Take a peek behind the scenes at the country estate of George Vanderbilt where hidden spaces continue to intrigue visitors
Every legendary home holds its share of secrets. Stunning Biltmore, located in Asheville, North Carolina, is no exception. Completed in 1895, the sprawling architectural masterpiece that spans 175,000 square feet was home to George Vanderbilt and his family. In its heyday as a private residence, it attracted high-profile guests, friends and family of the Vanderbilts. In 1930, George’s daughter, Cornelia Vanderbilt, opened Biltmore to the public and it continues to attract visitors from around the world.
If you’ve visited Biltmore, you may be unaware of some of its most intriguing, less visible features. While the 1980 mystery/comedy, The Private Eyes, starring comedy royalty Tim Conway and Don Knotts, shows it having numerous “secret” passageways, they were the creation of Hollywood editors. The reality is that there are hidden areas, created not for intrigue purposes, but for pragmatic ones. In such an elegant home, the staff behind the scenes needed to get to different areas of the house discreetly and quickly. Some of Biltmore’s doors were designed to fit seamlessly into guest-facing spaces, while providing service and convenience to guests and staff. Let’s take a peek.
The Breakfast Room
Among modern-day visitors to Biltmore, the Breakfast Room is a favorite for the hand-tooled Spanish leather covering the majority of the walls. Did you miss the hidden door to the right of the fireplace? If you look at the two Renoir portraits “Young Algerian Girl” and “Child with an Orange” and then lower your gaze, you’ll notice a doorknob. This door leads to the Butler’s Pantry where a dumbwaiter couriered food from the kitchen in the basement. After the food arrived in covered trays, the butler would then plate the food before delivering it to waiting guests. It was a practical solution to an age-old challenge – how to ensure food is served at the right temperature.
Another well-loved room is Biltmore’s Library, which has two levels – the main floor and an upper balcony. George Vanderbilt was passionate about books and took great pride in his extensive collection. The gorgeous space in which the Library is housed includes two discreet doors. The first door is on the second level, behind the tapestry over the fireplace. The space behind the tapestry leads to a passageway connected to the Second Floor Living Hall of Biltmore House. In this way, guests wanting to spend the afternoon in literary pursuits could take a shortcut from their rooms to the Library.
To find the second one, look to the south-west corner of the room and try to spot an engraving of a monk holding a finger to his lips in silence. The man depicted is St. Peter the Martyr, patron saint of Inquisitors and those seeking the truth. If you step through this door, you’ll find yourself in a smaller, more intimate space called the Library Den. From accounts of former guests, it’s known that the room was used for reading, writing and reflection, surrounded by peaceful, blissful silence.
The Billiard Room
Gentlemen visitors to Biltmore often lingered in the Billiard Room, a welcoming space used for post-dinner drinks and gaming. Although many hidden doors allowed the domestic staff to come and go unseen to complete their duties, a special door in the Billiard Room gave guests access to the Smoking Room. Those wishing to partake in a glass of port and a cigar used a door that blends beautifully into a wood panel. It even has art prints hung on it for maximum seamlessness.
The Winter Garden
One of the most unique doors is not on the wall as you might expect. It’s on the floor in the Winter Garden. Covered in marble slabs, it was used primarily to transport plants via a ladder from the lower floor. And while guests may not see the hidden door in the Balcony Room on what’s called the “third and a half floor,” it demonstrates the care put into architectural details that were not as public. It, too, was created so that it would not interrupt the flow of the overall design.
George Vanderbilt’s Bedroom
Finally, in Vanderbilt’s Bedroom, you’ll see another example of how hidden doors were used to preserve the symmetry of spaces. As you walk into the room, the wall behind the bed houses his closet. Open to the public today, his private closet was used to store accessories that a well-to-do gentleman of his time would own – an array of hats and accessories ready for a variety of occasions, from formal dinners to camping excursions.
One thing that has never been a secret is just how much the Vanderbilt family valued living a healthy, active life, including adequate exercise, rest and sleep. They spent their days walking, biking and hiking the expansive grounds, plus enjoyed their indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and bowling alley. It’s part of what makes Biltmore a magical space steeped in history and culture that continues to inspire those who visit it.
Rest well & wake up ready to go!
Better sleep gives rise to better mornings, bringing your goals into focus and dreams within reach. Hungry for more sleep info? Dig into these posts:
- The gracious art of hospitality, thanks to help from Biltmore®
- George Vanderbilt’s passion for travel – lessons for our modern world
- The story of George Vanderbilt & Cedric – and why pets are good for our health