A Glimpse of a Gilded Age
Once Home to a Rebel Of the du Pont Family, Estate Exudes Grandeur After a 3-Year Renovation

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

From the front of the house, a series of grassy terraces step down to an oval reflecting pool that contains 800,000 gallons of water and covers a third of an acre. Du Pont used it for swimming and boating, and a replica of his rowboat is tethered near an edge.

Next comes the maze garden, a formal parterre whose centerpiece is the pool bearing the statue "Achievement," by the French-born American sculptor Henri Crenier. When the gilders were applying the gold leaf to the bronze figures, specks of gold rained down like confetti, Gary said. "You would pick up pieces and it literally dissolved in your hand," she said.

The tour continues to the Colonnade, built around 1930 as a triumphant classical monument to du Pont's forebears. It also functions as a screen to break up the vista and hide the Sunken Gardens behind it. Descend into this space and your senses are almost overwhelmed: the enclosure of marble and travertine, the carved fish and grotesques, and the constant sound of water.

The two-acre Sunken Gardens' fountain contains six basins. The view away from it is of another parterre and lawn framed by a sloping wall and plant beds. The Sunken Gardens formed part of the estate's original design but were modified by Alfred du Pont's son, architect Alfred Victor, to bulk up its baroque drama.

Beyond a naturalistic lake and a grassy slope, the eye stops at the Temple of Love, where a bronze Diana looks back to the house, bow and arrow in hand. On a cross axis to the formal garden, du Pont put in a handsome water tower, large but evocative of less pompous, more provincial French architecture. Twenty-seven feet across at its base, it rises to 80 feet.

Inside the Mansion

The 77-room house covers an acre, and its first-floor salons bespeak as grand a declaration as the gardens. The reception hall is a checkerboard of highly polished marble, and the ceiling is coffered and freshly painted in Wedgwood blue with gilded rosettes. Among its curiosities is a musical clock.

The high-ceiling rooms on the main level contain fine furniture, exquisite curtains and antiques. The walls are smothered in paintings by J.M.W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Breugel the Younger and Charles Willson Peale, to name a few.

One of the most delightful rooms is the conservatory, with a plaster ceiling, polished marble floor and wall clad in ornate latticework, or treillage, painted to match the warm gray of the stucco exteriors.

The upstairs living quarters reveal another character to Nemours, one of comfort and of plumbing, electrics and conveniences advanced for its day in a series of en-suite bedrooms on a cozy and domestic scale.

The basement is as interesting as any part of the property and reveals how du Pont worked and played. One room is devoted to shuffleboard; an adjoining space is a two-lane bowling alley that doubles as a cinema. Elsewhere you find a billiards room and a shooting range. Du Pont's office contains the head of a buffalo he shot. Another hangs in the garage, looking down on a pair of Cadillacs, two Rolls-Royces and a Buick.

As an industrialist, du Pont was interested in the technology of the day. The basement includes an ice-making machine, a diesel-electric generator, a room to make ice cream and an apparatus to bottle and carbonate water from the estate. He had wired a previous house with electricity as early as 1887.

The Life of 'The Count'

The mansion lionizes its founder in its presentations (the facelift includes a new 5,000-square-foot visitors center) and emphasizes both his solidarity with the gunpowder workers at du Pont's powder mill on the Brandywine River and his enduring philanthropy. He left most of his fortune to establish hospitals and clinics for children, institutions that continue today.

But you cannot grasp how Nemours came to be without exploring the messier aspects of his life. Other du Ponts called him "The Count," but probably not to his face.

In 1902, he moved to keep the DuPont company in family hands by persuading two cousins, Pierre and T. Coleman, to go into partnership to buy it. This corporate triumph would prove highly lucrative, but at the same time his marriage to Bessie Gardner was failing, as was his hearing. After divorcing his first wife and then marrying Alicia, a divorcee, he found himself increasingly ostracized by his relatives. Prickly and high-minded, he also began to fall out with his business partners. In 1911 he was removed as manager of the powder mill and five years later was voted out of the company by a board assembled by Pierre, who had become his nemesis.

Nemours became an enclave du Pont created for himself and his wife against the assault of his clan. He arranged for a nine-foot-high wall to be built around the property, its top studded with broken glass. He is reputed to have said that the wall was "to keep out intruders, mainly those of the name of du Pont."

His enemies in the family found the house and garden impossibly immodest. Gary said there were many reasons Nemours became grand as it is, among them making up for Alicia du Pont's isolation and building a monument to his ancestors. His second wife died in 1920. A year later, he married Jessie Ball, 20 years his junior. She would encourage him to install "Achievement" in the years before his death in 1935.

Charles Birnbaum thinks of Nemours as a perfect complement to the other du Pont houses in the area "because of the sheer civicness of the design." The same motives that propelled French royalty to build Versailles are at play at Nemours. "It's monumental and civic; it's for promenading, strolling, welcoming, illustrating wealth," Birnbaum said. "I don't know many gardens where you have that scale, or the simplicity of the gesture."

In his will, du Pont stipulated that Nemours be maintained "for the pleasure and benefit of the public." He would no doubt approve of the renovations, many of which are hidden and involve the infrastructure of the house.

"I'm really protective of him because I really do like him," said Gary. "And he hasn't always received his due."

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