Now open: 'A Vanderbilt House Party — The Gilded Age'

J. H. Osborne • Feb 11, 2019 at 8:30 PM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — If you’ve ever imagined what it would have been like to join a house party at Biltmore during the Gilded Age, here’s your chance. Step right in and join your hosts, George W. Vanderbilt; his wife, Edith; and their daughter Cornelia as they welcome family and friends to enjoy America’s largest home. That’s what awaits visitors to Biltmore between now and May 27 during its latest exhibition, “A Vanderbilt House Party — The Gilded Age.” It is designed to immerse visitors in a typical “house party,” circa 1905.


The main attraction: authentic re-creations of actual clothing worn by important individuals from Biltmore’s history, based on archival photographs more than 100 years old. They were re-created by Oscar-winning designer John Bright in collaboration with Biltmore curators and Bright’s team at Cosprop, London. Bright has received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Costume Design in 1985 for the Merchant Ivory adaption of “A Room with a View.” The exhibit features dozens of period outfits representing various levels of formality — from a lady’s maid, footmen and a laundress, to evening wear and jewels worn for dinner in the mansion’s Banquet Hall — re-creating fashions mainly from 1895 to about 1910.


“We’re trying to create this picture of what it would have been like to live here and what it would have been like to have been a guest of the Vanderbilts at that time,” Bill Cecil Jr., president and CEO of the Biltmore Company, told reporters just inside the mansion’s entrance hall at a media event the evening of Feb. 7. “It was quite a different time than we have now.”

Cecil, a great-grandson of George and Edith Vanderbilt, said, “Our mission is to provide the same gracious hospitality to our current guests as the guests of the Vanderbilts experienced. We try hard to re-create that for our guests today.” 

Judging by guest surveys, the Biltmore Company is doing a good job: Cecil said guests give the company a 9.2 to 9.6 on the same rating scale used by the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons. 

“That means at least 66 percent of guests give us a 10.”

A unique audio guide

“This exhibition is unlike any we’ve ever done before,” says Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s curator of interpretation. “You will get a sense of what life was truly like at Biltmore.”

That sense of the Gilded-Age era is enhanced by a new Premium Audio Guided Tour. This component of the exhibition combines innovative 360-degree sound techniques with stories told from the perspectives of those who lived and worked at Biltmore in the early 1900s. This creates a unique, immersive audiovisual experience for guests.

Two years of transatlantic work

Klingner and Ellen Rickman, Biltmore’s director of museum services, traveled between London and Asheville over the course of two years to work with Bright to re-create the Vanderbilt wardrobe, researching fashion magazines of the era and studying archival photography and portraits from Biltmore’s collection in great detail in order to create the designs found in the exhibition.

“To bring these photographs that have been in black and white for more than a century into vivid, living color representations has been incredible,” said Klingner.

Added detail

Among the artwork, tapestries, and antiques in Biltmore House and the Vanderbilt collection, there are few pieces of clothing from the Gilded Age. Clothing tends to deteriorate through the years.

“This exhibition is like we’re replacing a piece of the collection that was missing,” said Dini Cecil Pickering, great-granddaughter of George and Edith and sister to Bill Jr. 

A new route

The exhibit is showcased by a new tour route through Biltmore’s rooms, which will offer repeat guests new perspectives and in at least one case a look at a room (the two-story Butler’s Pantry,) not seen before on the standard tour. The new route switches the side of the Banquet Hall visitors pass through. And for one of the first times in Biltmore’s modern era, the Banquet Hall table is set for 18 guests, with Vanderbilt silver, crystal and china on display as though for a multicourse dinner, and based on a seven-course meal that was actually served at Biltmore on Nov. 12, 1904: First Course (Soup): Puree of tomatoes; Second Course (Fish): Fish mousse with lobster sauce; Third Course (Entrée): Braised calves’ brains; Fourth Course (Roast or relevé): Roast turkey with cranberry, sweet potatoes, spinach and cream celery; Fifth Course: (Game and Salad): Hot tongue and salad; Sixth Course (Dessert): Charlotte Russe; Seventh Course (Coffee): Coffee.

Each of the 18 place settings on the Banquet Hall table includes: one dinner plate (burgundy and gold with “GWV” monogram); one fish fork; one entrée fork; one roast fork; one game fork; one roast knife; one entrée knife; one fish knife; one soup spoon; one napkin; one bread plate; one place card; one sherry 4 ½” glass; one hock 4 ¼” glass; one claret 5” glass; one champagne 4 ¼” glass; one burgundy 5” glass; and one water tumbler.


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