Biltmore: Behind the Scenes

How many caretakers does it take to keep one of America’s grandest houses humming?

Biltmore
Chief Conservator Nancy Rosebrock working on a gilded wall bracket

Credit: Andrew Cutraro

It rises with such stately grace, like some magnificent Old World fantasy—this French Renaissance-style chateau looming over 8,000 acres near Asheville, in the mountains of western North Carolina. And though approximately one million people visit Biltmore Estate each year, few are ever treated to the view in front of me now.

I'm standing inside the Louis XV Room, where Edith and George Vanderbilt, Biltmore's original owners, welcomed their only daughter, Cornelia, into the world. It's an intimate space, part of a suite of four rooms, forever associated with scenes of quiet domestic bliss. But I am seeing it without its makeup, in the midst of a restoration, cluttered with drop cloths and cans of paint. The walls, shorn of their elegant covering, are bare, paste-colored like the yellowed underside of an antique postage stamp.

Darren Poupore, Biltmore's chief curator, is giving me a rare behind-the-scenes tour, and listening to him talk, I can easily imagine the Louis XV Room reborn as the lush salon it once was. He gestures toward the wood window trim, which frames views of the Italian Gardens below (part of Frederick Law Olmsted's original landscape design), then toward the walls, which will soon be covered in yards of pure silk cut velvet. The material that lined these walls for more than 100 years was falling apart when Poupore and his staff began restoring the room. They removed that velvet for safekeeping, and a French company, Tassinari & Chatel, was commissioned to create an exact reproduction of the material.

"It's all still done by hand," Poupore says. "There's not a machine loom that can make cut velvet like this."

I turn to gawk at a framed swatch of red and gold, and Poupore explains that the ultrafine fabric is woven at a rate of two yards per week. How long had Tassinari & Chatel been weaving the wall covering for this room? I ask.

"Two and a half years," he says, a little chagrined. "I know. It creeps along."

Darren Poupore is just one of approximately 1,700 employees at Biltmore Estate. It could be argued that all of them are preservationists, protecting the 250-room chateau and the surrounding estate—work that goes largely unnoticed, since many of Biltmore House's rooms are not open to the public. What goes on behind closed doors, it turns out, is essential to maintaining this great American residence, and if the public never sees what Biltmore's conservators do, these caretakers and craftspeople do not seem to mind. Their labors are borne out of love.

Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and opened in 1895 after six years of construction, Biltmore House still holds the title of largest private home in America. It may be one of the most recognizable as well—immortalized in such films as Being There, Richie Rich, and Patch Adams. The estate is operated as a family business by the grandson and great-grandchildren of Edith and George Vanderbilt. Choosing what to restore here means determining what Biltmore's public face will look like. That's where Poupore comes in. Examining a floor plan, he can potentially alter how future generations will view this historic place.

Poupore, who has worked at Biltmore for 10 years, knows this grande dame as only an intimate friend could. He leads me through a maze of passageways until we reach the Servants' Hall, which, until recently, had been obscured by an addition. Only after Poupore did some archival sleuthing to discover the room's original use was the hall restored and opened to the public. "This is where servants went if they had time to read or if they needed to mend their uniforms," he explains.

Whenever Poupore embarks on a restoration project, he depends heavily on Biltmore's extensive archives. After looking through letters, purchase receipts, menus, architectural drawings, and photographs for almost a decade, he has developed a fondness for many of the characters who once inhabited these rooms—members of the Vanderbilt family and their circle of friends.

What, I ask, is it like to work in such a lavish home, especially after all the tourists have gone home for the night? Poupore remembers a time early in his Biltmore career when he was assisting with a nighttime photo shoot that required lighted fireplaces in the library. "In the day you have thousands of people around," he recalls, "but that night it was silent. The room felt so warm. Now, this is a huge room, but I could picture getting a book off the shelf and settling into one of those big chairs to do some reading. I almost did … but I would have gotten in trouble."

"Really?" I say. "Library access isn't one of the perks of your job?"

"Well, maybe if I didn't sit on any furniture and I wore gloves when handling the books, I could get away with it," he says.

Rick Conard, Biltmore's senior director of engineering services, is a towering man with a military haircut and a take-action attitude that suggests he'd be more comfortable in Carhartt dungarees than the dress slacks he's wearing. Conard oversees construction, maintenance, and housekeeping on the estate—he's essentially the caretaker of more than 11 million bricks and all that lies within.

At the moment, Conard is standing under Biltmore's Grand Staircase, a spiraling masterpiece of 102 steps. A four-story, wrought-iron chandelier holding 72 light bulbs hangs directly above his head.

I look up, up, up, and ask: "So, Rick, how many people does it take to change a light bulb in a room with a 70-foot ceiling?"

"Only one," he says, deadpan.

