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.

Explain that the tour will address the following questions:

  1. What were the inspirations for and origins of the technological features used in Biltmore House?
  2. What were these technologies?
  3. What was their impact on the day-to-day functioning of Biltmore House?
  4. How did they enhance the comfort of the Vanderbilts and their guests, as well as the work and living conditions of the Biltmore House domestic staff?

During their visits, guests in Biltmore House experienced all the luxuries and comforts that the Vanderbilts enjoyed. What they did not see were the technologies built into the House that helped to make their stays so pleasurable. These technologies included large systems, such as those supplying central heat, hot water, and electric lights, and individual labor-saving devices including elevators and laundry and kitchen equipment.

“Between the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair at Philadelphia and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco, the middle-class house became increasingly connected to a growing maze of pipes, wires, ducts, cables, conduits and mains.… While the new forms of utilities—heat, light, power, sewerage—altered home life, the change was uneven, as to pace and place. The wealthy secured such services before the poor, city residents before farm families, and, to an extent, easterners before southerners…1

George Vanderbilt was a fabulously wealthy easterner who was born and raised in New York, the largest and most dynamic city in this country at the turn of the century. When he undertook the creation of Biltmore Estate, he had the means to hire an architect with access to the most up-to-date information and the best contractors and resources for the most advanced technological amenities available at the time. All of these factors contributed to the technologies incorporated into Biltmore House.

There are many similarities between Biltmore’s advanced technologies and those found in the great English country estates and the chateaux in the Loire Valley of France. In the spring of 1889, Vanderbilt invited Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt and his wife, Catherine, to accompany him on a two-month trip in order to gather ideas and inspirations for the as-yet undesigned home. In the English countryside, one of the homes that they toured was the recently restored Waddesdon Manor, which incorporated some of the latest technologies available.

The party then traveled to France to see the great chateaux of the Loire Valley. Although many of the chateaux were first constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries, later additions incorporated technological features such as under-floor heating with vents that provided warm air circulation. All along the way, Hunt noted architectural details and sketched features that might be incorporated into Biltmore House, and these homes provided the first inspirations for Biltmore’s advanced technologies.

Not a great deal of documentation exists regarding the use of advanced technologies in English country homes. English architectural historian Mark Girouard notes that English middle-class homes were the first to be upgraded with new technologies, and that the very wealthy “were under no great pressure to modernize [their old homes] as long as labor to carry coals, water and candles remained cheap… But many new upper-class country homes… were as fully fitted up as the equivalent new middle-class ones… Certainly in the early Victorian period the middle class expected the aristocracy to live luxuriously… Only towards the end of the century does one sense a growing attitude that comfort… is nouveau-riche, unhealthy, or, even worse, American.2 Homes with advanced technologies were looked down upon, and luxury in late-19th century England became synonymous with arrogance and vulgarity.

But what might have been deemed vulgar abroad denoted progress here at home. In a time of rapid industrial development and change, “America became the culmination of history in an age that believed in progress.3 Henry James wrote that “…I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture…and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that…we can deal freely with forms of civilization not only our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically and culturally) claim our property wherever we find it.4

Biltmore was a new and quintessentially American home, representing a unique marriage of the old and the new, with its advanced technologies so carefully camouflaged by its French exterior, English domestic arrangements, and eclectic interiors. But without the inclusion of these technologies it simply could not have functioned as it was meant to. Luxurious and efficient, Biltmore House represented the “best of all possible worlds” available to Hunt and Vanderbilt. In fact, Hunt already was using may of these same technologies in other Vanderbilt homes that he was building at the same time.

“…as the walls rose above the foundations the various requirements of the mechanical systems—wiring and plumbing, heating and refrigeration, telephones and elevators—had to be unobtrusively incorporated. Although Biltmore was to look like a sixteenth-century chateaux, it was also required to function as efficiently as an up-to-date, urban hotel.… Like the buildings and the grounds, the mechanical systems at Biltmore reflected the power, wealth and control that set the estate apart from society at large. Making water, light, heat and food readily available exemplified the American commitment to technology and progress… Hunt was not troubled by joining the old and the new. To the contrary, he maintained that only by drawing upon both past and present could the architect offer the client the best of all possible worlds.5

Hunt envisioned that Biltmore’s technological systems would have to function on a commercial scale, rather that a domestic one. According to his calculations, Biltmore House encompassed 2,388,828 “cubical feet” of space. The technologies that he incorporated into his plans would need to provide heat for 255 rooms; water for 43 bathrooms, three kitchens, a laundry and a swimming pool; and electricity for 288 light fixtures and 180 electrical outlets,6 all used by the family, their guests, the domestic staff, and 40 horses in the Stable complex!

Finally, to an even greater degree than good domestic servants, the technological systems in Biltmore House were meant to be neither seen nor heard. These incredibly complex, expensive and fascinating components of the House are completely hidden, relegated to the Sub–basement and the North Wing, for the most part totally out of view of family and arriving guests and buried deep within the walls and floors. The only aspects of the technologies experienced by the family and guests were their end products - an elevator to one’s room on the Third Floor and the magical appearance of one’s trunks, steaming bath water from the tap, glowing lights at dusk, the rush of warm air from a brass grate, or the silent footsteps of a maid summoned by the simple push of an ivory button.