Behind Biltmore’s Hidden Doors

Designed both for aesthetics and hospitality, Biltmore’s hidden doors were designed to create a seamless appearance but provide access for staff providing service and convenience for guests.

Discover a few of the often overlooked doors throughout America’s Largest Home.

Concealed servant's entrance in the Breakfast Room
Concealed servant’s entrance in the Breakfast Room

When you’re in the Breakfast Room, your attention is bound to be drawn to the two Renoir portraits “Young Algerian Girl” and “Child with an Orange.” If you look just below “Child with an Orange,” you’ll notice the doorknob to the concealed door, designed to create a seamless appearance on the wall but allow servants to enter with hot meals.

Biltmore House Library Hidden Door
Doors in the Library lead to a passageway connected to the Second Floor Living Hall.

Have you ever wondered what’s behind the hidden doors on the top floor of the Library? Here’s your peek. The doors located on both sides of the overmantel lead to a passageway connected to the Second Floor Living Hall.

Hidden closet door in Mr. Vanderbilt's Bedroom in Biltmore House
Concealed closet door in Mr. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom

Every detail of the architecture at Biltmore was carefully considered. To avoid the break in symmetry that would be required by a door frame, closet doors were concealed in certain rooms, such as this one in Mr. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom.

Trap door in the floor of the Winter Garden
This hidden door in the floor of the Winter Garden in Biltmore House allowed plants to be brought back and forth from the Conservatory without disturbing guests.

Although early plans indicate that there was to be an elevator in the Winter Garden, one was never installed and instead, there’s a ladder. The door is covered in marble slabs and is rarely opened except to allow for ventilation in the employee break room below it in the summer.

This hidden door leads to the Smoking and Gun Rooms inside Biltmore House.

Be sure to look for these secret doors inside Biltmore House during your next visit, like this door designed for gentlemen to retire to the Smoking Room after a game of billiards.

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

Rosita: The Lady in Red

Rosita, by Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945), is one of the most eye-catching works in George Vanderbilt’s collection and represents his interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity in the last years of the 19th century.

Lounging on a divan draped with a mantón de manila (a flamenco dancer’s accessory), Rosita is wrapped in a white fringed shawl with a red floral flamenco skirt billowing out. She leans on her elbow and smiles, a huge red flower in her dark hair. Rosita is confident: a model at ease with being an object of beauty. So, how did this captivating woman come to stay permanently at Biltmore?

Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga, ca. 1925
Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga, ca. 1925

A celebrated artist

In 1913, Zuloaga, known as “The Great Basque,” was living in Paris where his reputation had grown since his first exhibition in 1890. He came from a family of artists and his great-grandfather was a contemporary of Goya, who Zuloaga cited as one of his major influences.

A rising star in the art world by the turn of the century, Zuloaga was known for his portraits, especially those of women with a great deal of personality. He also had a reputation for hosting memorable Parisian parties attended by artistic luminaries of the day, such as the famed conductor and cellist Pablo Casals.

“To draw another connection to Biltmore’s collection, we know that he was respected by John Singer Sargent, who actually wrote the introduction to a 1914 catalog of Zuloaga’s work on display in Boston,” says Meghan Forest, Biltmore’s Associate Curator.

Charles and John Kraushaar in their New York gallery. Photo courtesy of Kruashaar Galleries.
Charles and John Kraushaar in their New York gallery. Photo courtesy of Kruashaar Galleries.

Modern art, circa 1914

In January 1914, an American exhibition of Zuloaga’s paintings was held at the prestigious Kraushaar Galleries at 260 Fifth Avenue in New York. The show was reviewed in the February issue of Art and Decoration, a leading art journal of the time:

“Mr C W Kraushaar, following up on his success of last season, showed for two weeks eight pictures by Ignacio Zuloaga, the greatest realist of the very realistic Spanish school.”

The article goes on to say that “his Rosita, in the pattern of her shawl and of the couch on which she reclines, is masterly in painting.”

According to Meghan, recent research on their correspondence indicates that George Vanderbilt did in fact attend the exhibition. He wrote to Kraushaar in January 1914 offering to purchase the painting and requesting the frame in which it is displayed today inside Biltmore House.

Rosita finds a home at Biltmore

After George Vanderbilt’s death, Edith Vanderbilt paid for the painting and requested that it be sent to a museum rather than to Biltmore. In 1915, Rosita entered the collection of the National Museum (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) on loan. There she stayed until 1924, when Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and her husband, the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, visited to view the painting and requested its return to Biltmore. The painting arrived in December 1924, with Rosita taking her place as one of Biltmore’s most intriguing permanent residents.

While Rosita was not at Biltmore during George Vanderbilt’s lifetime, our records indicate that her first placement was the Second Floor Living Hall—a decision made by Cornelia and John Cecil. She was later displayed in the Billiard Room in the 1970s before taking up residence in the hallway outside of the Louis XV Suite in more recent years.

This animation shows Rosita’s difference in appearance before and after conservation treatment in 2023.

Conserving Rosita

In 2023, Biltmore’s in-house conservator, Nidia Navarro, completed the conservation treatment of Rosita’s ornate frame while the painting itself was sent to Ruth Barach Cox for conservation. The painting conservator worked to remove old, discolored varnish and overpainting that was added during past conservation treatments and restore the vibrant colors and brush strokes to their original splendor. Early photos of the painting and Cox’s inspection revealed that the original work featured body hair in the sitter’s armpit, a common practice around the world in the early 20th century. Cox’s treatment returned the painting to its original appearance. 

Be sure to look for the recently conserved Rosita painting on display in the hallway outside of the Louis XV Suite on your next visit to Biltmore House.