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.

Introduction to the boiler room

Although this room is called the Boiler Room, a number of interesting features relating to various technologies can be seen here, including the elevator controller and modern DC generator. The platform and wire cage are necessary to meet modern code requirements.

Interpreting the hot water system

“Many cultures [still] regard bathing in a few inches of standing water as a filthy habit, ‘washing in one’s own dirt.’”1 As early as the 1830s, homes of the wealthy in the northeastern U.S. were outfitted with hot and cold water, toilets, and baths, although sinks did not become common until the 1860s and later. However, thanks to the growing Victorian preoccupation with personal hygiene and the acceptance of germ theory, indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water were fairly common by 1895.

The first toilets were “earth closets” into which dry dirt was dropped to cover human waste and speed decomposition. Some were portable and could be moved from one room to another. Their chief drawback was that they still required a system of waste removal.2 The name most frequently associated with the modern flush toilet is, of course, Thomas Crapper. A recent book entitled Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper describes Crapper as the “inventor of the flushing toilet and England’s Royal Plumber…” Following his invention, “he was named ‘Plumber by Appointment to King Edward VII and the Prince of Wales’ and masterminded the sanitary fittings at the Royal Palace, Sandringham House, and Westminster Abbey.”3

However, indoor plumbing was not commonly found in southern mountain households and still would have been considered somewhat of a novelty (if not a luxury) at the turn of the century. It was not until WWI that the concept of a bathroom as a special room with a toilet, sink and tub became a common one in middle-class American homes,4 and only about 33 percent of rural families had indoor plumbing by the late 1920s.5

“Bathrooms were common if not plentiful” in English country homes at the turn of the century.6 Biltmore House had 43 bathrooms, an unheard of number for the time, and most of the fixtures and fittings for use in Biltmore House came from England. In the 1890s, there were few American manufacturers of water closets, lavatories, and other bathroom furnishings in the style or quality demanded by architect Hunt and his client.

  • Correspondence in the Biltmore House archives indicates that the imported fixtures were supplied by “Mead Brothers, Practical Plumbers, Hydraulic and Sanitary Engineers, 980 Sixth Avenue next to corner 55th Street [New York], Established 1859,” and J. F. McKeon & Bros., another master plumbing firm in New York.
  • The fittings were installed by the local union of the United Association “of journeyman plumbers and steam outfitters.… These early practitioners of modern plumbing methods utilized cast iron, lead and brass in a fashion approaching art.”7 These men were supervised by Asheville plumbing contractors McPherson & Clark Company.8

The water closets contained “pull chain to flush” toilets with tanks mounted eight to ten feet above the bowl. The oak tanks were lined with copper. When the chain was pulled, a rush of water was released from the tank that washed the contents of the bowl down the drain by forcing open a valve that held water in the bowl when not in use. When the valve closed the bowl filled with fresh water. The toilets were vented to the roof.9

The toilets used in Biltmore House, with their oak tanks mounted high on the walls, were actually more efficient in their use of water than modern flush toilets are, owing to the use of gravity, rather than volume of water, to flush the bowls. On a more modern note, some residents of areas experiencing drought have been asked to purchase kits to hoist their toilet tanks higher to maximize gravity flow and reduce the use of water.

  • Although the original fixtures may appear somewhat plain, especially when compared to other fixtures in the House, turn-of-the-century advocates of personal hygiene advised that baths be seen as functional, and be decorated simply, if at all.
  • With the advent of the germ theory came the recognition that bathrooms needed to be kept scrupulously clean. A 1906 article from Harper’s Bazaar advocated that “Cleanliness being the first essential of this apartment, it should be mainly of marble, tiles, or woodwork.… Marble [or] porcelain… tubs may be used. Besides the bath-tub, there is generally a marble washstand.”10 Tiled walls and floors like those at Biltmore were thought to be easy to clean, although they added a “chilling look.”11

The 1910 edition of the Sears Roebuck catalog was the first to offer a three-piece bathroom outfit that included a tub, toilet and sink. American Standard made many of the first fixtures that were available commercially. The Scott brothers, Edward and Clarence, are credited with inventing the toilet paper roll in 1899, which was more convenient than the bulky packages of single sheets previously available.12

  • Biltmore House’s forty-three bathrooms offered the luxury of hot water at the tap for showers and bathtubs. However, the guest and family bathrooms did not contain sinks. It was still considered a luxury to have servants draw hot water for light bathing into large ceramic pitchers and bowls that were placed on washstands and dressing tables.

