Comparing Biltmore House to Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition ended September 7, 2020. Please enjoy this archived content.

Did you know everyday life in Biltmore House bore striking resemblance to fictional life at Downton Abbey? In honor of Biltmore playing host to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, let’s take a look at some of the similarities—and differences—between these two grand homes.

Archival image of estate workers during harvest season at Biltmore, ca. 1900

A Working Estate

The greatest overarching parallel between Downton Abbey and Biltmore is the idea of both as working estates overseen by one man and his family. While Downton Abbey is set in England, George Vanderbilt’s vision for Biltmore was heavily influenced by the model of similar English estates. There were numerous tenant families working the land, and the Vanderbilts grew to know each of these families closely over the years.

Servants' Hall in Biltmore House
The Servants’ Hall in Biltmore House, where staff could relax and socialize

Household Staff

Within the houses, the standards of domestic service were much the same between the Crawleys and the Vanderbilts. While there were some differences in the ways American and English households were managed, the housekeeper played a major role. At Biltmore, this role was primarily filled by Mrs. King; for Downton Abbey, it’s Mrs. Hughes—both known for their massive house key rings and calm demeanors.

Detail of electrical switchboard in the sub-basement of Biltmore House

Technological Advancements

Though numerous characters within the Downton Abbey household, both above stairs and below, expressed concerns about advancements in technology, they were widely embraced at Biltmore. Even in 1895, Biltmore House was constructed with many of these in mind: telephones, elevators, forced heating, mechanical refrigeration, an electric servant call bell system, electric lighting, and more. 

Restoring the wallcovering of the Louis XV Room in Biltmore House
Restoring the wallcovering of the Louis XV Room in Biltmore House

Preserving the Home

One of the primary themes in Downton Abbey is the importance Lord Grantham and his family place on preserving and maintaining their home for succeeding generations. This has also been a prime concern at Biltmore for George Vanderbilt’s descendants. Today, the estate is owned and overseen by the fourth and fifth generations of the family.

Join us November 8, 2019 through April 7, 2020 to experience Downton Abbey like never before—amid George Vanderbilt’s magnificent estate—with Downton Abbey: The Exhibition at Biltmore.

Feature image: Biltmore House, ca. 1910

Keeping Track of Biltmore Gardens Railway

Twice a year, Biltmore’s Conservatory is home to Biltmore Gardens Railway, an elaborate G-scale railway with locomotives and rail cars 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. 

Scale model replica of Biltmore House inside Conservatory.

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. 

Woman gathering seed pods from the Italian Garden pool.

6 – The number of separate railroad tracks running through the Conservatory carrying locomotives and rail cars 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.

Overhead trellis carries scale model train through the Conservatory.

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

Biltmore Gardens Railway: A Fun-For-All-Ages Experience

In the summer of 2019, Biltmore Gardens Railway brought 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 featured replica structures fashioned from all-natural materials, largely collected from the estate, to offer a one-of-a-kind, fun-for-all-ages experience.

Enjoy a special 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.”

*Feature image: Recreation of Biltmore Passenger Station; this structure is on display in both the Conservatory and Antler Hill Village.

A Desirable Destination for Romance

Even before construction of Biltmore House was officially completed, George Vanderbilt offered world-class hospitality—and a desirable destination for romance—to family and friends who visited his estate.

Destined for romance

In honor of the romantic traditions of Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at some of the very first Biltmore visitors: newlyweds Jay and Adele Burden.

Adele was George Vanderbilt’s niece, the daughter of his sister Emily Vanderbilt Sloane. She had been a frequent visitor to the estate, even during early stages of construction, and Adele’s love of Biltmore is evident in her diary entries.

George Vanderbilt, the Burdens, and Cedric the Saint Bernard crossing the river on Biltmore's ferry

George Vanderbilt, the Burdens, and Cedric the Saint Bernard crossing the river on Biltmore’s ferry

Words in a diary

Welcoming in the new year of 1894 at Biltmore nearly a year before the house officially opened, Adele wrote:

“Only a word to begin the New Year with. I made my good resolutions last night sitting over a little dying fire. The window was wide open, and the cold night air blew in. The stars were all out, and there was a hushed stillness everywhere as if something were expected. It has been so gloriously beautiful out today; it made me feel wild.”

A courtship begins

In fact, 1894 would be a significant year for Adele. She was courted by a handsome young man, James “Jay” Abercrombie Burden, whose family owned the Burden Iron works, one of the most successful such firms in the country.

