America’s largest home, Biltmore, was the vision of George W Vanderbilt who built the 250-room French Renaissance Chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The estate encompasses over 8,000 acres which includes gardens designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.
A tradition that goes back 120 years, Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, transforms into a Yuletide extravaganza from November 3, 2017 to January 7, 2018. I had the opportunity to travel to that area of the country a few weeks ago and was blown away with the decorations celebrating the theme – “A Vanderbilt Christmas”. Getting in the spirit of Christmas as you go through the house is exciting as you see the amazing decorations. A 250 room house, Biltmore is so large that any decorations could look lost, but there are 55 trees in the house and another 45 trees scattered throughout the estate and everything is done on a grand scale.
Bows & Ribbon
More than 1000 bows are used inside the house with twice that many in the surrounding estate. Velvets, metallics, burlap, satin, and printed cotton are all used with a blue velvet one my favorite.
Think “Gilded Age”, a period of economic prosperity in the U.S. from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, the age of The Titanic, and you will see evidence of this everywhere. These weren’t simple decorations – lavish, elaborate, and rich were the words that came to mind when I entered the house.
George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House for the first time to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. Biltmore’s Christmas events are based on what has been learned from the archives about that first holiday celebration.
The Changing of the Firs
Since 1975, the Andrews family of North Carolina, has supplied the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir trees that are erected in the seven-story-high Banquet Hall during each holiday. A side of their mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains dedicated to the estate, the Andrews family grows these trees especially for Biltmore’s holiday celebration.
Taking approximately 50 Biltmore staff members to carry in, raise, and secure the Fraser Fir in the Banquet Hall, I was amazed to learn that the tree is replaced mid-season! Because of fire safety of the house, the replacement comes in around 4 AM of the day it is to be replaced and everyone rushes to decorate and is finishing it up by 9 AM when the first guests arrive. In addition, the fresh garlands of white pine and Fraser Fir are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance!
Wreaths & Kissing Balls
Wreaths are made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir, with sprays of golden arborvitae, holly, or other natural materials such as twigs and cones. About 360 fresh wreaths are used as well as 130 faux pieces are placed around the estate. Over 100 kissing balls, both fresh and faux are used, some with the signature topper bow.
Gilded Age Decor
A unique time in American history, the Gilded Age included the construction of grand and elegant estates filled with high society and glamorous parties. Rich layers of color accented with metallic touches of gold, silver, and platinum reflects the luxury of the times.
Fans decorate the trees in the library
A huge rectangular room, the Tapestry Gallery contains tapestries from 1500’s Flanders woven from silk and wool. These were intended to show how the seven virtues−faith, prudence, charity, chastity, temperance, fortitude and justice−would always prevail over vice.
Starting on Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt welcomed his family and friends for the first time to his new home in North Carolina, the family started a tradition. He and his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, spent many Christmases together in Biltmore House, and started a gift-giving tradition that is still honored today. Mr. Vanderbilt’s descendants – the Cecil family, now the estate’s owners and caretakers – host the annual employee holiday party, just like the Vanderbilt’s did. Making sure each child of the estate employees receives a gift, an employee party is held. A team fills the Winter Garden floor with more than 1,000 wrapped gifts for the party and Santa and the Cecil’s will hand them out to each child.
Tall arched windows look out onto the terraced butterfly garden and the Walled Garden beyond, and the pointed glass roof lets in an abundance of natural light at the Conservatory, a short distance from the house.
There are over 1,000 traditional poinsettias found in the Christmas displays around the estate, along with over 1,000 Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, orchids, peace lilies, cyclamen, begonias, and kalanchoe and potted green plants.
A Decorating Heritage
Seven full time floral designers as well as 14 staff on the floral reserve team starts very early for the onslaught of over 300,000 visitors. It takes lots of help from Engineering, Housekeeping, Museum Services, Horticulture, Guest Services, Security, and Events, to make the magic happen. Read an interesting article about Kathy Barnhardt who was the Floral Displays Manager for 40 years at Biltmore. Kathy started fresh from college at Biltmore with decorating just five trees in the house from paper ornaments that she and her mother cut out! She just retired this year, but she certainly started many of the decorating traditions seen today.
The theme is selected a year in advance, and the preliminary work in a warehouse starts in July. Actual decorating of the house commences in October. Sounds like a White House Christmas! See my post on Decorating the White House .
What’s Next?- Titanic Exhibition
The first exhibition of fashions from “Titanic,” the Oscar-winning film that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, will launch at Biltmore in February 2018 in “Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie.” Set for Feb. 9 through May 13, 2018, the exhibition represents the extensive wardrobes preferred by transatlantic travelers like George and Edith Vanderbilt in the early 1900s.