Indoor plumbing and running water were new concepts to many of the servants who came from mountain homes to work at Biltmore. Some of them were even afraid to drink the water from the taps. In one unfortunate incident, several employees working in the House and on the Estate contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated spring water. James Wagstaff was an English under-butler who died from the outbreak in August of 1897. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery at Mr. Vanderbilt’s expense.13


Supplying both hot and cold water to 43 bathrooms, as well as the kitchens and laundry, and cold water to fountains, the swimming pool, and other amenities required a complex plumbing system of great ingenuity. A system of this magnitude required a water source, delivery pipes, heating devices, distribution devices, containers, and sewers.

Interpreting the water source, supply system and pipes

The water for Biltmore Estate was supplied by two reservoirs. One was a spring-fed man-made lake on nearby Busbee Mountain, engineered by Frederick Law Olmsted in the watershed created by the springs. The other was a man-made, 21/2 million gallon capacity [approximate estimate] brick-lined reservoir, located behind the statue of Diana in the Vista, at a spot called Lone Pine. The elevation of the reservoir was approximately 266 feet above the Esplanade.

  • Hunt sent samples of the water to New York to be tested. It was declared to be pure, “of excellent quality, soft and uncontaminated and suitable for drinking, washing and all domestic purposes.”14
  • In order to ensure a consistent, reliable volume throughout the year, even during drier periods, Hunt and Olmsted measured only one quarter of the flow. This amounted to “333/4 inches per second or 12,636 gallons of water per day for twenty-four hours”15 and was thought to be more than sufficient to supply Estate needs.
  • The water flowed by gravity from the man-made lake on to the reservoir which was closer to the House. The reservoir had a sand filtration station. After being filtered, the water flowed to the House, again by gravity. It entered the House at a constant pressure of 90 pounds, more than sufficient to reach the Fourth Floor. Point out the modern water pressure gauge.
  • The water then passed through two filtration tanks filled with gravel, and was delivered throughout the house by a maze of hundreds of feet of threaded steel pipe with brass fittings.
  • The largest delivery pipes were six-inch diameter cast iron “with a thickness one-third more than similar pipe today.”16 Their joints were caulked and sealed with lead and oakum, a tough fiber made of hemp or jute, treated with tar, creosote, or asphalt. The original joints continue to hold up today, with only minor re-caulking needed.17

When George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House on October 26, 1895, there were some initial problems with the water delivery system. When the water was turned on to the menservants’ rooms above the Stable and Carriage House, it was discovered that there was insufficient pressure to deliver the water to the second floor. Although water could be carried up to the kitchen, the water closets would not flush. Estate Manager Charles McNamee suggested that the men “take to the woods.” The following day it was discovered that a valve in the Gardens had been accidentally turned on full rather than turned off. Once it was turned off, pressure was restored to the Stable Complex.
A severe drought during the summer of 1897 “compelled the stopping of the ice making plant, the usage of the swimming-pool, and even the free use of the baths and other necessary conveniences of the establishment.” The House and Stables needs had increased, requiring a minimum of 100,000 gallons of water daily for normal use or 500,000 gallons for the entire Estate.18 In 1899 the Busbee reservoir was enlarged.

Interpreting the hot water circulation system

This system used no motors or pumps but took advantage of the principles of the “thermo-siphon” system. Just as hot air is lighter than cold and rises faster, so is hot water lighter than cold, allowing the system to move water more efficiently through the hot water loop.

  • When Biltmore House was completed in 1895, hot water was produced in a self-contained vertical tubular boiler fired by anthracite, or hard coal (the kind displayed in the stoker coal cart). The boilers consumed ten pounds of coal an hour to maintain hot water throughout the house at a constant 200 degrees F.19 The first water heater may have been a Spencer Magazine Feed Heater.20
  • The laundry complex, which used large amounts of hot water on a daily basis, had its own separate electric hot-water system, which employed five tanks into which cold water could be added to maintain different temperatures for different tasks and different kinds of textiles being laundered.21 It also featured a booster, still visible in the corner of the room nearest the door, to increase the heat of the laundry water.
  • The drying racks and the mangle originally operated using steam, but were eventually converted to electricity, capable of operating on either DC or AC power.22
  • Beginning in 1906 hot water for the Biltmore House bathrooms also was heated by electricity. When Charles Waddell came to Biltmore from the Asheville Electrical Company in 1901, he quickly recognized the economy of substituting electricity for coal, and installed more technologically-advanced systems which he described in a paper entitled “Notes on the Electric Heating Plant of the Biltmore Estate,” written in 1908.
  • Waddell added an electric heater, which was installed to the right of the anthracite heater, the latter becoming a backup. This arrangement provided significant fuel savings and eliminated the need to man the coal-fired boiler regularly and reduced the production of coal dust and ashes.