Adele had no shortage of suitors, but with his clean-cut good looks, Harvard education, and superior athleticism, Jay soon won Adele’s heart. He proposed in December and the couple married on June 6, 1895, in what was reported to be one of the costliest American weddings held at the time.

Jay and Adele Burden on the steps of River Cliff Cottage at Biltmore

Happy honeymoon!

Of all the possible destinations far and wide, the Burdens chose Biltmore as the place to begin their honeymoon. They spent the first 10 days of their married life at River Cliff Cottage, which was built at the same time Biltmore House was under construction.

Just before her wedding, Adele wrote:

“The next day we go down to Biltmore to spend ten days in the dear little house Uncle George has given to us. How perfect it will be!”

Adele and her husband Jay were the first in a long line of friends and family welcomed as guests at Biltmore to experience what would become George Vanderbilt’s legendary hospitality.

Experience Biltmore Estate as destination for romance

Couple with sparkling wine by a fireplace
Celebrate your romantic occasions at Biltmore

Join us to experience the rich history of hospitality and romance at Biltmore Estate, located in Asheville, NC.

Whether you’re visiting for Valentine’s Day or simply want to shake off winter’s chill while enjoying an exciting glimpse into the past, the estate is always a great destination for romance!

Featured image: George Vanderbilt and Cedric the St. Bernard with newlyweds Adele and James Burden at Biltmore

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt’s Visit to Japan

Time travel with us to explore George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan that began on September 1, 1892.

George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan

Just as visitors do today, Vanderbilt and his cousin, Clarence Barker, toured countless temples and other cultural sites during their visit to Japan. But they apparently worked in some shopping as well, as Biltmore’s archives indicate.

Ni-o guardians, carved wood. Edo period (1603-1868).

Like most of us, George Vanderbilt purchased souvenirs to remind him of the fascinating places he visited. Unlike us, however, he had a 250-room home under construction with plenty of space for accessories!

Perceptions of other places

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Nagasaki, Takabato Island. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how “foreign” Japan seemed to Americans at the end of the 1800s. The country had been closed to most Westerners for 200 years, only opening somewhat to trade beginning in the 1850s.

In Vanderbilt’s time, Japan was viewed as a place untouched by the west’s industrialization and modernization. Popular literature of the time evoked a far-off land where feudal traditions persisted and its people lived a simpler life.

Netsuke souvenirs from George Vanderbilt's trip to Japan
Carved netsuke, originally used as toggles on kimonos

To many Americans, Japan and its culture was exotic and rooted in tradition, offering a blend of spirituality and aesthetic beauty. To George Vanderbilt, deeply interested in history, the arts, and collecting, the allure must have been irresistible.

A far-east adventure

Invitation to Emperor of Japan's birthday celebration, 1892.
Invitation to Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration, 1892

The trip itself was an adventure. Vanderbilt and Barker—one of his favorite traveling companions—had just returned from Spain when an invitation arrived to attend the Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration. Soon after, they packed their trunks and, on September 1, 1892, embarked on the first leg of a 10-week itinerary.

First, they accompanied Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt to Chicago to see his preliminary work on the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Photo of George Vanderbilt's cousin Clarence Barker
Clarence Barker, George Vanderbilt’s cousin and frequent travel companion, ca. 1890

From there, the pair continued westward, stopping in Yellowstone National Park at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. Upon reaching San Francisco, they boarded ship for the week-long journey to Yokohama to begin their exploration of Japanese culture and customs—and evidently, quite a bit of shopping!

Shopping for souvenirs

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Ceremonial samurai swords with decorative display stand

Antiques shops and art dealers were obviously part of the itinerary, as Vanderbilt eventually shipped 32 cases of art and decorative objects back to America. Among his purchases were:

  • Satsuma ceramics, including a koro or ceremonial incense burner, for $85—a significant sum 122 years ago
  • Two suits of samurai armor along with spears and swords
  • Netsuke—miniature sculptures originally used as kimono toggles
  • Bronze sculptures
  • Lacquer boxes and sculptures
  • Varied screens and fans
  • Bamboo curtains
  • 1,000 festive paper lanterns

Time travel today at Biltmore

Aerial view of Biltmore House
Aerial view of Biltmore House and the Italian Garden

Although this year has presented some unique travel challenges–especially for large-scale journeys like George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan, we hope you’ll consider Biltmore in your current and future plans. It’s an excellent place to “time travel” into our storied past!

If you’d prefer to visit without leaving the comfort of home, be sure to enjoy virtual tours of the estate, or indulge in a bit of shopping in our online store.

