Bachelors, Babies, and Buttons: Biltmore’s Old Rose Room

From bachelors to babies to buttons, the Old Rose Room on the second floor of Biltmore House has a long and interesting history, and has been used in a number of different ways throughout the last century.

From bachelors to babies to Being There

Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and her husband John Francis Amherst Cecil with their oldest son George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil as an infant, ca. 1925.
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and her husband John Francis Amherst Cecil with their oldest son George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil as an infant, ca. 1925.

On the original house plans, the Old Rose Room, located in the Bachelor Wing, is named for its style of décor and noted as one of several guest bedrooms for single gentlemen who visited Biltmore.

In the late 1920s and early 30s, the room was repurposed as a day or night nursery for Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s two sons, George and William Cecil.

After the boys grew up, the room became an office for estate employees. In the late 1970s, it was updated with new wallpaper to support filming of the iconic movie Being There.

Repurposing the Old Rose Room for storage

Vintage clothing in the Old Rose Room at Biltmore
Clothing and accessories stored in the Old Rose Room at Biltmore

Today the Old Rose Room has become an important storage area for many of the intricate costumes that have been recreated for estate exhibitions.

“As Museum Services planned for future costume exhibitions, it became clear that existing storage did not support the department’s goals,” said Lenore Hardin, Associate Collections Manager. “Before we created this new system, we had a closet in a bedroom where we kept original costumes. Now we have an amazing space to help us store things properly, including 11-foot shelves.”

Much more than a costume “closet”

Top hats and casual hats stored in the Old Rose Room at Biltmore
A selection of hats stored on shelves in the Old Rose Room; photo by LeeAnn Donnelly

The primary costumes stored in the room now were part of A Vanderbilt House Party: The Gilded Age, displayed in Biltmore House in 2018. That exhibition involved 26 costumes designed specifically for Biltmore from archival photographs and portraits of the Vanderbilt family and their guests.

A total of 59 costumes were on display during A Vanderbilt House Party, with accessories such as hats, socks, shoes, and jewelry sourced for all of them. The grand total? More than 600 separate pieces were included in the exhibition—with storage required for each of them!

A place for everything

Woman in the Old Rose Room at Biltmore
Lenore Hardin at work in the Old Rose Room; photo by LeeAnn Donnelly

According to Lenore, the space resembles a very organized, giant walk-in closet. Each piece of clothing and each accessory is catalogued and placed in its own spot. A large table in the middle of the room offers ample space for viewing items and processing them for storage.

“We designed the storage system around the room, taking advantage of its high ceilings, using textile boxes and building around architectural features in the room, including a unit built around a fireplace mantel,” said Lenore.

Preservation meets storage in the Old Rose Room

Clothing stored in dust bags on padded hangers in the Old Rose Room; photo by LeeAnn Donnelly
Clothing stored in dust bags on padded hangers in the Old Rose Room

Preservation techniques are always incorporated into storage at Biltmore, and costumes are carefully protected for future use. The costumes are placed on padded hangers and placed under dust covers that are waterproof.

Some delicate costumes such as evening dresses are stored flat, in archival-safe, acid-free boxes with the folds carefully padded to prevent wrinkles. Shoes and boots stored on open shelving are filled with acid-free tissue to help keep their shape.

A lengthy process

Woman with gloves handles clothing
Lenore carefully prepares a beaded dress for proper storage; photo by LeeAnn Donnelly

Items in storage range from spectacular beaded dresses and feathered hats to cufflinks, buttons, and jewelry. One of Lenore’s favorite pieces is a reproduction of a lovely Boucheron brooch that George Vanderbilt gave to Edith as an engagement gift.

It took about two years to complete the design and creation of this storage room, from clearing it out and deciding how it should be arranged to building the necessary elements.

Determining what types of archival materials were needed to protect the costumes and getting those materials was another three months, while storing the clothing and materials took nearly a year—and the process continues.

The value of preservation

A collection of goggles and glasses; photo by LeeAnn Donnelly
A collection of goggles and glasses stored in the Old Rose Room

“Preservation has always been something that the George Vanderbilt’s descendants have valued, and as William A.V. Cecil once noted, ‘we don’t preserve Biltmore to make a profit; we make a profit to preserve Biltmore.’ That principle is continued by the family and reflects their vision through the years,” said Lenore.

The 1940 Azalea Garden Ceremony: Revisited

We are excited to share new research that focuses on the contributions that Black individuals made to the creation and operation of Biltmore.

In the past, we’ve shared the story of the 1940 Azalea Garden ceremony honoring Chauncey Beadle, an estate horticulturalist who later became superintendent, for his lifetime of service to the estate. Thanks to this new research from our Museum Services team, we now know that nine other employees were also honored for their many years of service in that ceremony, including four Black men affiliated with the Landscape Department.

