Going behind the scenes at Biltmore

By Carol Viau | Dec 18, 2013
Photo by: Donated photo SEE AN AGE OF ELEGANCE — Go behind the scenes at Biltmore by taking a guided tour of rooms and areas not seen on regular house visits.  Pictured is the Vandyck Room, showing period dress for a walk in the Biltmore gardens.

Many who have visited the Biltmore Estate have wondered what it must have been like to stay at Biltmore House as a guest of George and Edith Vanderbilt.  Consider the estate’s grandeur, the idyllic setting and the social status of knowing and staying with the Vanderbilts.

There is more to see at Biltmore than the regular daily tour of the magnificent house, and taking one of the special guided tours is the way to go “behind the scenes” and see rooms and areas not included in the daily self-guided tour.

The Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour had been on hiatus during the summer, but is back to delight people visiting the estate. The guided tour, offered daily, gives visitors a look at bedrooms not on the regular house visit and recounts stories about the people who stayed there. Each room on the tour features clothing, accessories and artifacts from the early 1900s and is augmented with the guides’ stories on the interesting people who stayed there.

George Washington Vanderbilt, born in 1862, was the youngest of eight children and grandson of industrialist “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt. Being the youngest, George didn’t have much to do with the family shipping and railroad business, leaving that to his older brothers. Instead, he became an art collector, world traveler, and had the family responsibility of caring for his mother.  In the late1800s, it was considered healthy to come to the mountains in the summer, and Vanderbilt fell in love with the Asheville area.

He decided to build Biltmore during his 1888 visit to Asheville with his mother. The estate, modeled after a French châteaux, opened to guests with a lavish party Christmas 1895. The self-sustaining estate included indoor bathrooms and electricity — quite a feat for the time — and magnificent grounds, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, encompassing 125,000 acres.

For the Christmas celebration of 1895, 28 of the 33 guest rooms were filled with family and friends.

The Vanderbilt Family & Friends tour also describes the courtship of George and Edith Vanderbilt, who married in Paris in 1898.

Once back at Biltmore, George and Edith entertained many prominent guests, including author Edith Wharton, diplomats and attorneys. When guests came to visit, they stayed for weeks, as the journey to Ashville was described as “long and sometimes difficult.” Edith’s sister, Pauline, a New York socialite, was a frequent guest at the estate. Dinner, which Pauline described in a journal entry as “very ceremonious,” was always full dress, and men work black or white tie.

George paid for everything for his guests, no matter how long they stayed.

“It was the way it was done then,” said host and tour guide Jennifer Werner.

The tour described other interesting tidbits about the fascinating lifestyle of the Vanderbilts, including the lavish New Year’s Eve party they hosted in 1901.

People taking the tour come from near and far to get this “inside look,” and travel through rooms they had not previously seen. On a recent 16-person tour, two mothers, plus their daughters, came from Charlotte, and the daughters said they really enjoyed the period dress (“the outfits”) displayed in each room on the tour. Another couple from Indianapolis, who are repeat visitors to Biltmore, said they take a different tour each time they come to see rooms they have never seen before.

Even those who have been to Biltmore before will enjoy “inside” peak at rooms not open to regular house tours. Other behind-the-scenes tours include the Butler's Tour, Architect's Tour, Legacy of the Land, Guided House Tour and Premium House Tour.

The Vanderbilt Family & Friends tour is $17, plus estate admission, and requires a reservation.

Right now, the house is decorated for the holidays. The magnificent display of Christmas trees and period decorations are a feast for the senses. Daytime access to see the Biltmore decorations will be through Jan. 12, and the popular Candlelight Christmas Evenings run to Jan. 4. Be sure to get an advance reservation, since the holidays are a busy time at Biltmore.

To purchase tickets, visit www.biltmore.com or call 800-411-3812.