Conard has changed many a light bulb at Biltmore House and is forever climbing up and down, peering into corners and recesses, tapping on walls in search of surprises or buried artifacts. He remembers the day one of the Vanderbilts caught him climbing on some of the interior woodwork: "I thought, 'Oh no, there goes my job,' but I got away with it." During one of his more recent adventures, he recovered a long-forgotten relic. "I looked down into the fourth-floor wall, and I saw a lantern," he recalls. "It had been left there during construction!" The lantern is now part of Biltmore's historic inventory, which, in Conard's realm, translates into another item to dust.

Dusting is serious business at Biltmore. According to Conard, new housekeeping employees must undergo up to one year of training before being entrusted with an item. They also receive a copy of the Object Handling Policy Manual, which they're later tested on. The manual includes long lists of don'ts: "Never lift a piece of furniture by any projecting parts," for example, and "Never lift a chair by its arms or by the back." Sweeping isn't allowed in most parts of the house (only vacuuming), and no water or chemicals are used in cleaning (thanks to magnetic cloth). The manual also makes a philosophical plea: "The conservator's tenet is: do no harm. This is the basic principle to which we all must abide. It is our job to make sure the objects in Biltmore House last long into the future, longer than any of us can imagine working here."

At Biltmore, housekeepers are more than hired hands; they are the informed stewards of a vast kingdom of things. Biltmore's collections comprise approximately 50,000 pieces that form a record of the Vanderbilts' daily lives—furniture, lamps, candlesticks, hunting trophies, all at a disadvantage because the house is not completely climate controlled. Damaged items will eventually find their way to Biltmore's Objects Conservation Lab. At this forensics-style department, professionals work to restore the lost luster of all kinds of objects—even a stray bit of marble or wood.

As elementary school students swarm the Biltmore entrance, objects lab technicians work far from the crowds, cleaning ironwork, turning metal from black to silver, and revealing the glory of 24-karat gilding by working away decades of linseed oil, which was historically used to polish nearly everything in the house. Some of the pieces are so detailed, technicians wield wood skewers to clean them. The staff of the objects lab, it turns out, spends many tedious hours wielding toothpick-size tools.

Biltmore's glamour survives because of the thousands of decidedly unglamorous tasks completed here every day. Even so, for Conard, the most routine maintenance task can lead to a minor epiphany. Not long ago, when scouting wire routes in the ceiling cavity above Edith Vanderbilt's bedroom, he realized, "No one has been here in 100 years. The same guy who left that lantern in the wall might've been the same guy who plastered this ceiling."

"Hey," Conard says, "you want to see the sub-basement?" I don't hesitate to say yes.

We slip past crowds and through the Banquet Hall, where the dining table can accommodate 64 guests. Then Conard removes a set of velvet ropes, and we move toward a door leading downstairs. Instantly and unexpectedly, he turns into a disciplinarian. Fun-loving, climbing-on-the-rafters Conard barks orders at me: "Don't step on the rug. Don't touch the chairs."

"Keep in mind this isn't a guest area," he says, finally relaxing. He points to a former coal bunker closed off with chain-link fencing and filled with cast-iron machinery parts haphazardly stuffed into cardboard boxes. "Every house has a junk room," he says.

The sub-basement is Conard's favorite place in the house, more so than the lavish billiards room, bowling alley, or indoor pool. We pass a row of coal furnaces, and he points to their O-shaped mouths, exclaiming, "I've been in there!" He shows me the like-new gears of an original elevator, points to George Vanderbilt's hidden wine cellar, and illuminates various crevices, all of which he has previously explored.

Before we walk back to the public areas of the house, Conard says, "There's somebody I'd like you to meet." He leads me to an old wood door. Just beyond is Tonya Hunt, a Biltmore employee of 16 years currently surrounded by shelves full of brass doorknobs and light fixtures. Hunt is responsible for Biltmore's brass. This is a more life-encompassing task than one might expect: She polishes metal five days a week. At the moment, she is finishing up a collection of brass hooks, her hands gliding, her work space filled with toothbrushes, Q-tips, and paintbrushes, all tools of the trade. The hooks are destined to return to a closet in the Louis XV Suite. "She can take something that looks like this," Conard says, holding up a corroded brass light fixture, "and turn it into something like this." He picks up a restored wall sconce that gleams under the sub-basement's lighting as he turns it over for inspection.

Conard and I leave Hunt to her work and finally ascend into the house's public space, finding ourselves amid dozens of visitors on a tour. All of them are peering into a nearby room, admiring its lavish interior, which was no doubt conserved skewer by skewer, Q-tip by Q-tip, inch by inch. One of the guests exclaims, "Magnificent!"

For Conard, the crowd doesn't seem to register; he's immediately off to inspect a wall shaft. I turn to close the sub-basement door, then freeze at the sight of a slightly scuffed brass doorknob. Reluctant to add my fingerprints to the hardware's surface, I reach out anyway, acknowledging that Hunt's work—like all preservation-related labor both here and elsewhere—is never finished. So it will likely be for future generations of caretakers, inheritors of an important responsibility—to ensure that a great American house endures.                                  

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