Behind the Scenes at Biltmore Estate

This North Carolina landmark shines brightest at Christmas. See how it all comes together.
Wanda McKinney

A magnificent Victorian picture-postcard come to life, Biltmore House opens its doors, and a gracious hostess beckons me in from the cold night air. As I step into the entry, I hear carols being sung and smell fresh greenery. Candles bathe the 1895 home of George and Edith Vanderbilt in a warm glow, and at a distance I see a tree so large and bright, I've only imagined it in my dreams. "Welcome to Biltmore," says the smiling hostess.

I wondered what it takes to create this fairy-tale Christmas each year, so the kind staff invited me back for one heck of a sleigh ride to find out. Join us as we peek behind the velvet ropes to see what goes into the massive planning and execution of dressing up this Asheville, North Carolina, mansion for the holiday season.

O Christmas Tree--Prologue
The floral staff, headed by Cathy Barnhardt, begins the planning process in January. The search for the perfect tree for the Banquet Hall is no walk in the park. "The really big ones--more than 30 feet in height--are hard to find," she says. "We always use a Fraser fir. They hold their needles. We have a Fraser finder, George Andrews, who has spent the past 29 years searching for our trees."

Another daunting task for the staff is to find two trees, because the first one is replaced in early December. "We start at 4 a.m.," says Cathy."We have the first one down and the second one decorated by that evening."

Deck the Halls
Eleven floral staffers oversee two large warehouses that hold 500 boxes of ornaments, decorations, and other holiday items used each year at Biltmore Estate. But every year the employees search out more.

In August, the floral staff fans out along the property, seeking greenery and flowers that become garlands and arrangements for the upcoming holiday decorations--three months away. After the cutting is done, the flower ladies negotiate with one another for the five rooms each chooses to decorate for Christmas.

"Then we go through the boxes of ornaments and pick out what we want for trees that will be in the rooms we decorate," says Jennifer Small, a floral staffer.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Activity picks up noticeably in September all across the 8,000 acres of Biltmore Estate. A caravan of boxed decorations begins to make its way into the four-story manor.

Poinsettias that came as rooted slips in July continue to grow in the Conservatory. More than 700 plants receive 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of darkness, readying them for their coming-out party in November.

Bernard Delille, the French wine master, begins overseeing the harvest of grapes that will become Biltmore's Christmas wine. "We do a special bottle each year with a holiday label," says Bernard. At $10.99, it makes a wonderful gift. Ten people work in the winery, and seven more tend to the vineyard.

 

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Biltmore Estate's four restaurants serve fabulous food all year, but during the holidays, the chefs pull out the big pots and the Victorian-era recipes; then they cook up treats fit for, well, a Vanderbilt.

Pastry chefs Heather Gatesman and Heather Gonzalez work hard to put the finishing touches on the Biltmore gingerbread house, a small-scale version of the mansion. "We assemble the house and decorate it here in the Deerpark Restaurant," says Heather Gatesman. "Then we transport it to the Main Kitchen, where it's on display through Christmas."

Formed over a wooden base, the gingerbread house features a rolled fondant roof. The quantities of the ingredients boggle the mind: 72 pounds of powdered sugar, 6 pounds of butter, 4 1/2 pounds of brown sugar, 6 pounds of molasses, 21 pounds of flour, and 1 pint of red food coloring.

Meanwhile, right next door, the Stable Café--located in what used to be the Vanderbilts' horse stables--presides over dinners during Candlelight Christmas Evenings, which take place in November and December and bring in many guests.

"We start planning menus during Candlelight the year before so we can see what works best," says Stable Café chef Don Spear of his seasonal offerings. "We found a chef's journal for the house from Victorian times and have been using that as an outline."

Winter Wonderland
October seems to be the month when Biltmore Estate's planning for 2004 holidays begins the final push. The season officially opens this year on November 6, complete with luminarias, candlelight tours, and dinners, so the pace quickens on the property.

Christmas decorations begin adorning Biltmore House in early October, and midmonth, the Stable Café and courtyard start their metamorphoses. By late October, the floral staff members have created their magic with miles of garland and ribbon. The big tree arrives in early November, and that means all hands on deck.

O Christmas Tree--Epilogue
It's here. The day that Biltmore staffers wait for all year--the raising of the tree. And this Fraser fir is a beauty. The freshly cut giant lies out front, wrapped in vinyl and waiting for the Engineering Services staff to don gloves and walk the 35-foot-long bundle into the Banquet Hall.

With military precision, the crew hoists the tree and marches it into the house, watching out for priceless furnishings and chandeliers. Walkie-talkies crackle as the green-shirted staff members deliver their prize into the Banquet Hall. Wade Ledford, who has overseen tree-raisings for 29 years, shouts out orders, and ropes are attached. Fifteen staff members pull from the organ loft while 12 pull from the floor as the tree slowly rises to its full height. After a couple of collective gasps and a close call with a swaying chandelier, it's up, and the onlookers break into applause.

Proud of the work they do in placing and adorning the tree, the Engineering Services crew has its own special ornament for the arboreal behemoth. "We hang a burned-out lightbulb on it," says Wade. "We began doing it as a joke. Because we are maintenance, it's our ornament. Now people look for it."

Currently all eyes are on the gigantic Fraser fir, but there are still many nooks and crannies to decorate. Granite lions out front will sport bright red bows around their necks. Luminarias will line the long drive leading to the house. Hundreds of poinsettias will snake their way into the Winter Garden, where choirs will sing and entertain guests who tour this holiday masterpiece of a house.

