I was fortunate to go visit Biltmore Estate, home of George and Edith Vanderbilt and their daughter, Cornelia. The house was completed in 1895 and has 250 rooms! Biltmore has an amazing collection of the original Vanderbilt furnishings and conservators and curators have worked extensively on recreating the house’s original draperies, upholstery, and wallpapers. Probably my favorite item in the house (if I were forced to only pick one) is The Chariot of Aurora painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Pellegrini in the 1720s, which was originally in Pisani Palace in Venice.
In the second floor living hall (a space in the Vanderbilts’ day where the family and guests could mingle before meals or read and chat), there was an exhibition regarding the work of curators, conservators, and contractors in preserving and interpreting the rooms within the mansion. Museums generally struggle with institutional history so this was a refreshing moment as visitors are usually interested in how we know what we know about décor in historic homes. One of the things that stuck out in my mind is that in restoring the Louis XV Room, conservators spent about 21,000 hours working on artifacts and with the architecture of the room itself in cleaning, repairing small items that had been cracked, or items that needed to be polished. There were places within the exhibit that highlighted Biltmore’s staff working directly with companies as far away as France who had originally produced wallpapers back in the 1890s for George Vanderbilt. Equally interesting was the restoration of a chair, whose original upholstery was found, reproduced, and due to the loss of original stuffing, the new conservation-friendly padding was illustrated.
Another successful exhibition I thought was located in the basement which used photographs to illustrate the construction of the house. Photos showed Vanderbilt and the architect, Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted but emphasized that they were NOT the builders of Biltmore. In fact, this is an area that often sends a chill down my spine on tours when someone says “Such-and-such famous person built said-grand-mansion.” The photos show the workmen, black and white, who built the mansion and gardens. My favorite image showed a youngster and a group of men and the men’s lunch pails.
There was a really well done exhibit “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” highlighting the schools opened by George Vanderbilt in Asheville for elementary age children at one, crafts in another for adults, and a school teaching domestic service to black women. Numerous fine items owned by the Vanderbilts were exhibited too from jewelry to luggage and their luck in avoiding boarding R.M.S. Titanic (but not so lucky for a servant).
Of course, I would be interested in the work of the servants at Biltmore. The house’s formal rooms were constructed in a manner so as to really conceal the work of servants from view of the guests and the Vanderbilts. However, without these folks, there is no way the house could have been a jewel of entertainment. So I will report on the only specialty tour taken in the visit: The Butler’s Tour.
First, in the regular, self-guided tour, you go down into the basement where you see four pantries, two walk-in refrigerators, servants’ bedrooms, pastry kitchen, rotisserie kitchen, the main kitchen, a kitchen pantry, the servants’ dining room (where there was a special maid just for the servants), a storage room converted to an organ motor room, work room, and three laundry spaces! A true catacomb of work that may remind my readers of scenes from PBS shows like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, except in this case on an American nouveau riche scale. I was quite curious about the refrigeration system which I learned about thanks to the helpful docent in the main kitchen. She also shared that in a space not seen on this or the Butler’s Tour was an area where ice blocks were created and the system kept the fridges at 40 degrees.
On the butler’s tour, there was a fair amount of discussion of Emily King, the British housekeeper from 1897-1914. King possessed a suite consisting of a bedroom, private bath, and closet, illustrating her role as the highest-ranked servant. In contrast, you’ll find the single bedrooms in the basement. There were a whole host of smaller spaces than the grand rooms where a flurry of activity occurred such as in the butler’s pantry, sewing room, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s closet, among others.
So what about this tour? First, I had an issue with the name of the tour. After 45 minutes and then standing last in the butler’s pantry I asked “What was the butler’s name?” The response: “I don’t know.” I realize that the staff may not have found this information (yet) in family papers, but I felt like if they don’t know the butler’s name then perhaps the tour should be renamed “Emily King’s Biltmore.” It wouldn’t necessarily change what was discussed, but I didn’t learn what the butler did (now, yes *I* know what a butler does but many people who visit may not) or who he was.
Equally disappointing was in the course of the tour there was no discussion of the number of servants employed as well as differences in ethnicity, gender, ages, and marital status (if any). In my estimation a well-rounded tour is one where the visitor can learn something about the lives and work of servants. I found myself curious as to who was Mr. Vanderbilt’s valet? Who was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s personal maid? I asked someone (not on this tour) who said the maid may have been French but she didn’t know the answer as she was in the maintenance department. That lady was very nice who informed me about the cleaning of the rooms by the modern staff but I had hoped the butler’s tour would answer questions such as these.
Our tour guide knew a lot about the technology of the house and did faithfully describe that the Vanderbilts’ personal servants would have traveled with them in their numerous transatlantic trips and that the sewing room was an area for mending the finer clothing of the Vanderbilts or any of their guests. It was cool to see how bright early electricity was (Biltmore always had electricity), to see a bathroom, and hear about the call system.
I really did enjoy Biltmore despite my critiques of the tour. I think they have some amazing rooms to tell the stories of those who owned Biltmore and those worked there. And don’t miss the gardens and the winery for a little relaxation.