Featured image: Pagoda at Horinja-Nana. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892

Richard Sharp Smith: A Western North Carolina Legacy

Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt collaborated with Richard Sharp Smith to create America’s Largest Home® as well as other buildings on the estate and in the surrounding area.

Among others, Smith remained in the Asheville area and contributed their talents to many homes and buildings around the region. Let’s take a look at Smith’s work in the Asheville and Western North Carolina.

After receiving architectural training in England, Richard Sharp Smith came to America in 1882, joining Richard Morris Hunt’s New York office in 1886. A pivotal point in his career came when he was assigned as Biltmore’s supervising architect, responsible for overseeing construction onsite. Following Hunt’s death in August 1895, Smith became Vanderbilt’s lead architect.

All Souls’ Church, designed by Richard Morris Hunt with construction overseen by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. late 1895–early 1896
All Souls’ Church, designed by Richard Morris Hunt with construction overseen by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. late 1895–early 1896

Once this major project was completed, Richard Sharp Smith started his own firm in Asheville, raising a family and becoming one of the area’s most popular architects until his death in 1924. At the time of his passing, the Asheville Citizen said:

“After long years of residence in Asheville, Smith has done more than any other person to beautify the city. He came to Asheville just at a time when he was needed, and was really a pioneer architect in the community…

Smith worked in styles ranging from Arts and Crafts to Tudor to Colonial Revival. And not surprisingly, many of these homes and buildings are reminiscent of Biltmore House and other structures on the estate.

Biltmore Village Post Office, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1903
Biltmore Village Post Office, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1903

“Two beautiful examples of Richard Sharp Smith’s residential style—the Annie West House at 189 Chestnut Street in Chestnut Hill and the Charles Jordan House at 296 Montford Avenue—include pebbledash stucco, archways, and rooflines, much like his buildings in Biltmore Village,” said Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation.

In downtown Asheville, Smith was the architect for the E.W. Grove Office at 324 Charlotte Street, the Elks Home—also known as Hotel Asheville—at 55 Haywood Street, and the Young Men’s Institute on Eagle Street. Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church on Charlotte Street, Grace Episcopal on Merrimon Avenue, and All Souls’ Church in Biltmore Village are also his creations.

Young Men’s Institute in downtown Asheville, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1893
Young Men’s Institute in downtown Asheville, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, ca. 1893

Smith’s work is evident throughout Western North Carolina, including homes in Flat Rock and courthouses for Henderson, Jackson, and Madison counties.

“Many of the buildings that define Asheville today were designed by Richard Sharp Smith,” said Leslie. “It’s enjoyable to see these structures and worth taking the time to notice the arches, tile work, pebbledash, and architectural features that relate to Biltmore House.”

Restoring Our Roof: North Tower Ridge Cap Project

In 2015, several leaks in Biltmore House made it clear the time had come for restoring our roof.

We brought in Huber & Associates, a firm of historical and restoration roofing experts, to remove the original North Tower Ridge Cap from America’s Largest Home®.

Restoring the roof of Biltmore House
A worker removes a section of the original ridge cap under the watchful eye of a grotesque carving

After carefully removing each section and taking it back to their Florida workshop, the team used the original pieces as models to build an all-new ridge cap for restoring our roof.

This seven-month project shows our commitment to our continuing mission of preserving Biltmore. Here’s how the work unfolded:

April 2015

The crew arrived at Biltmore and spent several days disassembling the North Tower Ridge Cap and preparing the pieces for travel.

A worker removes a section of the original copper roofing
A member of Huber & Associates carefully removes an original section of the North Tower Ridge Cap

May 2015

Three different weights of copper were discovered — 18, 20, and 24 ounce — as well as a leaf from one of the vertical panels that still had some of the original gold leaf intact!

Restoring the roof panels
An original roof panel with George Vanderbilt’s monogram still shows traces of gold leaf

About 900 individual pieces arrived in Florida, where they were inventoried and analyzed.

June 2015

Scaffolding in place to access North Tower Ridge Cap restoration on roof of Biltmore House
Scaffolding in place to access North Tower Ridge Cap restoration on roof of Biltmore House

Meanwhile, work continued at Biltmore to repair any underlying leaks in the roof, and a temporary ridge cap was created to prevent further damage while the replacement was being built in Florida. 

August 2015

Restoring elements of the roof of Biltmore House
Exact reproductions of decorative copper components from the North Tower Ridge Cap

The crew at Huber & Associates created separate casts for stamping, pouring, and forming new molds to replicate the original pieces.

