with the placement of the larger elements, begin filling in with smaller flowers and greenery.

Tips from Biltmore’s Floral Team:

  • Try letting some floral elements hang over the sides of the container to create movement and interest.
  • Create an equally pretty spring centerpiece by using small potted plants (or permanent botanicals) rather than freshly cut flowers.
    • Choose green and flowering plants of different heights for texture and interest, and add pieces of Styrofoam to lift some pots higher than others.

Plan your spring visit today!

Family activities at Biltmore
Explore our glorious gardens and grounds all year long!

Hosts in Biltmore House: A Brief History

Our Interpretive Hosts are integral to visits to Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Whether you’re enjoying the main tour route of America’s Largest Home® or exploring via one of our more in-depth, behind-the-scenes tours, these trained storytellers strive to offer an accurate and entertaining interpretation of Biltmore’s history and collections.

But did you know that Interpretive Hosts weren’t always part of the Biltmore House experience? Let’s take a look back at the history of touring Biltmore, which began before the house was even opened.

Archival estate admission ticket, ca. 1920
Archival estate admission ticket, ca. 1920.

Visiting the Gardens & Grounds of the Estate

According to archival correspondence, George Vanderbilt allowed the public to drive on estate roads as early as 1894—before the construction of Biltmore House was even completed!

But it wasn’t until October 1903 that a formalized pass system was developed, which included an admission cost for everyone, except select guests of the Vanderbilts.

The reverse side of these original estate tickets included the following regulations:

  1. The plucking of flowers or breaking of trees or shrubs is forbidden.
  2. It is forbidden to drive over planted areas or the borders of roads.
  3. The taking of photographs anywhere on the Estate is prohibited.

And the admission rates at this time were as follows:

  • 25c for a vehicle drawn by one horse and carrying 1 or 2 persons, or for a person on horseback.
  • 50c for a 2-horse vehicle carrying not over five persons. For each additional person 10c; for each additional horse 25c.
  • 10c for a single person on foot or with a bicycle.

According to our records, not much changed in terms of regulations or pricing for the first 18 or so years after this initial pass system was developed. In 1921, charges for admission were updated as follows: 5 passenger car (4 passengers & driver) $1; 7 passenger car (6 passengers & driver) $1.50.

Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and John A. V. Cecil (center) at the public opening of Biltmore House, 1930
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and John A. V. Cecil (center) at the public opening of Biltmore House, 1930.

Visiting Biltmore House

In 1930, George Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia and her husband John A. V.  Cecil opened Biltmore House to the public. This decision was made in response to requests to increase tourism in the Asheville area during the Depression and to generate income to preserve the estate.

This milestone was a fundamental shift in the way the public was able to experience Biltmore. Previous to this, only select guests of the Vanderbilts were fortunate enough to see the interiors of America’s Largest Home® and the invaluable collection it housed.

“Mr. Cecil and I hope that through opening Biltmore House to the public, Asheville and Western North Carolina will derive all the benefit they deserve and that the people who go through the house and the estate will get as much pleasure and enjoyment out of it as Mr. Cecil and I do in making it possible. I also want to say that we both feel in doing this, it is a fitting memorial to my father. After all, it was his life’s work and creation.”

— Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s welcome speech at the opening of Biltmore House, March 15, 1930, as quoted in the Asheville Citizen

One of our Biltmore Interpretive Hosts leads a small group tour in the Winter Garden
One of our Biltmore Interpretive Hosts leads a small group tour in the Winter Garden.

Hosts in Biltmore House

In the late 1980s, hosts were introduced to the Biltmore House experience. For the first time, guests were offered accurate information about the collection, the Vanderbilt family, and the house itself.

Today, our Interpretive Hosts undergo extensive training to ensure they have knowledge about every object on display—yet they do not follow a script, making each of their interactions with our guests truly unique.

We invite you to discover all of our wonderful tour offerings at Biltmore House, and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience every time, thanks to our talented Interpretive Hosts.

Our Holiday Gingerbread House Was Built To Last

Biltmore’s holiday gingerbread house was built to last–mostly because it’s not really made from real gingerbread!

Although the fanciful replica of America’s Largest Home® appears to be constructed from freshly baked gingerbread that’s been decorated with swirls of snowy icing and old-fashioned candy details, it’s actually an incredibly detailed work of art from our friends at Applied Imagination.

