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.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt and George Vanderbilt first met in 1885, when Vanderbilt was just twenty-two years old. These first meetings between George Vanderbilt and Hunt to complete work in the Vanderbilt family mausoleum began an association that would last throughout Hunt’s lifetime. Vanderbilt commissioned Hunt to design his home in Asheville, NC is 1888.

In the spring of 1889, Vanderbilt invited the architect and his wife, Catherine, to accompany him on a two-month trip to Europe. It was their intention to visit historic houses and chateaux in order to gather ideas and to begin to collect furnishings and art. After a brief stay in London, they journeyed into the countryside to visit some of the great English country houses, including Waddesdon Manor, Knole House, Haddon Hall, Hatfield, and Seven Oaks. All Along the way, Hunt noted architectural details and sketched features that might be incorporated into the house. These homes provided the first inspirations for Biltmore’s advanced technologies.

After traveling through England, Vanderbilt and the Hunts sailed for France and the Loire Valley to see the great chateaux. Among the chateaux that they may have visited were Meudon, Sevres, The Tuileries, Monceaux, St. Cloud, St. Germain, Vaux le Vicomte, and Versailles, as well as Blois, Chambord and Chenonceau. Many of the chateaux incorporated into more modern additions such technological features as under-floor hearing with vents that provided warm air circulation. Biltmore House also incorporated the most advanced technologies, including a natural convection steam-heating system with wall vents for circulation.

The last influence on Biltmore House was that of the technological advances of the late-19th century. Richard Morris Hunt incorporated in the House every technology available just prior to the turn of the century, and his firm sub-contracted much of that work to other companies. John D. Clarke of New York designed and installed the boilers in the Sub-Basement, which heated the House. The technology was known as a “horizontal tubular return” system. Hot air from three wood and coal-burning boilers was circulated through as series of pipes that ran through huge tanks of water to produce steam. The steam was piped into radiators to heat the Basement level. The upper four floors were heated by hot air. Special radiators were built into shafts that ran all the way from the Sub-Basement to the Fourth Floor. These shafts opened into heat vents placed in the walls throughout the House. The steam in the radiators heated cool air hat was drawn in from the outside through a series of tunnels or chases under the House. The heated air rose by natural convection through the shafts and circulated throughout the House.

The Hatzel and Buehler Electric Company wired Biltmore House for electricity. Lines for direct current ran through metal conduit that was placed in the walls and floors. Mr. Vanderbilt originally purchased power in the form of alternating current from one of several outside sources located on the French Broad River. The alternating current was used to generate direct current for use in the House as well as Biltmore Village. After 1906, a 25 horsepower gasoline-powered generator, found in the Sub-Basement, provided additional power in the form of direct current for Biltmore’s 288 light fixtures, 180 electrical outlets, and the in-House telephone system. Storage batteries held direct current for use at night. The original six by seventeen foot marble switchboard was still in operation as late as 1989.

Other innovative technological features included ammonia gas mechanical refrigeration, indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water, electric freight and passenger elevators, electric and hand-operated dumbwaiters, and a state-of-the-art servants’ call system. The refrigeration room featured a tank containing coiled pipes through which compressed ammonia was circulated to chill brine water. The brine solution was circulated continuously through pipes in two walk-in coolers located near the kitchens, as well as smaller refrigerators in the Main and Pastry Kitchens and one of the servants’ dining rooms in the Basement and the Butler’s Pantry on the First Floor. There was an ice-making plant as well.

Biltmore House has 43 bathrooms, many with tubs or showers. Two coke and electric water heaters produced hot water that was continuously circulated through the House to the bathrooms and back to the heaters. As hot water was used, it was replaced by pressure valves located at the tanks.

The Otis Elevator Company installed the elevators and dumbwaiters, although Hunt drew up the plans and specifications for them. One elevator, located near the front door and the Grand Staircase, was for the use of the family and guests. The other, found in the North Wing in the center of the Servants’ Staircase, transported furniture, firewood, and coal, and guests’ trunks as well as servants themselves, and originated in the Sub-Basement. Two dumbwaiters carried food from the kitchens to the dining room on the First Floor. The electric one went to the Second Floor.

The servants’ call system operated off of glass rechargeable batteries in a cabinet in the Sub-Basement and was called the Annunciator System supplied by Hazlet & Buehler, electrical contractors from New York. Ivory call buttons were conveniently placed throughout the House, many of which were inscribed to call the Butler’s Pantry. Others in the guest bedrooms called a maid or valet. A bell in the Vanderbilt’s Room rang for the Boot Room. In Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Room, one of the buttons was for her dressmaker in the Sewing Room. It was possible to call the Butler’s Pantry at any time of the day or night from virtually any public, family, or guestroom in the House. In addition to the call boxes, there were telephones and speaking tubes to facilitate communication among the staff.

Scholars point to the 1920s as the turning point when laborsaving devices generally came into use in the average American middle-class home. That point arrived 25 years earlier at Biltmore House. In addition, the South lagged behind the rest of the country in its acceptance of laborsaving devices, placing Biltmore House even further into the vanguard for the region.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt’s influence extended beyond the designs for Biltmore House itself. He even designed many of the light fixtures, since electricity was so new, not many options were available yet commercially. Hunt even designed the chandeliers in the Banquet Hall, which he called the “Crown of Light.” The creation of Biltmore House was a complex process influenced by many different factors. Only an architect with the genius and experience of Richard Morris Hunt could have made such plans a reality