Hosts in Biltmore House: A Brief History

Our Interpretive Hosts are integral to visits to Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Whether you’re enjoying the main tour route of America’s Largest Home® or exploring via one of our more in-depth, behind-the-scenes tours, these trained storytellers strive to offer an accurate and entertaining interpretation of Biltmore’s history and collections.

But did you know that Interpretive Hosts weren’t always part of the Biltmore House experience? Let’s take a look back at the history of touring Biltmore, which began before the house was even opened.

Archival estate admission ticket, ca. 1920
Archival estate admission ticket, ca. 1920.

Visiting the Gardens & Grounds of the Estate

According to archival correspondence, George Vanderbilt allowed the public to drive on estate roads as early as 1894—before the construction of Biltmore House was even completed!

But it wasn’t until October 1903 that a formalized pass system was developed, which included an admission cost for everyone, except select guests of the Vanderbilts.

The reverse side of these original estate tickets included the following regulations:

  1. The plucking of flowers or breaking of trees or shrubs is forbidden.
  2. It is forbidden to drive over planted areas or the borders of roads.
  3. The taking of photographs anywhere on the Estate is prohibited.

And the admission rates at this time were as follows:

  • 25c for a vehicle drawn by one horse and carrying 1 or 2 persons, or for a person on horseback.
  • 50c for a 2-horse vehicle carrying not over five persons. For each additional person 10c; for each additional horse 25c.
  • 10c for a single person on foot or with a bicycle.

According to our records, not much changed in terms of regulations or pricing for the first 18 or so years after this initial pass system was developed. In 1921, charges for admission were updated as follows: 5 passenger car (4 passengers & driver) $1; 7 passenger car (6 passengers & driver) $1.50.

Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and John A. V. Cecil (center) at the public opening of Biltmore House, 1930
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and John A. V. Cecil (center) at the public opening of Biltmore House, 1930.

Visiting Biltmore House

In 1930, George Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia and her husband John A. V.  Cecil opened Biltmore House to the public. This decision was made in response to requests to increase tourism in the Asheville area during the Depression and to generate income to preserve the estate.

This milestone was a fundamental shift in the way the public was able to experience Biltmore. Previous to this, only select guests of the Vanderbilts were fortunate enough to see the interiors of America’s Largest Home® and the invaluable collection it housed.

“Mr. Cecil and I hope that through opening Biltmore House to the public, Asheville and Western North Carolina will derive all the benefit they deserve and that the people who go through the house and the estate will get as much pleasure and enjoyment out of it as Mr. Cecil and I do in making it possible. I also want to say that we both feel in doing this, it is a fitting memorial to my father. After all, it was his life’s work and creation.”

— Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s welcome speech at the opening of Biltmore House, March 15, 1930, as quoted in the Asheville Citizen

One of our Biltmore Interpretive Hosts leads a small group tour in the Winter Garden
One of our Biltmore Interpretive Hosts leads a small group tour in the Winter Garden.

Hosts in Biltmore House

In the late 1980s, hosts were introduced to the Biltmore House experience. For the first time, guests were offered accurate information about the collection, the Vanderbilt family, and the house itself.

Today, our Interpretive Hosts undergo extensive training to ensure they have knowledge about every object on display—yet they do not follow a script, making each of their interactions with our guests truly unique.

We invite you to discover all of our wonderful tour offerings at Biltmore House, and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience every time, thanks to our talented Interpretive Hosts.

Ask a Biltmore Curator

While our curators work mostly behind the scenes, their efforts are evident throughout every inch of Biltmore House and beyond. A vital part of preserving the estate, this team is responsible for researching, documenting, and interpreting the collections, historic interiors, and history.

Our curators have tons of fascinating information to share, so we’ve put together a round-up of some of our most frequently asked questions for them to answer.

The Biltmore House Guest Book is an invaluable resource for our curators as it tells who visited and when. Shown here is a page from December 22, 1895, which includes signatures from many Vanderbilt family members who visited for the first Christmas at Biltmore.
The Biltmore House Guest Book is an invaluable resource for our curators as it tells who visited and when. Shown here is a page from December 22, 1895, which includes signatures from many Vanderbilt family members who visited for the first Christmas at Biltmore.

Did any royalty ever come to visit Biltmore?