Gingerbread house version of Biltmore House
Once finished, the faux gingerbread version of Biltmore House had to be carefully transported from Applied Imagination’s workshop in Alexandria, KY, to Asheville, NC

These talented artists specialize in handcrafting architectural models, sculptures, and garden railways out of natural materials. They created all of our Biltmore Gardens Railway displays and Ciao! From Italy Sculptural Postcards in Antler Hill Village now through February 19, 2024.

In past years, our talented Biltmore Estate pastry chefs created real confectionary replicas of Biltmore House, but it was always a monumental task that took weeks to complete and needed a lot of space to assemble. It was also challenging to transport the finished gingerbread house to the Main Kitchen without losing some wreaths and roof tiles along the way!

A firm foundation

Wooden model of Biltmore House
Jason Pleva puts finishing touches on his scale model of Biltmore House

In 2017, Jason Pleva, a member of Biltmore’s carpentry team, used the plans of Biltmore House to build a wooden scale model that could be used as a base for a gingerbread house. It was a good solution that shaved off a lot of construction time, but unfortunately, our chefs found that decorative icing doesn’t cling to wood as well as it does to gingerbread.

Because we’d had so many wonderful experiences with Applied Imagination and the amazing structures they’d created for our Biltmore Gardens Railway displays, we asked if the artists could tackle this Christmas conundrum for us, using Jason’s model as a base for a gingerbread house that would be as long lasting as it was beautiful.

In September 2021, Stephanie Winters, Creative Director/Lead Sculptor, and Ava Roberts, Assistant Sculptor, of Applied Imagination finished their version of America’s Largest Home®. The results were breathtaking, and our “gingerbread house” now takes place of pride in our Main Kitchen during Christmas at Biltmore.

Fun facts from the gingerbread construction project:

  • Time to complete: 1200 hours over the course of five months
  • Measurements: 78½” wide x 32” deep x 32” high (including spires)

Building materials

Detail of gingerbread house version of Biltmore House
Applied Imagination created wonderful details, right down to the beloved marble lions at the Front Door of Biltmore House
  • Gingerbread Cookie Base
    • Tile grout mixed with Mod Podge® Matte and sponged onto 3/16” Gatorboard shapes
  • Wavy Shingled Roof
    • Wooden fan handles covered with tile grout and Mod Podge
  • Windows and Mullions
    • Window panes created with modeling dowel rods and architectural modeling materials (bass wood).
    • Windows created with poured casting resin sprinkled with clear glitter.
    • Textured windows (exterior staircase) have the addition of large, granular, clear beads mixed with resin.
    • Windows backed with gold shimmer paper to resemble the effect of being lit within.
  • Spires on Roof, Staircase Facade, Window Tops, Railing Tops
    • Antique glass headpins; large and small twist shapes in dark green, light green, purple, and pale ice; top spires painted antique gold
  • Piped Icing Shapes
    • All piped icing that makes up the majority of detail on the Biltmore House model was created completely by hand with Liquid Sculpey® (polymer clay). Shapes were formed using latex cake-decorating molds.
  • Snow Blanket
    • Spackling paste to create a base for sculpting and building shapes
    • Clear glass diamond glitter was sprinkled on wet paste to give snow drifts and mounds the look of fresh powder
  • Trees and Bushes
    • Dry floral design cones and spheres, further sculpted by hand to resemble pine tree shapes. Finished with paint and landscape modeling greenery.
  • Biltmore Lions
    • Paper clay and white acrylic paint with a small amount of gold tinted glitter/mica.
  • Garland
    • Thin and flexible English faux pine rope
    • Faux miniature boxwood/bay leaf roping
    • Feathery evergreen (lions’ necks)
    • Floral accents: faux red and gold berries; red velvet and gold-backed ribbon hand-fashioned into miniature bows
Gingerbread house in the Main Kitchen at Biltmore
The gingerbread house takes place of pride in the Main Kitchen during Christmas at Biltmore