October 2015

Restoring our roof at Biltmore House
Huber & Associates returned to install the replicated pieces of the ridge cap

Huber & Associates finished their painstaking replication of the North Tower Ridge Cap and brought all the pieces (original and new) back to Biltmore for installation. The photo above shows one of the new copper sections being installed next to an original portion of the ridge cap with its distinctive green patina.

November 2015

Installation of the new North Tower Ridge Cap began and the project was completed in late November. The original pieces were placed in storage.

The new copper ridge cap is a reddish-brown color that looks much like it did when Biltmore House was completed in 1895. It is being allowed to acquire a natural patina over time rather than trying to match it by modern methods.

Restoring our roof with new copper sections
A worker installs a new section of the North Tower Ridge Cap

Biltmore was honored to receive the Griffin Award for Restoration—given annually by The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County for projects that accurately depict the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time—for this preservation initiative.

We are grateful to our amazing employees and to Huber & Associates for all their hard work. 

Spring is a Special Time to Honor Olmsted

Spring is a special time to honor Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore’s landscape designer.

Bench by Biltmore's Bass Pond
A quiet spot near the Bass Pond highlights Olmsted’s landscape design

When designing Biltmore’s historic gardens and grounds, Olmsted knew that spring would set the stage for all the glorious seasons to come.

Today, the meticulously maintained landscape still stand as a timely tribute to Olmsted’s springtime birthday.

Born April 26, 1822, Olmsted is known as “the father of American landscape architecture,” with premiere projects including Central Park in New York City and the grounds of California’s Stanford University.

Olmsted designed this lagoon to reflect Biltmore House
The Lagoon is one of Olmsted’s many landscape designs for Biltmore

“There are many beautiful American parks and landscapes that reflect Olmsted’s genius,” said Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture, “but it’s the design for Biltmore that is considered Olmsted’s masterpiece.”

According to Parker, Olmsted had already worked on several Vanderbilt family projects when George Vanderbilt approached him in 1888 for advice on the North Carolina property he’d already purchased.

“Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish,” Vanderbilt reportedly told Olmsted.

Olmsted’s frank assessment

Azaleas along the Approach Road in spring
The Approach Road to Biltmore House is lined with azaleas each spring

“Olmsted was frank in his assessment, advising Vanderbilt that the soil seemed to be generally poor, with most of the good trees having been culled already,” Parker said. “He noted that the topography was unsuitable for creating the type of park scenery that characterized the English country estates that Vanderbilt admired.”

Olmsted planned colorful blooms for spring in Biltmore's Shrub Garden
Colorful spring blooms in Biltmore’s Shrub Garden

Plans for both the house and landscape changed in 1889 when Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt toured France together and the scale of Biltmore House and its surrounding gardens expanded.

Olmsted wrote that he was nervous, not sure how to “merge stately architectural work with natural or naturalistic landscape work,” but Olmsted biographer Witold Rybczynki says that the landscape architect achieved something completely original at Biltmore: the first combination of French and English landscape designs.

White wisteria blooming in Biltmore's Walled Garden
White wisteria blooming in the Walled Garden

“You can see Olmsted’s creativity and skill in the transitions between Biltmore’s formal and natural gardens, and his use of native plants, small trees and large shrubs, and color and texture year-round,” said Parker. 

Now that Biltmore welcomes 1.7 million guests each year, the historic gardens and grounds must be protected and preserved as carefully as Biltmore House and all other original parts of the estate.

Kids in Biltmore's Azalea Garden
Guests of all ages love discovering Biltmore’s “outdoor rooms” like the Azalea Garden

“In addition to the impact of so many visitors, the landscape has changed and matured over the past century,” said Parker, “and the challenge for today’s landscaping team lies in determining what Olmsted intended.”

Landscaping crew at work in Biltmore's Walled Garden
Landscaping crews at work to carry on Olsted’s vision for Biltmore

“The team uses archival resources such as early plans, original plant lists, letters of correspondence, weekly reports written during the construction of the estate, and information about Olmsted’s design philosophies to help them preserve the landscape style while remaining true to Olmsted’s vision,” Parker noted.

Plan your visit this spring

Prepare to be dazzled as the splendor of spring unfolds across Biltmore’s historic gardens and grounds and thousands of blossoms create a tapestry of color across the estate.

