North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

A technological tour of the Biltmore Estate

By Sue Clark McKendree

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.


A color photograph of the interior of a dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter holds a copper serving set and a bouquet of flowers. (Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. More about the photograph)

Interpreting the electric dumbwaiter

The kitchen staff and butlers used this dumbwaiter to transport food from the Kitchen Pantry to the Butler’s Pantry on the First Floor and on up to the North Wing outside of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Room on the Second Floor. Such an apparatus would have been a necessity in a house of this scale. The electric dumbwaiter was in essence a miniature elevator, and employed the same advanced features as the House elevators, albeit on a smaller scale.

The contract specifications for the electric dumbwaiter stated: “the Dumb-Waiter will be located in West portion of Chateau, and will run from Kitchen Pantry (at Basement) through Butler’s Pantry (1st Floor) to the 2nd Floor (Private Hall). The machinery will be located in Sub-Basement.”1

  • Like the elevators, the electric dumbwaiter was installed by the Otis & Brothers Company according to Hunt’s specifications.
  • The total rise was about 38 feet, with a lifting capacity of 250 pounds at a speed of 100 feet per minute.
  • The motor mounted on the wall is the elevator controller. Its latest patent date is March 15, 1892.
  • Point out the winches and pulleys. The winding machinery had a safety brake that worked automatically when the current was turned off and held the car at the point where it stopped.
  • The electric dumbwaiter could be operated from any floor by means of push buttons. Note the shelf high up to the left of the door. On the shelf are glass rechargeable batteries that powered these low-voltage push buttons, which functioned much like the servants’ call and fire alarm buttons.
  • The newer gray metal control box was added in the 1970s, when the dumbwaiter was still occasionally used. It does not function today, although we certainly would like to see it restored and functioning for interpretive purposes.
  • The manual dumbwaiter is located opposite the electric dumbwaiter in the Kitchen and Butler’s Pantries and was operated by hand by the servants. This dumbwaiter ran only from the kitchens up to the Butler’s Pantry, and was used for the same purposes as the electric dumbwaiter.

Interpreting the heat circulation system

  • While the Basement was heated by conventional steam radiators, the upper four floors of Biltmore House were heated by natural convection. Warm air is lighter than cold air, and rises naturally. This meant that the House could be heated without the use of fans.
  • A series of five tunnels or chases under the House like the one seen here originated at the rear exterior foundation and connected to the bottoms of the ventilator.
  • Biltmore House is located high on a hill overlooking the French Broad River to the west, and the chases captured the natural currents from the outside and provided a continual source of fresh air to be heated.
  • Mention that it is possible to see the openings of the chases by looking over the back of the Loggia on the west side of the House
  • Point out the ventilator shafts which originated here in the Sub-basement and go up through all the levels in the House. All of the shafts are connected to the chases in the Sub-basement and rise through the House all the way to the Fourth Floor. These ventilator shafts open into heat vents in the rooms. These vents are covered by ornate brass grills and are visible in many placed throughout the self-guided tour.
  • Steam pipes from the boilers were connected to special radiators suspended from steel beams in each of these shafts and provided the source of heat. Point out the radiator propped against the wall. The radiators were mounted horizontally so that the cool air would have to pass through them.
  • The radiators heated the cool air from the chases which rose by natural convection through the shafts, creating a draft behind it and drawing in still more air to be heated. The hot air flowed into the House via the vents located in the walls. This same system of natural convection is still in use today, although the source of the steam is different (natural gas/oil furnace).
  • The iron doors on the shafts provided access for repairs. They also can be seen in the Basement (in the Halloween Room, for example).


Explain that your next stop will be in the Boiler Room, but that you will be passing two important features along the way, the first of which will be the battery cabinet for the servants’ call system.