Candy decorations

  • Faux Candy Decorations
    • Resin gumdrops and gummies (edge and facade details)
    • Sculpey clay chocolate swirls (base of the spires)
    • Chocolate shavings, glass glitter (soot/embers in chimney tops, base of lions, base of spires, front facade details)
    • Resin chocolate pretzels (fancy railings)
    • Resin chocolate chips (spires inset)
    • Small sugared gum drops, glass/plastic headpins (main detail throughout in purple, orange, yellow, red, green)
    • Variety of candy colored balls of various sizes (beads and headpins)
    • Sculpey clay swirled balls (small detail elements)
  • Cut Cinnamon Sticks
    • Facade details, small railings, wrought iron base for spires
  • Peppermint Sticks
    • Small (vintage paper hand-rolled on dowel rods)
    • Large sticks on main facade (decorative paper on dowel rods)
    • Peppermint balls on main facade (vintage spun cotton and thread)
  • Gumballs, Gingerballs, Round Bulb Ornaments
    • Green and red faux floral berries, gold- and silver-painted floral berries, painted beads

Celebrate Christmas at Biltmore

The Banquet Hall Tree: A Christmas at Biltmore Tradition
The Banquet Hall Christmas Tree is a favorite holiday tradition

To see this marvelous piece of eye candy displayed in the Main Kitchen, make reservations for a holiday visit during our annual Christmas at Biltmore celebration, November 3, 2023–January 7, 2024, in Asheville, NC.

George Vanderbilt: A Thoughtful Wine Collector

George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful wine collector, whether at home or abroad.

Taste and style were two hallmarks of his life, and both are reflected throughout Biltmore—his private country estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Visually stunning and technologically advanced, Biltmore House is a testament to Vanderbilt’s vision.

A Thoughtful Collector

Discover Biltmore white wines for outdoor entertaining
George Vanderbilt’s legacy of gracious hospitality lives on with Biltmore wines handcrafted from grapes grown in the estate’s own vineyard or selected from trusted west coast partners

George Vanderbilt was well-known as a collector, travelling the world gathering art, sculpture, furniture, and books. He also enjoyed wine, frequently purchasing it abroad and bringing cases of wine back to his home in Asheville to share with his family and friends.

Vanderbilt’s gracious hospitality was legendary, and a visit to his home was characterized by the best in comfort, entertainment, and attention to every detail, including the wines that graced his table and delighted his guests.

Man in a suit examining the library of Biltmore wines in the Winery
Wine cellars don’t have to be stuffy–evaluate your space and your lifestyle for options!

Wine research at Biltmore

In 2008, wine consultant John Hailman visited Biltmore to look at Vanderbilt’s wine cellar and the vintages stored there, and to review wine-related notes and correspondence from the Vanderbilt era.

Having been a wine columnist for the Washington Post, with his work nationally syndicated for more than a decade, Hailman is considered one of the foremost authorities on wine. In 2006, he wrote Thomas Jefferson on Wine, an examination of Jefferson’s influence as a wine connoisseur and collector in the early days of the nation.

Archival Bltmore wine receipt
A portion of an archival receipt for a wine and spirits order to be delivered to Biltmore House

Through Hailman’s research, we now have a better understanding of George Vanderbilt as a thoughtful wine collector. Archival correspondence, notes, and receipts suggest that Vanderbilt was well-versed in wines, purchasing those he enjoyed sharing.

Vanderbilt was also a practical buyer, preferring high quality vintages at reasonable prices, such as wines from Chateau Pontet-Canet which is still in business today in the Bordeaux wine region of France.

“Good enough for anybody”

Celebrate with Biltmore sparkling wines
Our handcrafted Biltmore bubbles make any occasion more special

Vanderbilt’s trusted wine purveyor Alexander Morten was known for his excellent taste and recommendations, and would have been a worthy provisioner for the Vanderbilt lifestyle. George Vanderbilt relied upon Morten’s suggestions and his outstanding contacts in the industry. In one letter dated February 14, 1914, Morten advises Vanderbilt on a particular vintage for an upcoming ball, suggesting:

“As to Champagne for a ball:- I can strongly recommend Pierlot 1906. This is a good, sound vintage wine, price $32.50, and is used almost exclusively by many of our customers for dances and entertainments of that ilk. If you have the slightest hesitation, however, I can recommend Pol Roger 1906; price $36. We also have Krug, Clicquot and Pommery of 1906 and 1904; but these are more expensive. The Pierlot is good enough for anybody.”

This letter is particularly poignant, as George Vanderbilt passed away in Washington, DC, just a month after he received this letter. We don’t know what type of ball the Vanderbilts might have been planning, but the preparations were apparently abandoned after Mr. Vanderbilt’s unexpected death.