There is limited information on each of these men, with some scattered archival references to their work throughout their years of service. By its very nature, our archival collection is fragmented—consisting of various payroll records, correspondences, and other documents that have fortunately been preserved over the estate’s more than 125-year history. Our effort to process these materials and learn more about these individuals is ongoing—yet we are eager to begin shedding light on them as well as many other notable employees.

Photograph of the Azalea Garden ceremony on April 1, 1940. These men are presumed to be the four Black men recognized for their service on this day: Charlie Lytle, James
Photograph of the Azalea Garden ceremony on April 1, 1940. These men are presumed to be the four Black men recognized for their service on this day: Charlie Lytle, Jimmie Rutherford, Benjamin Perry Hemphill, and John Robinson. Donated to Biltmore by Ione Rudolph Shine, Chauncey Beadle’s niece.

Charlie Lytle

Though he was employed by Biltmore the longest of the group, there is the least amount of information about Charlie Lytle in our archives. He is only mentioned in construction-era payroll records, some incident reports, and a few employee Christmas gift lists, but he is generally listed as a laborer for planted areas in these documents. Lytle was honored for 51 years of service in the Azalea Garden ceremony. According to his death certificate, he was still a laborer for the estate when he died in 1943 at age 72.

James “Jimmie” Rutherford

Like Lytle, most archival mentions of James “Jimmie” Rutherford are incident reports and employee Christmas gift lists, though several letters confirm that he was working as a lineman for waterworks, sewers, and drains from at least 1914 to 1937. In 1931, an incident report reveals that he also laid bricks in a furnace for the estate, which tells us he wore many hats. Per census information, he was a superintendent for a private estate water worker in 1940, indicating a more managerial role later in his career. Rutherford was honored for 49 years of service in the Azalea Garden ceremony. He was 70 years old.

Archival document compiled in preparation for the Azalea Garden ceremony. As the longest-serving employees, Charlie Lytle, James
Archival document compiled in preparation for the Azalea Garden ceremony. As the longest-serving employees, Charlie Lytle, James “Jimmie” Rutherford, Benjamin Perry Hemphill, and John Robinson were listed first of the nine total employees recognized in addition to Beadle.

Benjamin Perry Hemphill

The picture of Benjamin Perry Hemphill’s contributions to Biltmore is a bit more complete. The first mention of him in the archival records is an 1896 letter in which Beadle writes that he hired Hemphill to assist him “in caring for the greenhouses and formal gardens.” By 1903, Hemphill was head gardener in the Walled Garden and Conservatory, reporting to Chauncey Beadle.

It was uncommon for most employees to be in direct communications with the Vanderbilts about estate operations; these conversations were typically relayed through a chain of command. However, a 1906 correspondence shows Edith Vanderbilt conveying directly to Hemphill her wishes for specific varieties of azaleas to be sourced and brought to Biltmore, demonstrating how trusted he was as a Biltmore employee.

Hemphill was honored for 47 years of service in the Azalea Garden ceremony. According to his obituary in January 1948, he retired from working at Biltmore in March 1947, at around the age of 82.

John Robinson

John Robinson began working for the estate in 1893 as a water boy in the brick yard during construction. Correspondence from 1902 indicates that around that time, he was a road sweeper, primarily over the Approach Road and the Service Road. He became an office messenger, similar to a mail carrier, by the 1910s, assisting Chauncey Beadle with a variety of requests from the family.

Like Hemphill, Robinson’s direct communication with the Vanderbilts demonstrates what a trusted and valued employee he was. In 1924, he was one of two people that Edith Vanderbilt personally requested to hand-deliver invitations for her daughter Cornelia’s wedding to John F.A. Cecil.

Robinson was honored for 47 years of service in the Azalea Garden ceremony. According to his 1957 death certificate, he was employed by Biltmore for “some 60 years.”

Workers stand with a locomotive on the Esplanade during the construction of Biltmore House, 1892. The stories of various members of the diverse workforce that created America’s Largest Home are highlighted in our new exhibit: Building Biltmore House.
Workers stand with a locomotive on the Esplanade during the construction of Biltmore House, 1892. The stories of various members of the diverse workforce that created America’s Largest Home are highlighted in our new exhibit: Building Biltmore House.

An Ongoing Effort

Charlie Lytle, James “Jimmie” Rutherford, Benjamin Perry Hemphill, and John Robinson all started their employment with the estate during the construction-era of Biltmore House. Additional employee stories from this research are shared in our new permanent exhibit: Building Biltmore House, on display in the Halloween Room beginning February 4.

We are committed to learning more about the contributions of these and other employees at Biltmore. If you have any family connections to the estate’s history, you can reach us at [email protected].

Feature image: Crowd gathering for the Azalea Garden ceremony. Photograph donated to Biltmore by Ione Rudolph Shine, Chauncey Beadle’s niece.

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.