Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Homekeeping Lessons From the Biltmore Mansion

Copyright © 2012 Marcia Wilwerding
A room for every purpose

Lydia and I had the distinct pleasure of touring the house and grounds of the Biltmore Estate on our trip to the Gospel-Centered Marriages conference last fall (2011). I wasn't as impressed with its beauty and grandeur as I was with the simple order with which the household was maintained. From it I was able to glean a few tips for a more efficient homekeeping of our own "estate," albeit on quite a smaller scale. :)

One thing which really stood out to me was how there was a separate room for every occasion and occupation. Although the average homekeeper doesn't have enough rooms in her home to designate one for each living experience, dividing what space one has into assigned areas makes keeping things neat and tidy so much easier.

Clear-cut work stations

One aspect of each room having a specific purpose was having separate rooms for different chores. Most of us have done this in our own homes with laundry rooms, kitchens, and even sewing rooms. But, the Biltmore House has at least six rooms just for food preparation and storage:
  • the vegetable pantry (like a root cellar)
  • kitchen pantry
  • walk-in refrigerator
  • pastry kitchen (cooler than the regular kitchen)
  • rotisserie kitchen with open spit (kept smoke and fat from getting into other kitchens)
  • and main kitchen
The laundry process involved not less than five rooms:
  • two work rooms
  • a brown laundry (for fine, hand-washable garments and linens)
  • main laundry
  • and drying room
Main Kitchen at the Biltmore House[1]
Paying close attention to the layout and function of these rooms gave me inspiration for organizing my own home. For instance, I had already begun to use different rooms in our basement for similar purposes. For instance, the room where the freezer is located is a perfect place for canning and freezing equipment and extra pantry storage. There's even a second stove down there and a large table where I have the dehydrator set up and ready to use. After seeing the simplicity of the food storage rooms at Biltmore, I am now considering how I might fine tune the use of that room and organize it better.

Also, I noticed how each work station had all the equipment, tools, and products stored neatly within easy reach of where they were used. This is efficiency at its best. All good home organizers recommend this system of keeping everything used for any job in close proximity to where it will be used. Institutional housekeepers usually have everything in one closet and fill a cart once or twice a day with everything they will need to complete the entire cleaning routine.

Thinking about this has inspired me to gather all my tools and cleaning supplies together into one closet and to implement something similar. It would sure make the cleaning chores a lot easier not having to hunt up what I need.

Quality over quantity in decor

This is a sad truth about my family: we are hoarders (no, not like on t.v.). Grandma, Mother, and I have all been women whose decor tastes run in the eclectic vein. In other words, when we see something pleasing, we buy it, especially if found in a thrift shop, at a yard sale, or (Eureka!) on the side of the road. I remember the nightmare of helping my poor mother empty her parents' house after their passing and, not long afterward, helping her and my step-father move from one state to another. You would think I'd learn from from these experiences, but I still have so far to go.

But, in the Biltmore Mansion, each room has a noticeably minimalist knickknack factor. In fact, the emphasis is on quality over quantity. Because the decorations are more expensive, they are more appreciated for their true value. I'm not saying one must pay more for her decor, but holding out for items of real value even in thrift shops and garage sales is actually more worth it in the end. You can actually enjoy the few best things better when they are not lost in the clutter of the many mediocre things.

Plants both indoors and out

One of the most gorgeous aspects of the Biltmore Estate is the prolific gardens and houseplants. Mr. Vanderbilt hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the French formal garden near the house, the English landscape garden beyond, and even the woodland areas all around the property. At the entrance to the house, the visitor is immediately attracted to the sunken indoor garden just off the entryway.[2]

Copyright ©2012 Marcia Wilwerding
This is one area where I differ greatly from my mother's and grandmother's examples. Let me just say, thank goodness babies aren't green. If, like me, you are not a plant person, please trust me on this one: you can be.

It doesn't take much to brighten a home with a houseplant here and there, and there are so many easy-care choices available for nearly nothing. My favorites are the philodendron, peace lily, jade plant, aloe (the inside goo is great to grab to instantly relieve burns), spider plant, arrowhead vine, and the lovely croton.[3] You may even pick up many of these in the floral department of your favorite grocery store. Just be sure to read the care information (usually located on a plastic pick stuck down in the dirt somewhere around the edge of the container) before you bring your babies home.