“The Biltmore House Guest Book includes signatures from an assortment of noblemen and women including barons, baronets, an earl, a countess, and a baroness. No true royalty visited Biltmore, however, until His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, came here for his architectural school which took place at Biltmore House in July of 1996. If you count American royalty, presidential visits to Biltmore have included William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

The recently restored Oak Sitting Room, the living space that connects Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedrooms, was an extensive project that took our Museum Services team nearly 15 years to complete.
The recently restored Oak Sitting Room, the living space that connects Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedrooms, was an extensive project that took our Museum Services team nearly 15 years to complete.

How many rooms in Biltmore House have not been restored?

All of the rooms on the main tour and a few rooms on the behind-the-scenes tours have been restored over the last 50 years. I would estimate that there are close to 100 rooms that have never been restored, and there are many rooms that were restored that need revisiting since we continue to make new discoveries in our research. Our most recent restoration project was the Oak Sitting Room.” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator

Associate curator Lauren Henry inspects books in the Biltmore House Library. Topics in George Vanderbilt’s personal collection range in subject from American and English fiction to world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture.
Associate curator Lauren Henry inspects books in the Biltmore House Library. Topics in George Vanderbilt’s personal collection range in subject from American and English fiction to world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture.

How many books are in the Library, and how many are first editions?

“Today, there are 10,285 books housed in the Biltmore House Library. Because many first editions are not labeled as such, it is hard to know which are without researching every single one. One of my favorites is a first edition of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859).” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

One of the most eye-catching works in the Biltmore House collection is Ignacio Zuloaga’s Rosita. Displayed in the Louis XV Hallway, this piece represents George Vanderbilt’s interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity at the end of the 19th century.
One of the most eye-catching works in the Biltmore House collection is Ignacio Zuloaga’s Rosita. Displayed in the Louis XV Hallway, this piece represents George Vanderbilt’s interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity at the end of the 19th century.

Is there a list of all the paintings in Biltmore House?

“Yes, the collections managers use a database of every object in Biltmore House and this includes 213 paintings on display and in storage. The paintings on view are primarily located on the first floor and in common rooms on the second and third floors.” – Lori Garst, Associate Curator

If you look closely to the right of the fireplace, you’ll see that Renoir’s painting Child with An Orange does not actually hang on the wall of the Breakfast Room, but rather on a hidden door used by household staff.
If you look closely to the right of the fireplace, you’ll see that Renoir’s painting Child with An Orange does not actually hang on the wall of the Breakfast Room, but rather on a hidden door used by household staff.

Are there any secret rooms, doorways, or passageways in Biltmore House?

“Though none are truly ‘secret,’ there are many hidden passageways and concealed doors in Biltmore House. Some were designed for the convenience of guests, while others gave domestic staff a way to move about without disrupting the household.” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator & Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag
George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag

What is the story behind the chess set in the Library?

“The chess set is one of my favorite objects because it reflects George Vanderbilt’s studious personality. Can you imagine receiving Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set for your 21st birthday? After Napoleon’s death, his heart was sealed in an urn and temporarily placed on this chess table!” – Darren Poupore, Chief Curator

With 102 steps spanning four stories, the Grand Staircase is one of Biltmore House’s most distinguishable architectural features; it is also where one of the its oldest items is on display.
With 102 steps spanning four stories, the Grand Staircase is one of Biltmore House’s most distinguishable architectural features; it is also where one of the its oldest items is on display.

What is the oldest piece in the Biltmore House collection?

“It is impossible to say what the oldest object in Biltmore House is with certainty, as George Vanderbilt collected many antiques, but one of the oldest is the biblical tapestry displayed by the Grand Staircase which dates to the late 15th or early 16th century.” – Lauren Henry, Associate Curator

After remaining a mystery for many years, a curator discovered that most of the brightly colored murals in the Halloween Room were drawn directly from the set designs of an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris.
After remaining a mystery for many years, our curators discovered that most of the brightly colored murals in the Halloween Room were drawn directly from the set designs of an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe called La Chauve-Souris.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a curator?

“For me, the most rewarding part of being a curator is the never-ending process of discovery. Just when you think you ‘know’ an historical figure, you find something that reveals another layer of significance. My favorite discovery was the unexpected history of the Halloween Room.” – Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation