Journalist: Rebecca Pineo
Photographer: Zoe Panchen
“NEMOURS”, announced the glowing, pale green sign at the entrance gate. We had arrived at the Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, Delaware, the newly restored, former estate of Alfred I. du Pont. After debating the entrance sign’s material (Lucite?), admiring the parking lot’s classy surface (white pebble), and snapping photos of the colorful outdoor planters, we entered the two-month old Visitor Center. Enthusiastic front desk attendants, a sleek timeline exhibit, and an edifying orientation video introduced us to the story of Nemours.
Alfred I. du Pont was the great-grandson of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, founder of the Brandywine River gunpowder mill that ignited the du Pont fortune. Alfred, born in 1864, experienced many ups-and-downs during his life as industrialist, inventor, musician, family man and benefactor. By the age of 25, he had risen from orphaned schoolboy to partner in the gunpowder mill. In 1902, he rallied two cousins to rescue the DuPont Company from a competitor buyout; later, the same cousins engineered his forced resignation. Bad investments drove Alfred close to bankruptcy; he rebuilt his fortune with Florida real estate and paper. After two failed marriages, he wed Jesse D. Ball, who reciprocated his adoration. Upon his death in 1935, he willed some forty million dollars to providing healthcare services to children through the Nemours Foundation.
Du Pont built his Mansion and Gardens as a modern Versailles in a bid to win the heart of his second wife. While he never provoked more than friendship from Alicia, he certainly produced a passable facsimile of a royal French estate. Named “Nemours” for the du Pont’s French ancestral home, the three-hundred-acre Mansion and Gardens were erected from 1910-11 by the renowned architects Carrère and Hastings. In total, the Nemours property includes roughly one thousand acres, with one third dedicated to the Mansion and Gardens, one third to natural areas, and another third to the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children, a primary beneficiary of the Nemours Foundation.
From the Visitor Center we journeyed to the Mansion, where Executive Director Grace Gary welcomed us with the institution’s main aim and interpretive message. From house decor to landscape design, the Mansion and Gardens reflect the estate’s appearance in Alfred and Jessie’s time. The take-home message? These du Ponts were not the stodgy stuff of sepia photographs, but real people living in a real residence with real laughs and leisure time. (This, Grace notes, explains the functional rowboat parked auspiciously in the formal reflection pool). All interpretation is verbal and based on the above propositions; all visits are restricted to guided tours to protect the collections and provide personalized insight into the lives of Alfred and Jessie du Pont.
Hence began the grand tour of the grand mansion. Susie Drummond and Kathy Greshler, our hospitable and knowledgeable guides, wove us through a maze of treasure-filled rooms. The dining room on the main floor dripped with opulence, from the gold-inlaid ceiling and crystal chandelier to the table set with silver pheasant centerpieces and needlepoint tapestry chairs. The earthy-toned bottom floor served as the dining room’s foil, a masculine hideaway equipped with a different class of luxuries: a mechanical horse, a sauna-like sweat box, a room dedicated to billiards and pool, a home movie theater, a bowling alley. The Mansion was clearly a home meant for entertaining, and, at the same time, for living with family. Barely a shelf or wall was bereft of a du Pont face in the form of framed photograph or canvas.
We emerged from the Mansion for a garden tour with Steve Maurer, Public Relations and Marketing Manager. A modern Versailles indeed! Facing the main garden from the steps of the Mansion, we dropped our jaws at the splendid overlook: perfectly manicured parterres of massed annuals and low-clipped hedges, immaculate expanses of pattern-mowed turf, a fountain pool extending for an acre, a magnificent white marble Colonnade, the gleaming statue “Achievement” plated in twenty-three carat gold. If magically transported to this lookout, few would recognize Delaware!
As we approached, the sharp relief of white marble, green turf and hedge, and monochromatic beds of red, yellow and pink dissolved into individually recognizable elements: intricate marble carvings, immaculate Stephanandra hedges, ordinary annuals massed in astonishing quantity. Whimsy presented a common, if subtle element—gnomes peppered the creekside, and the bronzed huntress Diana gazed at stag statues standing guard in the distance. Every landscape detail, from micro to macro, bespoke utter deliberateness. A team of ten gardeners maintained the entire pristine landscape—a heroic feat for sure!
Steve enlightened us with some of the horticultural dilemmas posed by a maturing historic landscape. Should only declining specimens be removed from aging allées, or the entire planting? How does one manage plant records when accession labels threaten the garden aesthetic? How can the Gardens maximize staff resources when historic design demands exacting maintenance? While artifacts in the Mansion remain willingly in place, it is an ongoing challenge to conform a dynamic landscape to Alfred I. du Pont standards.
After the garden tour, we were once again greeted by the charming Paul Porter, self-proclaimed “Oldest Bus Driver in the World.” He enthusiastically carted us off to the crown jewel of most guided tours—the Chauffeur’s Garage, which features Alfred’s favored modes of transportation, both four-wheeled and keeled.
The Garage also housed a parting gift: bottles of water bearing the original “Nemours Silver Springs” logo from Alfred’s on-site bottling operation. Perhaps, in an unintentional yet compelling way, the bottled water captured best what Nemours Mansion and Gardens was all about: original packaging, modern ingredients.