Before you buy, ask yourself these questions:
  • Do I have an ideal spot for this plant with the sunlight required? 
  • Will the temperature in that area be good for this type of plant? 
  • Will I actually keep it watered on schedule?
  • Are there special care instructions such as periodically adding fertilizer?
And, if you need help with caring for your houseplants,...don't ask me. ;)

Mix up the dining experience

Besides dinner served in the seven-story banquet hall, complete with massive triple fireplace and pipe organ loft, visitors at the Biltmore House might be served breakfast alone in their rooms or share it with other guests in the second floor sitting room; partake of luncheon in the breakfast room (?); or enjoy tea in the music room, the salon, the 90-foot-long tapestry gallery, the third floor living hall, outdoors on one of the porches, or in the tea house at the far corner of the south terrace.

Copyright ©2012 Marcia Wilwerding
For most families today, taking plates to the watch the game in the living room or eating grilled hamburgers on the patio are the most out-of-the-dining-area eating we do. In fact, our home only has one table and chairs for most meals in our eat-in kitchen. We don't even have a separate dining room. But, making other areas of the home suitable for eating or snacking can make it much more fun and inviting.

How about tea on the front porch or lunch on a blanket under a tree in the yard? Perhaps you could move your devotional coffee/tea break recliner and side table to a corner of your bedroom where it would be more private and free from distractions. Entertaining in the basement, in the garage, or out in the yard are also possible alternatives when there's just no room anywhere else in the house.

Annex space for the children

Last, but not least, the Vanderbilts made room for children and young people. The areas most popular with younger visitors and the young at heart were housed in the basement and included a swimming pool, gymnasium, and bowling alley.[4] But, the room which really caught my attention was painted with amateur murals depicting spooky houses and other Halloween-type images. Appropriately dubbed the Halloween Room, it is reported guests of the newlywed John and Cornelia Cecil took it upon themselves to paint this large basement room during a holiday stay. According to the brochure, it took them three weeks to finish their work. But, what remains is the evidence of creative freedom set aside for that purpose in a once humble storage area.[5]

Once again, though you may not have room for a bowling alley or a pool, you might still find space for activities for young folks even indoors. A water-proof, mold-free room in the basement could be stocked with exercise equipment picked up at yard sales and thrift shops, and I've even seen a swing hung from the rafters in a living room. Why not a whole indoor playground in the basement?[6] Okay, maybe not. But, you get the picture.

Instead, how about painting one wall or portion of a wall in the dining room or kitchen with chalk paint? While you're busy cooking dinner, the little tykes could be writing on the walls legally! The dining room is also a great place to stash art materials and busy work projects for quiet time. A covered shelf or drawer of a side buffet or other such dining or living room furniture keeps things tidy and out of sight.

One thing to consider, however, is that bedrooms do not generally make good playrooms. Just think how a room used for exuberance and creativity would be very difficult to settle down and go to sleep in. Just a thought.

And, of course, there's always the great outdoors. You could spend a lot of money on playground equipment, but it's really not necessary. Children love to play in the dirt. A garden space set aside just for them can be a very satisfying and educational endeavor... with a lot of help from Mom or Dad. ;) An outdoor baby swing hung at the end of the clothesline, such as we have, is simple but very enjoyable, and, yet, a tree swing on a large tree branch has been the source of hours of delight for many a child even today.

More Information

I hope you've enjoyed these ideas for creating real living spaces in your home based on the Biltmore Mansion layout. Just for fun, here is a link to the complete floor plan of the house updated at the end of 2011: Also, the University of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill has a fascinating technical tour of the house which may be of interest to you:

Please feel free to share your own ideas in the Comments section below.

[1] Photo credit: "Picture Tour of Biltmore House and Estate Grounds" on
[2] See photos at
[3] Better Homes and Gardens has an excellent slideshow of photos and information here:
[4] Sneek peak at those areas from a sneaky blogger (you aren't supposed to take pictures):
[5] Photos taken of the Halloween Room:
[6] Here are a few ideas for indoor recreational equipment for indoor playgrounds, both from Health Products For You: