A Tribute to the First Hostess of Biltmore

As the youngest of eight children, George Vanderbilt had a very close relationship with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, who became the first hostess of Biltmore.

After his father’s death in 1885, it was George who took on the task of caring for her, a task that played a significant role in the selection of Asheville as the location for Biltmore.

But before we delve into that, let’s take a look at a few pieces from our archives and collection that highlight their special mother-son bond.

The Elm Island Series

Photo of George Vanderbilt in 1873
Photograph of George Vanderbilt in 1873, two years after receiving The Elm Island Series from his mother

For George’s ninth birthday, his mother gave him three volumes from Reverend Elijah Kellogg, Jr.’s Elm Island Series and within each, she inscribed “George from Mama Nov. 14th 1871.” With titles like Boy Farmers of Elm Island and The Ark of Elm Island, one might guess that George had a taste for adventure, but the stories are also instructive.

Throughout the series, the main characters are faced with all sorts of ethical dilemmas that challenge their resolve to be upstanding young men, all while they navigate the treacherous waters of the West Indies.

Maria Louisa’s thoughtful gift helps to shed light on George’s boyhood interests as well as how deeply she valued and encouraged her children’s moral and intellectual growth.

The gift of a poem

An unsigned, undated poem was found tucked away among some of George’s personal papers. Bound with a ribbon, the three pages were composed in perfect penmanship. Upon reading the poem, it becomes apparent that it was from Maria Louisa, written for the occasion of George’s 21st birthday.

Through her carefully-crafted prose, Maria Louisa bids her youngest son to heed the call of work, to put right what he finds wrong:

To give a kindly word of cheer
To those who heavy burdens bear
Such work will bless, when nobly done.
And such work comes to every one.
He helps the age in which he lives,
Who does his best – and his best gives
To carry sunshine everywhere…

Just as his mother urged, George did, in fact, develop a sound moral compass and strong philanthropic sense, qualities that helped establish his original vision for Biltmore.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains

The first hostess of Biltmore: Maria Louisa Kissm Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt party near Biltmore Station; March 1891. Seated (L-R) are Margaret Bromley, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, Marguerite Shepard, and two unidentified women; unidentified person seated behind Mrs. Vanderbilt. Standing (L-R) are Margaret Shepard, possibly Frederick Vanderbilt, and George Vanderbilt.

In 1887, Maria Louisa visited Asheville with George, now her designated caretaker, amid growing concerns over her health.

While we have no archival documentation stating the exact nature of Maria Louisa’s health problems, we do know that Asheville’s mountain air was promoted as a curative for a variety of ailments.

As a result of their visit, George fell in love with the area’s landscape—as well as its supposed medicinal benefits to aid his dear mother—and he set into motion the process of acquiring land for his country retreat.

Family portraits by Sargent

Painting and mannequin of the first hostess of Biltmore for A Vanderbilt House Party -- The Gilded Age exhibition in 2019
(L – R) Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt by John Singer Sargent, 1888; mannequin representing Mrs. Vanderbilt with clothing recreated from that portrait for the 2019 A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age exhibition

Around that same time, George commissioned renowned artist John Singer Sargent to paint a portrait of his mother which is displayed in the Tapestry Gallery in Biltmore House, along with Sargent’s 1890 portrait of George himself.

In 1895, Sargent painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate’s landscape architect; both of these works can be seen in the Second Floor Living Hall.

Other Vanderbilt family portraits by Sargent include Mrs. Benjamin Kissam, George’s aunt, and Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon, one of George’s favorite cousins.

Yet it is Sargent’s portrait of Maria Louisa, titled Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt, that has been referred to as “one of Mr. Sargent’s greatest successes in portraiture.”

The first hostess of Biltmore

Detailed paper wig created for Maria Louisa Vanderbilt's mannequin
Detailed paper wig created for Maria Louisa Vanderbilt’s mannequin as part of our 2019 A Vanderbilt House Party exhibition

Maria Louisa visited Biltmore only three times—once while the house was still under construction—before she passed away. According to the Guest Book, she visited at Christmas 1895 when the house first opened, presiding as hostess, and then again the following May.

After her passing on November 6, 1896, in New York, condolences sent to George came from many, including his dear friend John Singer Sargent, among others.

