Restoring the Past: The Smoking & Gun Rooms

For upper echelons during the Gilded Age, few things were more important than networking and maintaining social standing. Smoking and Gun Rooms were essential for many affluent families. At Biltmore, these two rooms have been used in various ways over the last century, yet always centered around hospitality.

In honor of National Preservation Month in May, we invite you to learn about the intricate layers of our preservation efforts to restore the Smoking and Gun Rooms of Biltmore House.

Hallway between Smoking and Gun Room
An archival photo of the hallway from the 1940s displays embossed wallpaper resembling leather, dating back to 1911.

A home well-loved

Biltmore has been called home to many generations of Vanderbilts and Cecils throughout the years. And, just as we do in our own homes, we update, refresh, and alternate the use of space, the Smoking and Gun Rooms on the first floor of Biltmore House were no different.

During George Vanderbilt’s time, gentlemen primarily utilized these rooms to socialize, relax, and gear up for outdoor activities including hunting and fishing. After George’s death, Edith and Cornelia downsized, and used these rooms as office and living quarters, which they remained through the Cecils’ stay. Always evolving and reflecting the tastes of the time and lifestyles of their inhabitants.

Handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt from February 13, 1896. Letter says
A handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt in 1896 gives us a glimpse at the historic use of these rooms.

History writes itself

Through a combination of research, our own archival documents and photos, and those from repositories around the world, we can peel back the layers of time to bring Biltmore back to its roots.

Among the treasures uncovered in our archives are a series of letters that offer a glimpse into the past. One letter, dated to the 1890s, finds George requesting retrieval of a box stored in a desk in the Smoking Room—these little nuggets of information provide us with invaluable clues to the room’s furnishings and use.

“Dear Charles, With the enclosed key please open the desk in the smoking room. In the middle drawer is a box addressed to me at Biltmore about 14×7 inches + 2 inches deep… On the top of the desk are a lot of letters and some invitations. Please mail me these.” – George Vanderbilt on February 13, 1896

Herbert Noble in Biltmore Winter Garden c. 1930
Herbert Noble in Biltmore’s Winter Garden c. 1930

The Butler’s Log

Central to our research efforts is the Butler’s Log, meticulously maintained by Herbert Noble during the 1930s. This detailed account of the changes made within Biltmore House offers a treasure trove of information, from descriptions of room updates to insights into the removal and replacement of furnishings and décor that had been worn out, water damaged, or whatever the case may be. Often what he is moving out is the pieces of information that are most helpful.

Herbert recorded, “Leaks at some time had ruined the original paper which was dark green. As the blue draperies were so very faded and worn, I had new ones made for it of dark red damask…”

Edith standing in the Smoking Room
The wallpaper seen in this photo of Mrs. Vanderbilt matches a sample of wallpaper in storage, which assisted us in restoring the Smoking Room to its original state.

We took that information alongside a picture of Edith which shows a striped wallpaper on the wall behind her and found the same green striped wallpaper in our storage. This sample has since been sent off to be reproduced by Atelier D’Offard in Tours, France, who specializes in hand-blocked wallpapers as produced in the 18th and 19th centuries.. The same company who produced wallpapers for the Louis XV Suite.

Another entry states,”Mr. Cecil uses this room for a writing room.  He had the woodwork cleaned & oiled last year…Mr. Cecil had the backs of the cabinets painted yellow which shows up the birds so much more besides improving the appearance of the room.  The dark blue & red rug is from the Van Dyke room…  As this room had no draperies I hung a pair of velvet draperies in here.

A glimpse inside the Gun Room of Biltmore House as it undergoes preservation.

Digging deeper for information

While we had archival clues for the Smoking Room, the Gun Room required the team to start entirely from scratch. According to Lori Garst, Biltmore’s Curator of Collections, we had no archival drawings to use when planning the restoration of the Gun Room. Our research last summer focused on the function of late 19th  and early 20th-century gun rooms.  Based on the finishes in our gun room, we knew that the dirty work of cleaning the guns was done elsewhere.  Rather, Biltmore’s gun room, like others, was more of a gathering place where the men went to pick up their equipment for the afternoon’s shoot or fishing outing. 

Pardon our Preservation: Restoration of these rooms will be visible to guests through completion.

A mission of preservation

For Lori and the team, every preservation project is a chance to uncover and revive history. “Restoration projects at Biltmore uncover our past. Stories related to the spaces are revealed, and the original design details are uncovered. In the Smoking and Gun Room, we have both. When complete, the rooms will be completely transformed.”

We welcome you to see our ongoing preservation efforts of this National Historic Landmark for yourself during your next Biltmore visit.