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.

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


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