Adrian Higgins Visits Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, Del.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
At a time of renewed austerity, when thrift is a virtue and unemployment is rife, it feels almost sinful to tour the newly reopened Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington.
Inspired by Versailles, the formal garden is mostly French neoclassical with Italian and English touches stretching a quarter-mile along one grand axis, from the front door of the house to the Temple of Love in the distance.
The garden is a confection of limestone and marble, of fountains and statuary, and if there was any doubt that the lily would be gilded, it is dispelled in a double-figured statue called (what else?) "Achievement." A heroic guy stands triumphant over a coiled dragon, holding a torch and laurel branches. Behind, a woman, virtuous, beautiful, is clutching a rose and whispering in his ear. They stand 12 feet tall on a basin of red Italian marble, itself 10 feet above the pool. Once covered in radiator paint, this victorious couple now shimmers in 23-karat gold leaf.
It's all part of a $39 million renovation of the house and gardens, with more to come. The estate, built by Alfred I. du Pont for his second wife, Alicia du Pont, reopened in May after three years. Although it was open before, Nemours was never quite on the map in the way that other du Pont estates in the region were, especially Pierre du Pont's Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., or Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur in Delaware, popular garden destinations for Washingtonians.
"My hope is to increase understanding and awareness of Mr. [Alfred] du Pont, who's not well known or well understood," said Grace Gary, Nemours's executive director.
Nemours is the most starkly Beaux-Arts in design, scale and style of any du Pont house, and while there is not a lot of mystery to the landscape or tremendous horticultural complexity, it is one of the grandest surviving examples of an American villa of a golden age in mansion building. The house was built in 1909 and 1910 at an estimated cost of $2 million. Du Pont developed the formal garden over the next 20 years or more. "To see it beautifully restored is kind of exciting," said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Du Pont was a complex man who broke from the rest of the dynasty in one of the most public and nasty rifts in American corporate history.
The house and gardens were designed by a leading New York architectural firm, Carrere and Hastings, whose work included the New York Public Library. Nemours, named after the French home town of the du Ponts, is loosely based on the Petit Trianon, the house and garden of Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
Du Pont changed the designed facade of the house, adding an indented porch to lend a Southern touch to his chateau.