Worth Preserving: The Oak Sitting Room at Biltmore

Written By Jean Sexton

Posted 04/12/22

Updated 08/08/22

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In honor of our ongoing mission of preserving Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, we’ll take a closer look at the restoration of the Oak Sitting Room. Even though the process took nearly 15 years to complete, it was well worth the time and effort.

Lori Garst, Associate Curator, reflects on this massive project that returned the space to its original look and function.

Preserving Biltmore includes restoration of the Oak Sitting Room
The restoration of the Oak Sitting Room helps us interpret the room more accurately as a private apartment for the Vanderbilt family and their closest friends

Preserving Biltmore is a constant process

National Preservation Month is a time when the hard work and dedication of our employees is fully on display,” said Lori, who has worked at the estate for 31 years. “But actually, this is what we do all year long!”

Biltmore’s Museum Services team keeps a running list of projects that are addressed according to budget and need, with worn or deteriorated items receiving top priority.

“We always have a five- to 10-year plan for what needs attention,” said Lori. “We’re not only preserving objects, but also preserving Biltmore’s story. The recently restored Oak Sitting Room is a shining example of both.”

Restoring the Oak Sitting Room

Go behind the ropes to see details of the Oak Sitting Room up close!

A typical room restoration at Biltmore usually takes five to seven years, maybe less. The Oak Sitting Room, however, took a decade and a half to complete.

“We started with a target date,” said Lori, “But in this case we faced several aspects that were interesting and challenging all at the same time.”

The time-consuming process included furniture upholstery that was reproduced by the original manufacturer in France–the company was still in business and had George Vanderbilt’s fabric orders in their archives from more than 100 years before.

Lamps, and accessories were painstakingly cleaned and repaired, and conservators spent five years restoring a 17th-century Boulle-style desk—already an antique when George Vanderbilt purchased it—to its original grandeur.

“The desk was in pieces that were stored in several different places,” said Lori, “but we knew it was something special even in its disassembled state.”

A staff member is preserving and restoring brass inlay to a desk in Biltmore House
A conservator reapplies a section of the delicate brass inlay on the Boulle-style desk in the Oak Sitting Room

Working meticulously to conserve every detail of the room, Museum Services was sometimes diverted by exhibitions and other projects that rose in priority. In the end, however, the project’s extended duration contributed to its success.

Conservation and restoration are not accomplished overnight,” explained Lori. “In 15 years, we had time to pursue leads and make additional discoveries. It sounds like a long time, but what a gift it was.”

Finding clues

Restoration is not only about repairing, restoring, and reproducing rooms and the objects within them, but also discovering how and why they were used. Thorough research was conducted on the Oak Sitting Room to confirm that it functioned as a “private apartment” or more intimate family space within the large home. Clues were gleaned from unexpected sources.

Bronze statue in the Oak Sitting Room at Biltmore
One of several exceptional bronze sculptures Vanderbilt collected, now displayed in the Oak Sitting Room along with other prized possessions

“We learned some things about the Oak Sitting Room from a letter written by George Vanderbilt’s close friend Joseph Hodges Choate, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain who had been a guest at the estate in 1902,” said Lori. “Choate mentioned viewing George’s collection of Rembrandt etchings, which showed that the room was furnished with some of Vanderbilt’s most prized possessions.”

Knole-style furnishings and other details

Knole-style furnishings in the Oak Sitting Room at Biltmore
An 1839 portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt by Charles Loring Elliott hangs in the Oak Sitting Room, emphasizing the importance of family in this private apartment

Research on the Oak Sitting Room also informed its furnishings plan, leading to the restoration of the English Knole-style sofa and chairs that serve as one of the room’s many focal points.

Upholstered in a striking green and gold damask, these unusual pieces of furniture are objects of curiosity to guests, but were appealing in their time for their functional flexibility (with contemporary versions still made today).

“In 1889, before the plans for Biltmore House were completed, George Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt visited estates in England and France for inspiration,” said Lori, “and Vanderbilt noted the furniture at Knole House. He loved the articulated arms that could be raised to conserve warmth, or lowered for conversation, air flow, or even a place to rest your arms or a book. We knew the comfortable Oak Sitting Room would have been a likely place for this suite of furniture that had been in storage.”

Visit now to see how we continue preserving Biltmore

Restoration of the Oak Sitting Room in Biltmore House
With the restoration of the Oak Sitting Room, guests can easily imagine the Vanderbilts using this lovely space as a private apartment reserved for family and close friends

“Preservation at Biltmore touches every department at some level,” said Garst. “Teams come together to hang the art, put down the rugs, and arrange the furniture. Even our Floral Designers add their touches with a green palm or a tiny bud vase sitting next to a chair.”

Visit Biltmore to experience the Oak Sitting Room preservation project for yourself. Enjoy the beauty of the estate’s historic gardens and grounds throughout the year, and extend your visit with a stay at one of our distinctive hotels or private historic cottages.

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