Given my choice of destinations, I'm always inclined to head for the past. Not the real past, of course, with its raging epidemics and repellent outhouses, but a past that comes equipped with antibiotics and indoor plumbing. An ersatz past, if you will, but a glimpse of a lost world nonetheless.
And who better to visit the past with than my friend and traveling companion of 30 years' standing, Nancy? We've wandered medieval streets in Strasbourg, explored Renaissance palazzi in Florence -- even combed through an Anglo-Saxon trash heap as volunteers on an archaeological dig in Oxford. On a recent balmy spring day, we didn't need to go nearly as far afield: Just a couple of hours north on I-95, we found two very different versions of history, in New Castle, Del., and at nearby Winterthur.
Like a child prodigy doomed to spend middle age in obscurity, New Castle simply peaked too soon. Through most of the 18th century, it was the largest town in Delaware, as well as its capital. Then came a series of economic blows: the removal of the capital inland to Dover; a canal that was dug too far south of town; railroad tracks laid too far west. By 1881, New Castle was such a backwater that even the New Castle County seat was moved to Wilmington.
But New Castle's decline proved to be a blessing: Because no one had the resources for urban renewal, the houses built during the city's prime were left largely undisturbed. Picking our way over the cobblestones past dignified structures of mellowed brick, Nancy and I half expected to see someone driving a coach-and-four. New Castle is no living museum, though: Jessop's Tavern, where we had lunch, may label its restroom "The Necessary," but the customers lining the bar were unmistakably of the 21st century.
While most of the houses are private homes, a few are open to the public. After a tour of the 1732 courthouse, Nancy and I stopped in at the Dutch House, built by early settlers in 1700. It's hard enough to imagine 11 people inhabiting this cramped structure 300 years ago; what's even harder to believe is that people actually lived here until the 1930s, without heat, electricity or running water. Accidental historic preservation, it seems, had its victims.
At the other end of the spectrum -- and on the other side of the town green, majestically overlooking the Delaware River -- is the 22-room Read House, the largest dwelling in Delaware when it was built in 1801. While Nancy took a break in a coffee shop, I joined the last tour of the day and learned that the house's original owner, George Read II, had set out to build a dazzling showplace and ended up bankrupting himself as a result. Fortunately for New Castle, a couple of more financially secure owners arrived on the scene in 1920 -- Philip and Lydia Laird, members of the extended du Pont family. Historic preservation fever was sweeping the country (or at least the wealthier sectors of it), and the Lairds signed on. Not only did they buy the Read House, but -- finding the neighborhood a bit seedier than they were used to -- they acquired 10 surrounding houses and parceled them out to friends and relatives, who fixed them up. Suddenly, New Castle wasn't just a rundown town with a bunch of old buildings; it was a gem in the rough, waiting to be polished.
Du Ponts are inescapable in Delaware, and -- figuring that if you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em -- Nancy and I had decided to spend the night at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, a few miles from New Castle. As luck would have it, we got two palatial rooms -- each of which seemed to have more square footage than the entire Dutch House -- for the price of one.
At breakfast the next morning in the hotel's Green Room, I took an unplanned trip into my own personal past: All at once, I was a child again, here to visit some Wilmington relatives, my eyes drinking in the dark wood paneling, the sky-high coffered ceiling, the gilded chandeliers, the 21/2-story arched windows. Although I didn't realize it until I saw it again, this room had been historically preserved in my memory, providing the subconscious standard against which I judged any other setting that aspired to elegance and luxury. None of them, of course, could ever match it.
The last stop on our journey was an instance of historic preservation that was anything but accidental, unless you count the accident of having been born into a family of staggering wealth. If New Castle is a testament to benign neglect, then Winterthur -- the former estate of Henry F. du Pont, six miles northwest of Wilmington -- is a monument to dogged acquisitiveness.
Henry du Pont went about decorating his house the way some people take up furnishing period doll houses. The massive dwelling became a museum in 1951; today Winterthur is crammed with more than 89,000 American antiques. Each of the 175 rooms has been arranged to create the illusion that it is actually inhabited by, say, a rural family of the mid-1700s, or a wealthy urban household of the early 1800s -- except that, as our guide pointed out, no family, no matter how wealthy, would have had that much furniture in any one room.
And du Pont wasn't content merely to amass antique china and furniture. He roamed the country collecting woodwork, staircases, even entire house facades, and reinstalled them at Winterthur. He transformed an indoor badminton court into a replica of an 18th-century courtyard, complete with cobblestones and lampposts, surrounded by the facades of houses from four different states.
Touring Winterthur a day after wandering the streets of New Castle, it was hard not to be struck by the artifice of it all -- it was like the difference between watching butterflies flitting around a meadow and examining a lepidopterist's specimens pinned under glass.
Didn't the locals object, I wondered, when du Pont's minions arrived to carve up their precious old buildings? But our guide informed us that, for the most part, du Pont acquired items that were already slated for demolition. Not every town was as lucky as New Castle: just under Henry F.'s nose, but too economically depressed to have attracted the wrecker's ball.
True, it may take some effort to envision yourself in the past while standing in one of Winterthur's period rooms. But if you stood at the site the room was snatched from -- perhaps occupied now by an office building, or a stretch of highway -- the imaginative leap would be infinitely more difficult.
Travel Advisory: "A Day in Old New Castle," an annual tour of private homes and gardens, is May 20; call 877-496-9498. The Hotel du Pont is at 11th and Market streets, Wilmington, Del.; 800-441-9019. Room rates are $179 to $309, double occupancy.