America's grandest home lets public in
The newly opened servant rooms reveal a behind-the-scenes look at Biltmore.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- Seventy-five years after it was first opened to the public, George W. Vanderbilt's grand Biltmore House -- the largest home in the United States -- is showing off a new side.
Ten rooms on the fourth floor -- including several that housed the servants who kept the 250-room house running -- have been restored and opened to the public for the first time.
Three bedrooms, a bathroom, a cedar-lined closet for ultra-fine linens and the hall where servants spent their scarce free time offer insight into the backstairs lives of the approximately 40 men and women who worked "in service" at Biltmore during its turn-of-the-20th century heyday.
"We knew by opening these 10 rooms, there were so many stories we could tell," curator Darren Poupore said during a recent tour of the rooms that opened to the public July 1.
As illustrated by the recent film "Gosford Park" and the PBS reality series "Manor House," the social interactions between masters and servants and among servants still have the power to fascinate, decades after such rigid class distinctions came to an end.
The newly opened rooms offer visitors a sense of life behind the scenes at Biltmore, which was completed in 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt III, a grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping tycoon. A virtual castle, the home was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, modeled after the great chateaux of the Loire Valley.
The house opened to public tours in 1930, but since the 1950s, the fourth-floor rooms had been used mainly to store furniture. Starting in 1989, some visitors began getting glimpses on special "Behind the Scenes" tours, but the rooms remained unrestored.
Now, visitors taking the self-guided tour can climb from the third floor's North Tower Room to walk down a wing of the servant's quarters. Hanging in a closet are reproductions of the sort of uniforms worn by Biltmore's housemaids -- a gingham or calico dress by day, followed by a more formal black-and-white dress for nighttime.
The bathrooms, while plain, offered indoor plumbing -- still a luxury in western North Carolina in the early 20th century.
"In a lot of ways, the standard of living for servants was a lot higher then they would have had somewhere else," Poupore said.
Visitors also have a chance to peek into three bedrooms where maids once slept. Like the bathroom, they are relatively plain but comfortable, with the feel of dormitory rooms.
There were 21 bedrooms for female servants on the house's fourth floor; male under-butlers and houseboys were quartered elsewhere to discourage fraternization between the sexes. With the exception of the head butler and the chef, who were allowed to live offsite, servants had to be unmarried.
To help piece together the story behind the "new" rooms, Poupore and Ellen Rickman, Biltmore's director of museum services, consulted estate records and "Millionaire Households," a tell-all book penned in 1903 by a former servant in a Gilded Age mansion.
The book -- written by "Mary Elizabeth Carter" under what is believed to be a pseudonym -- details hierarchies among servants, the uniforms they wore, their working hours and the tasks they performed in mansions of the era.
"The woman presiding over [household work] should be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove," Carter writes in the opening sentences of the book. "Above all to a high sense of duty unswervingly loyal."
Poupore and Rickman said Carter's book made it clear that while male butlers headed grand British homes, in America it was a woman -- the head housekeeper -- who ran the show.
At Biltmore, Poupore said, the best-known head housekeeper was Mrs. Emily King, a widow who came to western North Carolina from England in 1897 and served until at least 1917. According to Rickman and Poupore, former servants interviewed years later for oral histories still referred to King as "The Matron."
An 1898 ledger that Rickman and Poupore found during their research showed King was paid $300 a month, double the chief butler's $150 salary.
Visitors also get a look inside one of two large linen closets on the fourth floor, where handmade French linens used in the guest bedrooms were stored. Only the housekeeper had the key to open the closets, and she was responsible for keeping careful inventory of the expensive, intricately embroidered damask as the linens cycled through cleaning, storage and use.
In a servant's hall, where the household staff gathered to read or sew during off hours, there are tables for ironing linens, and a call box and telephone used to summon servants to different areas of the vast house.
A servant's day generally began by 6 a.m. and didn't end until 9 p.m. Rickman said, with perhaps a couple hours of free time in the afternoon. Servants got one day off per week and half of every other Sunday.
Restored public rooms
Also newly restored are a pair of fourth-floor "public" rooms. One is the Model Room, featuring a giant cabinet built to display the 1889 architect's model that Hunt presented to Vanderbilt prior to starting construction of Biltmore House.
Visitors can climb short sets of stairs to get a closer look at the detailed model; also on display are some of Hunt's original drawings for the house, while photographs show the French chateaux that inspired Hunt's design.
Just off the Model Room is the Observatory, with gorgeous oak paneling, a fireplace, leather sofa and club chairs, and a narrow spiral staircase leading up to a walkway around the perimeter of the room.
From the walkway, Vanderbilt and his guests had access to balconies from which he could show off Biltmore House's dramatic rooflines and gargoyles, the copper roofing imprinted with gilded GV monograms, and the Blue Ridge vistas in the distance.
While Biltmore House is crammed with Gilded Age opulence, the Observatory hints at a more private George Vanderbilt. As she worked on the project, Rickman said, she imagined Vanderbilt retreating to the Observatory on cold days to sit in front of the fire and read.
Shy and introverted, George Vanderbilt "still is the biggest mystery" of Biltmore House, Rickman said. He spent much of his inheritance on Biltmore, and died at age 51.
"In learning about this house, we learn more about him," she said.
George's siblings -- also heirs to Commodore Vanderbilt's fortune -- built mansions elsewhere around the country, including The Breakers and Marble House in Newport, and an estate in Hyde Park, in New York's Hudson Valley.
The Biltmore Estate is still owned by the descendants of George Vanderbilt, who operate it as a combination historic home and destination resort.