Waddell wrote: “The electrical heater is a cylindrical steel tank, three feet in diameter and five feet long, containing twenty flues arranged in two concentric circles, and the whole closely resembling in appearance a miniature horizontal tubular boiler. Each of the twenty flues contains a heating element of 5 kw. capacity; consequently the total capacity of the heater is 100 kw.”23

  • The water heaters were located at the lowest point in the system.
  • Hot water was constantly re-circulated from holding tanks suspended from the ceiling in the “plant storage room” located on the Sub-Basement level but accessed from the Basement near the Kitchens. As hot water was drawn from the tanks, fresh water was introduced into the system by pressure valves and heated in the water heaters, so that constant pressure and flow were maintained, eliminating any pause between the time the hot water was turned on and its delivery.
  • The constant flow of hot water through the pipes kept them from freezing in the winter and radiated supplemental heat wherever the pipes were located.
  • The pipes and fixtures in the bathrooms are made of silver-plated brass. In many of the bathrooms it was necessary to turn the handle twice for cold water, four times for warm water, and six times for hot water.

“An interesting point to note is that brass pipes…were not of a uniform standard [at the turn of the century]. Neither American or Metric, thread sizes were determined by the individual pipe manufacturer. This makes repair of [the] brass pipe by today’s [Biltmore House] maintenance staff quite difficult.”24

  • The heater now in place is a Tabasco model and was manufactured by the Kewanee Boiler Corporation which also manufactured the boilers. Although it is not the original one in use in 1895 when the House was first completed, it is located where the original heater was. We do not know exactly when it originally was installed but it was in use at least until 1937.25
  • Today we use about six individual electric water heaters to supply the hot water needed in the House. There is much less need for hot water than there was at the turn of the century.
  • Biltmore Estate converted to the use of Asheville city water in 1992, owing to the establishment of new government-mandated filtration requirements
  • Opposite the water heater on the wall above the sink is the outlet to drain all of the water from all of the working pipes in the House. The spigot is the lowest point in the House, and even if we lose pressure from the municipal water system we can still get water from this tap.
  • Other upgrades to the plumbing systems include the use of copper pipe in place of galvanized steel for supply lines and plastic in place of lead drainage pipe. Most of the original plumbing is shut off in the bathrooms in Biltmore House and only a few are retained for employee and emergency use. Because the original system was not designed for the volume of use that would be created by nearly a million guests a year, public restrooms are located outside the House.

Sewage disposal

Urban sewage systems were not developed until the 1880s, and the first systems collected storm water, but not human waste. There were no residential sewage disposal systems available at the turn of the century. Waste from Biltmore House was piped into the French Broad River, a common practice at the turn of the century.

  • The Haydenville Mining and Mfg. Co. of Hocking Valley, Ohio, provided sewer pipe, as well as some other pipes and fittings.26
  • The six-inch sewage drains in the House fed into an eight-inch cast iron drain which also caught and disposed of rainwater from the guttering and downspouts on the roof.
  • However, there was at the time “sufficient understanding of the impact of pesticides and other poisons on fish and wildlife. Discharge from the greenhouse was piped to sediment tanks.”27
  • Given Mr. Vanderbilt’s interest in advanced technologies, we can safely assume that if such a system had been available, he would have had it installed.
  • Today, the Estate uses the Asheville sewage system.


Give the group opportunity to ask questions. Point out the tank to the left of the boilers. It is a modern condensation tank that captures the water that condenses from the steam in the boilers. The pressure gauge measures steam, pressure and feeds water back into the boiler tanks when too much has evaporated off. This tank is only a few years old, but a similar system was in place at the turn of the century. Explain that you will now talk about the boilers and the heating system.