Featured blog image: A couple enjoys a visit to the estate’s historic gardens and grounds

The Top 5 Most Naturally Romantic Spots on the Estate

Biltmore’s stunning natural beauty and long tradition of hospitality have earned it recognition as a romantic destination for more than a century. But with 8,000 acres to explore, it can be hard to pick the perfect must-see spot to share with your loved one. Take a look at our list of the top five most naturally romantic locations on the estate.

Tea House

Strategically set on the far west corner of the South Terrace, this secluded spot offers sweeping views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain vistas.Tea House

Tennis Lawn

Tucked away between the Pergola and the Shrub Garden is the Tennis Lawn, an often overlooked “outdoor room” with a fairy-tale view of America’s Largest Home®.Tennis Lawn

Conservatory

Indoor enchantment awaits in Biltmore’s Conservatory, a private tropical oasis that houses a wide variety of exotic plants beneath its grand glass roof.Conservatory

Bass Pond Waterfall

An easy stroll down our Azalea Garden path leads to this rewarding view of the Bass Pond Waterfall—a picturesque backdrop for many Biltmore proposals.Bass Pond Waterfall

Shores of the Lagoon

Perfect for a picnic or a pleasant stroll, the shores of the Lagoon offer a number of quiet, cozy spots that have a marvelous view of Biltmore House in the distance.Lagoon

Biltmore is an ideal place to spend special time with your sweetheart. Plan your visit today.

Image credits
Feature image: Stephanie Wilson
Tea House image: Yu Lin Hsu
Tennis Lawn image: Jason Rosa
Conservatory image: The Biltmore Company
Bass Pond image: Breanoh Lafayette-Brooks
Lagoon image: Gary Horne

Biltmore Furniture Conservator is a Desk Detective

Although her day-to-day responsibilities may include anything from cleaning 100-year-old china to inhibiting biologic growth on outdoor statuary, when Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator, tells you she has a desk job, she means it literally.

Desk detective

Biltmore furniture conservator is a desk detective
Photo of the desk paired with some of its component parts, including six of the eight legs

Biltmore’s Museum Services team has been working for several years to return the Oak Sitting Room to its original appearance during the Vanderbilt era of 1895-1914.

Like detectives, team members carefully sift through photographs, letters, and other details for clues to the furnishings and objects that were found in the room originally.

Historic details

One prominent item that will be displayed in the Oak Sitting Room is a massive desk or bureau Mazarin, named for its association with Cardinal Mazarin, a chief minister to Louis XIV, the king of France in the seventeenth century.

This type of desk was developed in France in the mid-1600s and functioned as a writing table with drawers on either side of a kneehole.

Such furnishings were often decorated with intricate wood and brass marquetry in the style of Andre-Charles Boulle, a royal cabinetmaker to Louis XIV.

While thes desk is original to the Biltmore collection, itt only appears in archival photos dating from the 1930s when the house was first opened to the public.

Conservator's tools
A selection of tools needed for this project

A massive project takes shape

That’s where Genevieve’s expertise comes into play. “The desk was probably already an antique when George Vanderbilt purchased it,” Genevieve said. “When we began this project, the desk had been stored as separate pieces for many years. There are multiple layers of old repairs, from both before and after Vanderbilt used it.”

In addition to locating all the pieces, like the legs that were discovered in a drawer in the conservation lab and a bag of tiny brass shapes that had come off the desk over the years, Genevieve must be able to understand how earlier repairs were made, including the mix of adhesives that might have been used to reattach sections of delicate brass marquetry that have lifted or come loose from the desk’s elegantly veneered ebony surface.

Rubbings taken from pieces of brass
Rubbings are created from sections of brass and identified according to its original placement

Slow and steady progress

“We originally allowed two years to complete the repairs,” said Genevieve, “and three or four people have been working on the desk on and off during that time. We are re-gluing sections of brass and wood that are loose, and in cases where the brass or veneer is missing, we make templates and cut replacement pieces to fit.”

Pieces of brass marquetry for the desk
New brass marquetry shapes cut to fit the original desk

The original brass marquetry was also engraved in fine detail, adding depth to the design, but Genevieve says they will paint the lines rather than cutting them, to distinguish modern repairs from the original.

A decorative desk leg showing old and new brass marquetry
Desk leg shows contrast of newly repaired and polished design with original

“It’s important that we document everything we’ve done so that future conservators don’t have to wonder or guess,” Genevieve said. “Not knowing how or why something was done makes the repairs that much more difficult and time-consuming.”

Featured image: Genevieve Bieniosek carefully polishes the decorative brass marquetry on one of the desk’s eight legs