During a recent visit to Wilmington, Delaware, I had the opportunity to visit Nemours Estate, the palatial home of industrialist Alfred I. Dupont (1864-1935) and his family. It wasn’t an experience I’ll soon forget.
Nemours is a 77-room, classicizing mansion built between 1909 and 1910. Carrière and Hastings, the celebrated Beaux-Arts architectural firm responsible for the iconic New York Public Library and the Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue, was its designer. The home is gorgeous, but the real showpiece is the grounds, specifically the formal French-style gardens. The estate gets its name from the town of Nemours in France, where Dupont ancestor Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817) was a minor aristocrat before coming to America during the French Revolution. The American-born Duponts were certainly proud of their French heritage, as evidenced by Nemours Estate’s architecture, contents, and landscaping. However, the home also has scattered British influences, reflecting the tastes of Dupont’s third wife Jessie.
The mansion is 18th-century French in style; it’s generally light and elegantly classical, with white walls and gilt details on the moldings, fluted pilasters, and ceilings. The rooms are full of paintings – numerous family portraits, 18th and 19th-century French and British masters like Joshua Reynolds and Rosa Bonheur, and scattered Renaissance paintings. There are beautiful chandeliers and other works of decorative arts, including the above painted Italian glassware only recently discovered in storage. The home also has medieval and Renaissance-style elements, including dark wood carvings and tapestries. It’s really delightful. My favorite room was the airy conservatory with trellis-like walls and big windows.
Although the home is certainly grand and elaborate, it somehow lacks the imposing formality of more famous Gilded Age mansions like The Breakers, Marble House, and Biltmore. It’s almost possible to imagine living here. The rooms, even major ones like the dining room and entry hall, are human in scale and light in tone, and the upstairs bedrooms look comfortable and inviting. The house reminded me more of Hillwood Estate, another surprisingly-approachable mansion, than any of the “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island. I actually (kind of) believe the text panels that claim Alfred I. Dupont had rather humble tastes, especially after I saw his windowless basement office. Supposedly, it was his second wife Alicia (they were married when Nemours was built, and she died in 1920) who enjoyed all the finery.
In contrast to the mansion, there’s nothing even remotely human-sized about the gardens. Nemours has the largest French-style gardens in this country. They include long, straight, tree-lined walkways, manicured geometric arrangements of shrubberies, a Neoclassical Temple of Love, tons of fanciful statuary, and water features like a large reflecting pool and multiple voluminous fountains. It’s not difficult to believe that these gardens were supposedly modeled on those at Versailles. Walking up the dramatic Long Walk towards the mansion, it was honestly difficult to believe I was still in the United States.
By definition, French-style gardens are formal and Neoclassical; everything is very neat, orderly, and tightly controlled. This contrasts with the English-derived approach more common in America – the relatively natural, picturesque, Romantic landscapes popularized by Frederick Law Olmsted. Since Olmsted basically invented landscape architecture in America, his preferred style is the one that took off, and French-style landscapes are not plentiful in this country.
Nemours Estate’s original 200 acres now include Nemours Children’s Health, a children’s hospital founded with Dupont’s money after his death. (There’s another one in Florida, where Dupont also had a residence.) The hospital’s modern buildings and traffic are just far enough away that they don’t disturb the historic house experience, but their presence gives Nemours a vibrancy quite unlike the isolation of most American great houses. There are also several historic outbuildings and acres of less-formal gardens on the property.
Nemours Estate is open between the months of April and December, every day except Monday from 10 am to 5 pm. An adult day pass to the house and gardens costs $20. There are no guided mansion tours available, but knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents are stationed throughout the house. I really liked this way of doing things, since it allowed me to arrive whenever I wanted (no waiting for the next scheduled tour to start) and move at my own pace while still learning about what I was seeing and could ask about whatever interested me. I seem to have missed the introductory material, though, and had to piece together Dupont’s life story as I went. There are guided tours of the grounds, but I didn’t take one.
More Art in Wilmington
The town of Wilmington, Delaware also has several other attractions for the art lover. The best known is Winterthur, the home of Dupont’s second cousin Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969). Winterthur is also an elegant estate, but a very different one, with more natural gardens and a decorative arts museum. Unlike the homage to the Dupont’s French roots at Nemours, Winterthur is a rich man’s version of rural Americana with collections of American folk and decorative arts. It originally had a dairy farm. Winterthur certainly deserves its own post, but I unfortunately neglected to write one after my last visit several years ago.
I also enjoyed the Delaware Art Museum during this same trip; it was only a 10-minute drive between them. That museum has the best collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and decorative arts I’ve ever seen, courtesy of a Wilmington collector with unconventional tastes. It includes Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous Lady Lilith, a Pre-Raphaelite painting frequently reproduced in major art history textbooks. The Delaware Art Museum also had a big collection of works by Howard Pyle (a Wilmington resident) and other important American illustrators, paintings by John Sloane, and other assorted American art.