And though Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt was only able to visit her youngest son’s visionary masterpiece a few times, she is remembered fondly as the first hostess of Biltmore.

Plan your Biltmore visit today

Today’s guests can admire the Sargent portrait of Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt to the left of the door into the Library.

Whether you’re planning a surprise for your own mother or simply looking forward to visiting America’s Largest Home, we invite you to join us soon.

Solving a Mystery in the Kitchen Pantry

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry at Biltmore took some detective work, but our Museum Services staff finally cracked the case!

“Among the many place settings of china in the Biltmore collection, one set had remained a mystery for many years,” said Lori Garst, Curatorial Assistant.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry
A cup, saucer, and plate from the collection of unidentified china

While the set was often referred to as “the Christmas china” because it was used during a 1931 holiday party, or “the employee china” because it was later used by staff members, the origin of the china—and its original purpose in Biltmore House—remained unclear.

Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt's monogram
Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt’s monogram

“Most of the china in Biltmore House was chosen by George Vanderbilt,” Lori said. “He selected an elegant white china with a burgundy and gold pattern, manufactured by both Minton and Spode-Copeland. It features his monogram and was used every day for family and guest meals.”

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china matches her father’s pattern but includes her own CSV monogram.

China featuring Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
While Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china closely matches the pattern her father selected for use in Biltmore House, their monograms distinguish one set from another

“We know that Edith Vanderbilt ordered Cornelia’s china in 1923,” said Lori. “And Mrs. Vanderbilt requested that Cornelia’s monogram be in the same style as her father’s.  I think it is sweet that her service blended in with the style her father had chosen.”

But what of the mysterious china collection on the shelves of the Kitchen Pantry in the Basement?

Museum Services began to look for clues about its history. While not as fine as the monogrammed Vanderbilt china, the gold-trimmed white pattern rimmed in crisp navy was definitely elegant and the amount of it suggested it had been purchased with a large number of people in mind.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry of Biltmore House
Trimmed in gold and rimmed in navy, this china is elegant, but more sturdy than the monogrammed family china in the collection

“We began with the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom of each piece,” said Lori. “Kniffen & Demarest Co. manufactured hotel and steam ship supplies, so the china was well-made and rather sturdy to stand up to use by guests and passengers in public settings.”

Biltmore conservator shows manufacturer's mark on the bottom of a china saucer
A conservator shows the Kniffen & Demarest Co. name on a piece of the so-called mystery china

While Museum Services was researching details for our Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition, they finally discovered written references to the china in conjunction with Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s wedding. 

“This set was also sometimes referred to as ‘the wedding china,’ but we never knew which of its three names was correct until recently,” said Lori. “The pieces came together at last, and we realized that this was the china that had been ordered for the buffet at Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil’s wedding breakfast.”

After the ceremony at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, the wedding guests and additional reception guests (500 people were invited to the ceremony and reception; another 2500 were invited only to the reception) arrived at Biltmore House.

John and Cornelia Cecil wedding party at breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House
John and Cornelia Cecil and their attendants at the wedding breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House

The newlyweds and their attendants were served at a table in the Winter Garden, and all the other guests enjoyed a buffet in the Banquet Hall, which featured this china.

As the years passed, the Kniffen & Demarest china was still used, but its original purpose was forgotten.

Today, it’s stored in the Kitchen Pantry where it receives the same care and attention as all the other china in Biltmore’s collection.

Enjoy your own Vanderbilt china service

China pattern based on an original set used by the Vanderbilt family
Porcelain tea set from the Vanderbilt Service

Whether you prefer a tea service or an entire place setting, this beautiful porcelain serveware is based on a Sevres pattern, circa 1888, that the Vanderbilt family once used at Biltmore. The original is on display in the Oak Sitting Room, but you can now enjoy the reproduction set in your own home.

An outdoor sculpture comes clean

An outdoor sculpture comes clean, with help from the expert conservators at Biltmore.

“From the iconic marble lions in front of Biltmore House to terra cotta figures, bronzes, and more, the estate features 37 pieces of outdoor sculpture and historic plaques,” said Kara Warren, Preventive Conservation Specialist.

Lion sculpture in front of Biltmore House
One of the two grand marble lion sculptures that guard the Front Door of Biltmore House

According to Kara, each piece of outdoor sculpture is carefully examined and photographed every six months to determine its “health” and what type of cleaning, stabilization, or repairs might be needed.

There are four sphinx sculptures atop stone pillars guarding the massive iron entry and exit gates through which guests pass to get their first glimpse of Biltmore House.

The sphinx appears in Egyptian and Greek mythology as a creature with a human head and torso–usually female–and the hindquarters of a lion. Egypt’s massive Great Sphinx of Giza sculpture is probably the best-known example in the world.

The following photos illustrate how important Biltmore’s process is and what a difference cleaning and preservation make:

An outdoor statue comes clean
This elegant sphinx guards the right side of the iron gates adjacent to Biltmore House

This sphinx is turned as if to watch the Approach Road while the sphinx on the opposite side of the gates looks toward Biltmore House. The sculpture was in need of a thorough cleansing to rid it of biological growth. Scaffolding was built around the sphinx so our conservators could clean it in place.

An outdoor sculpture comes clean
Conservators carefully cleaned half of the sphinx to show a remarkable difference

Biltmore’s preservation experts worked on half of the sculpture at a time to illustrate different stages of the cleaning process. Note how much detail is revealed when the dark biological growth was removed from the hindquarters of this sphinx.

One of four outdoor sphinx statues at Biltmore
The sphinx sculpture cleaned and restored to her full glory

After a thorough cleaning, the classic sphinx sculpture once again welcomes guests to Biltmore House in regal style. 

Learn more about our extensive process to document, clean, and preserve our outdoor sculpture collection.

Preserving Generations of Biltmore China and Crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal is a delicate job.

If you have fine china or crystal handed down in your family, you can imagine the care it takes to clean and preserve all the fragile place settings and glassware in the Biltmore collection!

Generations of fragile china and crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Gevevieve Bieniosek opens the china cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry

There are three generations of china and crystal stored in Biltmore House, and much of it is more than 100 years old.

These fragile pieces of the collection are stored in glass-front cabinets in the two-story Butler’s Pantry, and a comprehensive inventory system helps our conservators keep track of each object.

A unique identification number is assigned to every dish and glass, the location of the piece is recorded, and a digital photo of it is included in an inventory database.

Cleaning generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Genevieve cleans saucers that bear George Vanderbilt’s monogram, while the floral patterned plates on the left were chosen by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, for Biltmore’s centennial celebration in 1995

Cleaning all the china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry is a process that takes several weeks to complete. Each piece is dusted, wiped with a mixture of ethanol and water, and dried with lint-free cloths. All the objects are inspected for unstable cracks.

“Most of the cleaning and dusting is done in the Butler’s Pantry, because the less we move such fragile pieces, the better,” said Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator.

Preventing problems

Caring for a fragile part of Biltmore history--crystal glassware
Delicate crystal glassware with George Vanderbilt’s monogram in the Butler’s Pantry

During a recent cleaning project, the conservators noticed that some of the crystal on display was suffering from ‘glass disease.’ According to Genevieve, this is a condition where components in the glass structure leach out over time, causing the glass to appear cloudy.

“If left untreated,” Genevieve explained, “it will eventually create a fine network of cracks over the piece.”

The glasses were treated by washing them with mild soap and water, drying them with soft towels, and letting them air dry for several hours.

“By treating them now, we avoid permanent damage from the glass disease,” said Genevieve.

Improving the process of storing crystal and china

China cup with Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
This fluted cup and saucer bear Cornelia Vanderbilt’s monogram

In addition to careful cleaning of these fragile pieces, our conservators are always looking for ways to improve the overall process for preserving the china and crystal.

“We recently looked into different types of padding material to keep the china safer, and placed sheets of polyethylene foam between each dish. The material is very stable, so the sheets don’t break down and create chemicals that could harm the china,” noted Genevieve.

Take a behind-the-scenes guided tour

Biltmore House Butler's Pantry
The Butler’s Pantry, as seen on The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour

Plan a visit to America’s Largest Home today, and treat yourself to The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour. You’ll experience an in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore with this 60-minute guided tour, including rarely-seen areas such as the Butler’s Pantry as you hear fascinating stories of those who worked and lived on the estate in the Vanderbilts’ era.

Featured blog image: Biltmore conservators Genevieve Bieniosek and Renee Jolly clean china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry of Biltmore House