Over the past six years I have interviewed a number of craftsmen and artists about their lives and businesses here in Asheville. These have been some of my favorite blogs to write for our Asheville Bed and Breakfast website. So I was delighted when I found myself seated at a dinner next to woman who worked in the floral department at the Biltmore Estate. We all know about the 106 decorated Christmas trees on the Biltmore Estate as well as the miles of garlands and gazillion lights but this was my chance to find out about what it is like to be one of the people who make this happen. Janine and I met for lunch this week and we spent a fascinating hour while I listened to her stories about life as a Floral Reserve at the Biltmore.
Janine is an Asheville “transplant”. She moved here from Ohio where she had been a volunteer at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens and thought she would like to volunteer at the Biltmore. But Stan Hywet is a non-profit museum whereas the Biltmore is a privately owned home and business and does not need volunteer workers. So Janine applied for and was hired as a part-time floral reserve member. She is one of a team of 14 floral reserves who work with and support the 7 full time floral designers.
The floral designers decide on the theme and create the concepts for each year’s display but it is the reserve team who put the ornaments on the trees, water the more than 2,000 potted plants and replace the 7,527 feet of evergreen garlands every week. And then at the end of the season they take it all down: separate and sort the dried berries and flowers, take apart and roll the ribbon from 1,500+ bows and carefully pack away the thousands of ornaments. The Biltmore owns all of the ornaments they display, some get reused the next year and some get stored until needed, and some break. Janine says this is most likely to happen towards the end of an 8 hour day of tree decorating. There are 1000 ornaments on each of the 4 trees in the Tapestry room, 4000 in that one room alone and 27,000 in use in all, a mere 1,286 per floral staff member! (And yes, Janine says she does decorate her home as well because “if you are the sort of person who likes that kind of thing…” A sentiment I understand entirely.)
While the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall is put up and decorated in the space of a single day the rest of the house is decorated over the course of a number of weeks. This is one of the few times a visitor will actually see members of the Floral Department at work as they decorate the 65 trees inside the house. I asked Janine if each ornament had a specific spot to be hung on the tree and she told me that, while it is not that proscribed, they are given guidance by the designer as to which colors go on the inside of the tree and working outward and, of course, the trees are inspected before being judged “finished” with the smallest imperfection being noticed and corrected.
During the season the staff come in early to replace the garlands and to water the plants before guests arrive. Janine has seen the sunrise over the Estate many times as it takes almost 30 minutes for her to get to her workspace once she enters the grounds. While she is most definitely not a morning person, the beauty of the Estate and her solitary ownership of it at this hour does much to ameliorate the pain of an early rising!
Work on the next year’s display starts while the current one is up. By January the year’s theme has been decided, the designers have been assigned their rooms and are already making choices from the existing inventory. As the year progresses bows are tied, ornaments selected and sorted and floral orders placed. While all this is going on the staff is also responsible for daily floral arrangements and displays as well as the Spring exhibit of Biltmore Blooms. I asked Janine what she liked best to do and she said it wasn’t so much what she was doing as the fact that she does it with a group of people she likes and respects. And while she didn’t want to tell me exactly what her least favorite job was, I suspect it is sorting the many different type of dried berries and finding the correct box for in which each is stored. One job she has yet to take part in is the demolition of the Gingerbread Model of the Biltmore House. It needs to be completely destroyed every year, making sure that it is history!
As we talked about her work at the house and the organization which goes into the smooth running of the Estate I was struck by how similar this sounded to the running of a large estate house 150 years ago. The public may not have walked through the house then but the pride in making it look good for guests and the attention to detail has not really changed.
This year’s theme is the “Gilded Age” reflecting the opulence and extravagance of high society in the period after the end of the Civil War up to the turn of the century. Rich reds and golds are accented by sparkling silver. I think the tree and decor of the Banquet Hall is absolutely stunning this year. Pause for moment when you enter the room and breath in the scent of the Fraser fir. After you have visited the house, be sure to stop in the greenhouse on your way out. Here you will find an array of poinsettias, in all shades of pink, white and red with some unusual blooms. The lush plants give off a sense of serenity and warmth which will send you on your way with a glow!
The Biltmore at Christmas is not to be missed. We still have weekday packages available but best to book early in order to get the entry time of your choice to the Candlelight Evening. Visit our Specials Page at www.carolinabb.com/specials or 828-254-3608. We will be happy to assist.
Before I finish I would like to extend a special thank you to Janine for letting me interview her, to the Public Relations Department at the Biltmore for supplying me with a wealth of numbers, and to Mark File of RomanticAsheville who is responsible for the interior shots of the Biltmore. You can view more of his pictures at http://www.romanticasheville.com/biltmore-christmas-2015