But right now, the massive tree is in place. A year's worth of planning has paid off in a beautifully decorated Victorian showplace that thousands of guests will enjoy. Somewhere, the first Vanderbilts must be pleased at their legacy of hospitality at Biltmore.

For more information: www.biltmore.com

 
Biltmore By the Numbers
  • It took six years to build Biltmore House, which opened in 1895.
  • The house contains 4 acres of floorspace.
  • Biltmore House has 250 rooms including 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 3 kitchens.
  • When the house was built, the property featured 30 miles of roadways.
  • Biltmore Estate has 1,500 employees.
  • Christmas themes are planned 10 years in advance at Biltmore Estate. The 2004 theme is "A Gardener's Christmas."
  • It takes 108 hours to decorate the gingerbread house.
  • The gingerbread house weighs 100 pounds and features 1,400 gingerbread bricks.
  • Approximately 200 different musical groups perform during the Christmas season.
  • Two warehouses provide storage for 500 boxes of ornaments.
  • The staff uses 20,000 feet of garland.
  • During Candlelight Christmas Evenings, the four restaurants serve 500 to 600 meals per day.
  • It takes eight hours to decorate the big tree in the Banquet Hall.
  • Five hundred luminarias light the drive leading to Biltmore House.
  • About 750 poinsettias, all grown in the greenhouse, decorate the mansion.

Visiting Biltmore Estate
When you go to see the spectacular seasonal show at this fabulous mansion, take note of all the special things happening.

Don't miss visiting this wonderful destination during the holidays. Here is some information to help you navigate Biltmore Estate, as well as tips about special dinners and other seasonal events.

Location
You'll find the property just south of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. Enter from U.S. 25, three blocks north of I-40's Exit 50.

Note: Cabs do not service the Asheville airport. Arrange for a car to pick you up by calling Pegasus Transportation at (828) 281-4600.

Admission
Self-guided daytime house tours cost $39 adults, $19.50 ages 6-16. (Tip: For an additional $7, rent a holiday audio guide, which will explain what you are seeing, room by room.)

Admission for Candlelight Christmas Evenings (available November 6-January 2 by reservation only; 1-800-624-1575) ranges $40-$45 adults, $20-$22.50 ages 6-16. Admission also includes the grounds, Biltmore Estate Winery, Historic Horse Barn, gift shops, and restaurants. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Winery
Take a self-guided tour, enjoy complimentary wine tastings, and see cooking demonstrations throughout the season. Pick up a bottle of Christmas wine ($10.99), made especially for this year. Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; 1-800-543-2961.

Dining
Stable Café offers special Candlelight dinners, which include a choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert inspired by George Vanderbilt's 1904 Christmas menu. Cost: $29.95. Reservations required; (828) 225-6370.

Deerpark Restaurant, located between the inn and Biltmore House, offers a family-style buffet for lunch that features regional favorites. Cost: $14.95 for ages 10 and older. Sunday brunch runs $21.95. Ask about Breakfast With St. Nicholas when you call; (828) 225-6260.

Bistro, located at the winery, serves lunch or dinner. Try the wood-fired pizzas. Cost: Entrées start at $12; (828) 225-1642.

The Dining Room, a white-tablecloth restaurant in the inn, offers the best in estate-raised beef, vegetables, and lamb. Cost: Entrées start at $20; (828) 225-1642.

Special Events
Christmas Traditions Fireside Chat: Enjoy spending an hour in Mr. Vanderbilt's den hearing about holiday traditions of the Vanderbilt families. Hours: 10 a.m. daily during the holidays. Cost: $14. During Candlelight Christmas Evenings, enjoy musical entertainment as you tour the house at night by the glow of Christmas trees and candlelight. Enjoy special classes in A Gardener's Place (prices vary), and take a 45-minute carriage ride around the property ($35 per person).

Accommodations
Make your holiday really special by staying at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. Make reservations for the Candlelight Christmas package, which comes with breakfast buffet, valet parking, guidebook, and most gratuities. Park your car; then take the continuously running free shuttle to Biltmore House, the Winery, and back to the inn. Cost: Packages start at $210 per person, per night; (828) 225-1660.

Gift Shops
The Wine Shop offers much more than all the varieties of wine made and sold at Biltmore Estate. Cookbooks, reproduction Biltmore Estate china, serving pieces, and other houseware items make this a terrific browsing and buying spot; (828) 225-6280.

A Gardener's Place features a wonderful array of gardening and home decor items; (828) 225-1427.

Shops next to Biltmore House include A Christmas Past, which offers Christmas ornaments and gift items; (828) 225-6354.

Bookbinder's has books for young and old and features a nice number of volumes on the Vanderbilt family; (828) 225-6359.

The Carriage House is another large shop that has everything from ornaments to purses to T-shirts and videos; (828) 225-6353. Feed your sweet tooth at the Confectionery; (828) 225-6358.

Toymaker's will bring out the child in everyone; (828) 225-6357.

Mercantile, at the Historic Horse Barn, tempts shoppers with made-in-America pottery, kitchen utensils, and other necessities; (828) 225-1535.

And the two gift shops at the inn--Cottage Door and Marble Lion--also offer a good selection of Biltmore Estate souvenirs, clothing, and sundries.

This article is from the December 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.