“You have only to examine the amount and variety of crystal and stemware in the Biltmore collection—glasses for every possible occasion and type of beverage—to see the importance of wines and spirits as an integral part of dining and entertaining,” said Lauren Henry, curator of interpretation.

Crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt's monogram
Delicate crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt’s monogram on the Banquet Hall table

“Knowing that George Vanderbilt collected and enjoyed wine—and served it to his guests—forges a very real and logical connection between the Vanderbilts and the wine business their descendants have developed and continue to nurture today,” Lauren said.

Savor Biltmore Wines

Two couples enjoying white wine outdoors
Enjoy Biltmore wines while visiting the estate or savor them at home

Be sure to visit Biltmore’s Winery and enjoy a complimentary tasting of some of our most popular wines. Relax and enjoy our wines by the bottle or glass at the adjacent Wine Bar, then stock up on your favorite vintages at estate shops or online.

Featured blog image: John Singer Sargent portrait of George Vanderbilt paired with a selection of our fine Biltmore wines, including our Antler Hill series

Moving into America’s Largest Home®

Moving into America’s Largest Home would be a work in progress for George Vanderbilt as Biltmore House was not quite finished for his October 1895 move-in date.

Have you ever moved into a custom-designed new home? If you have, you know that the punch list never seems quite buttoned-up on moving day. Little details seem to linger even after the last box is unpacked—and it was no different for George Vanderbilt’s magnificent new house in Asheville, North Carolina.

A ground-breaking project

Archival image of America's Largest Home under construction
Archival image of Biltmore House under construction, May 8, 1894

Ground was broken in 1889, and during the course of the six years that followed, George Vanderbilt remained in close touch with Biltmore House lead architect Richard Morris Hunt, supervising architect Richard Sharp Smith, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Hunt passed away in August 1895, just months before Vanderbilt moved in, but Sharp Smith was able to complete the plan.

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

When he came to stay for periods of time at the construction site, George Vanderbilt stayed in what was called the Brick Farm House, a property he purchased from Asheville entrepreneur B. J. Alexander in 1889. Sharp Smith renovated the property, which included a mill and farm buildings, so that it was comfortable enough to accommodate Vanderbilt and his project team when they visited to check on the estate’s progress.

In the months leading up to the official opening, carpentry and cabinetry were among the final touches. With George Vanderbilt’s move-in scheduled for October, archival information shows that Richard Sharp Smith hired 16 additional cabinetmakers to speed up progress.

Archival photo of some of the contractors who built America's Largest Home
Biltmore House contractors, including Richard Sharp Smith (second from right), circa 1892

Finishing the last details of America’s Largest Home

On his first night at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt slept in the Bachelors’ Wing because his bedroom wasn’t finished. There was another issue, too, described in the papers of Frederick Law Olmsted:

When the water was turned on in the stable… to get ready for the servants to occupy, it was found that it would not go up to the second floor where the servants [sic] rooms are.

The problem was soon fixed and water flowed a few days later, but there were still a few outstanding details to hammer out. With family and friends expected for Christmas 1895, Sharp Smith hired an additional 10 cabinetmakers in December. While almost all the carpentry was finally completed in 1896, additional cabinetry projects extended into 1897.

Front façade of America's Largest Home
View of front façade of Biltmore House

Plan your visit today

Today, when you visit Biltmore Estate, you can see first-hand the incredible attention to detail that went into every aspect of America’s Largest Home. But as you might imagine, even this architectural masterpiece was subject to the challenges faced in any home-building project. By seeing the vision of the project through until the end, George Vanderbilt and his design and construction team created a landmark with enduring quality that we still enjoy today, more than 125 years later.

Ask a Biltmore Curator

While our curators work mostly behind the scenes, their efforts are evident throughout every inch of Biltmore House and beyond. A vital part of preserving the estate, this team is responsible for researching, documenting, and interpreting the collections, historic interiors, and history.

Our curators have tons of fascinating information to share, so we’ve put together a round-up of some of our most frequently asked questions for them to answer.

The Biltmore House Guest Book is an invaluable resource for our curators as it tells who visited and when. Shown here is a page from December 22, 1895, which includes signatures from many Vanderbilt family members who visited for the first Christmas at Biltmore.
The Biltmore House Guest Book is an invaluable resource for our curators as it tells who visited and when. Shown here is a page from December 22, 1895, which includes signatures from many Vanderbilt family members who visited for the first Christmas at Biltmore.

