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.

elevator shaft view

The inside of an elevator shaft in Biltmore House. (Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. More about the photograph)

Interpreting elevator systems

Many English country homes had manually-operated freight lifts. Osmaston Manor had a hydraulic lift from the basement to the bedroom level by 1846, and Cragside had one just 20 years later. However, passenger elevators did not evolve until after most Victorian homes already had been built.1

Henry James wrote about his experience of returning to the U.S. after living abroad for twenty years in The American Story, noting that Americans had succumbed to “that great religion of the elevator” and were living in a “hustled and hoisted state.”2 One wonders if he had the pleasure of riding in Biltmore’s passenger elevator when he visited here in February of 1905, since Biltmore House’s two elevators assisted in the delivery of guests and their luggage to their rooms on the Second and Third Floors. The passenger elevator, adjacent to the Grand Staircase, was reserved for family and guests. This second elevator, conveniently located at the Servants’ Staircase near the Kitchen Courtyard at the north end of the house, was used for freight. These elevators were ordered in 1895 from Otis Brothers & Co., the American company that pioneered the development of vertical transportation.

Interpreting the elevators in Biltmore House

Both of Biltmore’s elevator carriages were designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt. They were built and installed by Otis Brothers & Company according to Hunt’s precise specifications. Powered by DC electric motors, these elevators represented state-of-the-art technology.

Elevator close up

One of the beautifully crafted passenger elevators in Biltmore House. Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company.

  • The passenger elevator located in the tower adjacent to the front door was for the use of family and guests. It featured an oak floor, carved oak paneling, and ornamental wrought iron and brass lamps. It rose seventy feet (from the Basement to the Fourth Floor) at a speed of one hundred feet per minute, and stopped at five levels.
  • This freight elevator was for the use of staff, and transported food from the kitchens to the Butler’s Pantry, carried heavy trunks and other luggage to guest rooms on the Second and Third Floors, moved furniture, and supplied firewood and coal to the 65 fireplaces in the House. This elevator carriage cost $250. It had a 2,000 lb., 6 person capacity and stopped at six landings (from the Sub-Basement, Basement, First Floor, and Levels 11/2 , 21/2 and 31/2 in the North Wing).
  • Control of both elevator cars was completely automatic, through the use of push buttons instead of switches. The cars were hoisted by steel cables and were confined by steel rails.
  • Safety features included an automatic braking system, operators’ buttons on the inside of the cars as well as control buttons and locks at each landing. Neither car would move unless the doors were completely latched.
  • Behind the freight elevator the original controls are visible here in the Sub-basement. The black box with the holes in it was the original controller. The wooden box with the glass front was the motor station for the Otis A395 3-horsepower electric motor.3 The original DC generator is on the floor. Both elevators operated off the same kinds of motors.
  • The original open electrical connection is next to the new gray electrical box on the wall to the right of the stairs. The thick wires indicate that this would have been a high voltage connection that would have been extremely dangerous at the turn of the century.

After long periods of disuse, both Otis elevators have been returned to service, and both still operate on DC current as they did at the turn of the century. Otis technicians overhauled the passenger elevator in 1979. According to Otis’ records, the passenger elevator in Biltmore House is the oldest elevator in the Southeastern United States, and it certainly was the first elevator in Asheville. Technicians were amazed to find that the original motor was in perfect working order, eliminating the costly and time-consuming job of hand rewinding [the process of carefully winding thin copper wire around the motor’s armature]. The original gearing, brakes, hoistway, cab and motor all were retained.4 Today, the passenger elevator provides access to the upper floors of Biltmore House for elderly and disabled guests. The freight elevator was brought back into service in 1996 for the use of staff. These elevators are very likely America’s oldest working Otis Elevators.5

Transition

Lead the group down the stairs and into the Boiler Room. Mention that they now will see the modern controller for the freight elevator.