Asheville Archives: The Biltmore Estate and its earliest houseguests

AFTERNOON TEA: In May 1903, the Vanderbilts entertained their most recent group of guests. Pictured, from left, are Edith Vanderbilt, Mademoiselle Rambaud (Edith's former chaperone), Lila Vanderbilt Webb (George Vanderbilt's sister), Mary Webb (Lila's sister-in-law), Isabella Stewart Gardner, William Blodgett II and George Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Co.

When a wealthy bachelor builds a home with 33 guest rooms, company is a given. Such was the case in 1889, when George Vanderbilt began construction on his castle in the mountains. In fact, says Lauren Henry, associate curator at The Biltmore Co., the estate “was very much created with entertaining in mind.”

Indeed, Vanderbilt celebrated the home’s official 1895 opening with a joyous Christmas party. Before the festivities, however, he oversaw the estate’s final touches.

“[A]ll hours have been made daytime with the crops of decorators, carvers, joiners and florists,” reported The Asheville Daily Citizen on Dec. 19, 1895. But the busiest mind on the property, the paper contended, was Mr. Vanderbilt’s own. “He has efficiently directed the preparations of making ready for the homecoming, and the completion of the mansion for present use is now but the matter of a day.”

About 40 family members were scheduled to arrive that week, the article stated. Along with relatives, the paper reported that Vanderbilt planned to invite his employees and their families (an estimated 250 people total) to the house on Christmas Day.

On Jan. 1, 1896, The Asheville Daily Citizen resumed its coverage of the property and its owner. “Gay scenes were present by the guest party at Biltmore House during the hours that bade farewell to ’95 and ushered in the snowy New Year morning,” the paper read. According to the article, the evening had been marked by an elaborate dinner, live music and dance, along with quieter moments spent playing cards and chess.

Tragically, Vanderbilt and his guests would depart for New York the following day, when it was learned that his 16-year-old niece Alice Twombly had died on New Year’s Day from health complications due to pneumonia.

Throughout Vanderbilt’s life in Asheville, local and national newspapers (including The New York Times) informed readers about the estate’s prominent callers. Writers Henry James, Edith Wharton and Paul Leicester Ford were among the ever-rotating cast. Ambassadors, entertainers and social figures were also visitors to the house.

The estate’s Nonsense Book is among the surviving archival documents that capture elements of these visits. Filled with handwritten poems and limericks, along with illustrations, telegrams and photographs, the book was a way for guests to commemorate their stay. It also captures the personalities of those who visited, while simultaneously offering a glimpse into their experiences while at Biltmore.

“We don’t quite know how it came into the Vanderbilts’ possession,” says Henry. “My hunch has been that it was gifted to them as a wedding present.” The associate curator notes that the first entry, dated Dec. 2, 1898, came six months after Vanderbilt and Edith Dresser wed.

One piece, written in 1902 by Katherine Hunt (widow of Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt) includes elaborate praise for both the estate’s hosts as well as their dessert options, reading:

“Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie
Knows how to make the minutes fly.
Pudding every day of the week
Pie for those who pie do seek,
Mountains and rivers and lovely drives,
Honey from Biltmore’s famous hives,
And a marvelous house beyond compare
To match the Master and Mistress there.”

More recently, The Biltmore Co. acquired a March 20, 1905, letter written by Edith Vanderbilt’s sister, Pauline Merrill. The missive, addressed to a friend, describes her latest visit to the house. Along with descriptions of the property and many of its rooms, Merrill notes the idyllic nature of her time spent at Biltmore. 

“When 1030 or 11 comes, I go out, either driving, or walking, or sauntering down with the children to feed the swans, or settle on the library terrace with lots of books, & read & read & read,” she writes.

Near the end of her letter, Merrill continues:

“So the days pass, & life does not seem much of a problem, for the guests at all events. There is the bowling alley & swimming pool downstairs to look forward to, in case of bad weather, & absolutely Everything unpleasant is eliminated, all of which is exceedingly bad for ones mental make-up & ones inborn sense of responsibility! However apart from the purely material Comfort, which I don’t believe any of us are perfect enough to honestly despise, it is a Keen pleasure to me to be with my two Sisters & their children & feel again that goodfellowship which we have not been able to realize for eight years. So you see the influence is not wholly detrimental!”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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One thought on “Asheville Archives: The Biltmore Estate and its earliest houseguests

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    for those interested, the recent book ‘The Last Castle’ by Denise Kiernan is a wonderful historical account of Biltmore…11 years of research by the author…

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