Did any royalty ever come to visit Biltmore?

“The Biltmore House Guest Book includes signatures from an assortment of noblemen and women including barons, baronets, an earl, a countess, and a baroness. No true royalty visited Biltmore, however, until His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, came here for his architectural school which took place at Biltmore House in July of 1996. If you count American royalty, presidential visits to Biltmore have included William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

The recently restored Oak Sitting Room, the living space that connects Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedrooms, was an extensive project that took our Museum Services team nearly 15 years to complete.
The recently restored Oak Sitting Room, the living space that connects Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedrooms, was an extensive project that took our Museum Services team nearly 15 years to complete.

How many rooms in Biltmore House have not been restored?

All of the rooms on the main tour and a few rooms on the behind-the-scenes tours have been restored over the last 50 years. I would estimate that there are close to 100 rooms that have never been restored, and there are many rooms that were restored that need revisiting since we continue to make new discoveries in our research. Our most recent restoration project was the Oak Sitting Room.” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator

Associate curator Lauren Henry inspects books in the Biltmore House Library. Topics in George Vanderbilt’s personal collection range in subject from American and English fiction to world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture.
Associate curator Lauren Henry inspects books in the Biltmore House Library. Topics in George Vanderbilt’s personal collection range in subject from American and English fiction to world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture.

How many books are in the Library, and how many are first editions?

“Today, there are 10,285 books housed in the Biltmore House Library. Because many first editions are not labeled as such, it is hard to know which are without researching every single one. One of my favorites is a first edition of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859).” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

One of the most eye-catching works in the Biltmore House collection is Ignacio Zuloaga’s Rosita. Displayed in the Louis XV Hallway, this piece represents George Vanderbilt’s interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity at the end of the 19th century.
One of the most eye-catching works in the Biltmore House collection is Ignacio Zuloaga’s Rosita. Displayed in the Louis XV Hallway, this piece represents George Vanderbilt’s interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity at the end of the 19th century.

Is there a list of all the paintings in Biltmore House?

“Yes, the collections managers use a database of every object in Biltmore House and this includes 213 paintings on display and in storage. The paintings on view are primarily located on the first floor and in common rooms on the second and third floors.” – Lori Garst, Associate Curator

If you look closely to the right of the fireplace, you’ll see that Renoir’s painting Child with An Orange does not actually hang on the wall of the Breakfast Room, but rather on a hidden door used by household staff.
If you look closely to the right of the fireplace, you’ll see that Renoir’s painting Child with An Orange does not actually hang on the wall of the Breakfast Room, but rather on a hidden door used by household staff.

Are there any secret rooms, doorways, or passageways in Biltmore House?

“Though none are truly ‘secret,’ there are many hidden passageways and concealed doors in Biltmore House. Some were designed for the convenience of guests, while others gave domestic staff a way to move about without disrupting the household.” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator & Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag
George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag

What is the story behind the chess set in the Library?

“The chess set is one of my favorite objects because it reflects George Vanderbilt’s studious personality. Can you imagine receiving Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set for your 21st birthday? After Napoleon’s death, his heart was sealed in an urn and temporarily placed on this chess table!” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator

Framed tapestry displayed on the first landing of the Grand Staircase in Biltmore House
Woven in rich reds, blues, and golds, this 15th-16th century tapestry depicts the Christ child with the Madonna and Saint Anne.

What is the oldest piece in the Biltmore House collection?

“It is impossible to say what the oldest object in Biltmore House is with certainty, as George Vanderbilt collected many antiques, but one of the oldest is the biblical tapestry displayed by the Grand Staircase which dates to the late 15th or early 16th century.” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

After remaining a mystery for many years, a curator discovered that most of the brightly colored murals in the Halloween Room were drawn directly from the set designs of an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris.
After remaining a mystery for many years, our curators discovered that most of the brightly colored murals in the Halloween Room were drawn directly from the set designs of an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a curator?

“For me, the most rewarding part of being a curator is the never-ending process of discovery. Just when you think you ‘know’ an historical figure, you find something that reveals another layer of significance. My favorite discovery was the unexpected history of the Halloween Room.” – Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation