Biltmore Goes to Great Heights for Preservation

Biltmore goes to great heights for preservation, because our mission is to preserve the estate for the enjoyment of future generations.

This means that every aspect of Biltmore must be cleaned, inspected, repaired, and restored on a regular basis.

Great heights for preservation

Cleaning the Grand Staircase and Chandelier at Biltmore
Cleaning the Grand Staircase and its 4-story chandelier takes preservation to new heights!

It also means that our guests sometimes get amazing glimpses of the work that goes on behind the scenes in America’s Largest Home®.

Winter Garden woodwork

In September 2016, for example, Connie Dey, Housekeeping Supervisor, and members of her team utilized a 40-foot scaffold to clean the oak woodwork that surrounds and supports the glass ceiling in the Winter Garden.

Couple views Winter Garden in Biltmore House
The beautiful Winter Garden woodwork undergoes a deep cleaning every three years

Part of our ongoing preservation efforts, treating the wood that supports the glass takes place about every three years. Sun damage is evident closest to the top of the ceiling, which dates back to the late 1890s.

This area receive full sun for several hours on bright days. Making sure the wood stays moisturized is key to keeping it protected–sort of like applying sunscreen every three years.

Connie and her team vacuumed and wiped dirt away to ready the surfaces for an application of a special wood polish containing beeswax, carnauba wax, and orange oil. The entire project took about a month.

High standards of cleaning

Going to great heights for preservation includes cleaning the Banquet Hall
Staff members go to great heights to clean the Banquet Hall

While some projects like the Winter Garden ceiling are done every few years, Biltmore House itself gets a thorough deep cleaning each winter after Christmas at Biltmore ends.

“Winter is usually our quietest season,” said Connie Dey, “so it’s the perfect time to clean things without getting in the way. And visitors often enjoy watching the process–my team gets lots of questions from guests about how to clean their own homes!”

Our mission of preservation

Temple of Diana overlooking Biltmore House
Temple of Diana overlooking Biltmore House

Our mission to preserve Biltmore as a privately-owned, profitable, working estate emphasizes preservation first. Learn more about our efforts to preserve, restore, and conserve this National Historic Landmark with the help of our in-house conservation department.

Featured image: Connie Dey stretches over the Winter Garden to reach every inch of wood with her dust mop to prepare the wood for its moisturizing treatment 

Lights, Camera, Biltmore: A Magnificent Movie Location!

Lights, camera, Biltmore! Since the golden age of filmmaking, Biltmore has starred as a majestic backdrop for some unforgettable movies.

Biltmore House and the French Broad River in Asheville, NC, make a perfect movie location
West view of Biltmore House above the French Broad River near Asheville, NC

Although the estate was created to provide a restful retreat from the outside world, sometimes the bright lights and top stars of film and television come calling when they require a setting like no other.

A magnificent movie location

The appeal as a movie location is obvious: the estate includes Biltmore House–a majestic French Renaissance-style chateau that can easily be seen as a castle–plus acres of formal gardens and miles of rolling hills and scenery, all conveniently located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.

Here are five of Biltmore’s most notable big screen appearances:

The Swan

In this classic 1956 drama, actress Grace Kelly portrays a princess attempting to secure an advantageous marriage that will secure the throne taken from her family during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule.

Biltmore House appears extensively throughout the film as the exterior of Kelly’s palatial home with one particularly iconic scene taking place along the Lagoon and French Broad River.

Although it was not featured in the film, one of Biltmore’s most notable treasures is a game table and chess set once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Biltmore's Bass Pond Bridge, featured in The Last of the Mohicans, another movie shot at Biltmore.
Bass Pond Bridge, featured in The Last of the Mohicans

Last of the Mohicans

Producers of this 1992 drama starring Daniel Day Lewis were searching for locations that resembled the old-growth forests of the Catskill Mountains as they might have appeared at the beginning of the 19th century.

Luckily for Hollywood, Biltmore’s elaborate grounds were planned by Frederick Law Olmsted–the father of American landscape architecture–nearly 100 years earlier and included forest land and mature trees suitable for the producers’ cinematic needs.

In addition to the sweeping fields and forests, the movie features a scene in which a carriage crosses the estate’s signature red brick Bass Pond bridge designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt.

Last of the Mohicans movie trivia: when filming extended into the fall, the production crew used organic green paint in several locations to create the illusion of summer foliage.

Forrest Gump

With settings ranging from Greenbow, Alabama to the jungles of Vietnam, you may wonder how Biltmore was selected as a movie location in this beloved 1993 Tom Hanks classic.

During one scene where Forrest Gump is running across America, he was actually running along the road which leads to The Inn on Biltmore Estate and Antler Hill Village & Winery!

Richie Rich

In 1994, America’s Largest Home® served as the sprawling estate of the world’s richest comic book family.

Richie Rich featured many of interior shots of Biltmore House, and some rooms were left largely unaltered during filming–even paintings of Vanderbilt family members were prominently featured.

Although the estate does not feature the Rich family’s signature dollar-sign topiaries on the lawn or a Mount Rushmore-inspired family portrait looming over the gardens, this delightful comedy remains a family favorite for all ages.

Antler Hill Barn, one of several movie locations at Biltmore
Antler Hill Barn was one of the filming locations for the movie Hannibal

Hannibal

In the chilling sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, an ensemble cast, including Oscar-winning actors Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, and Gary Oldman, offered dramatic performances against the stunning backdrop of Biltmore.

Featuring the estate as the home of the reclusive Mason Verger, the thriller incorporated many different locations such as the arched Lodge Gate and the façade of Biltmore House, some of the grand rooms on the first floor, and several outlying buildings including Antler Hill Barn, which had not yet been restored at the time of filming.

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