DuPont's family treasure of a mansion, garden

October 25, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Wilmington, Del. - The rich are different from the rest of us. They have better gardens. But if we are lucky, they let us visit those gardens, drinking in the serenity, marveling at the perfection.

That is certainly the case with Nemours, the mansion and gardens created at the turn of the 20th century by Alfred I. duPont, the great-great-grandson of Pierre Samuel duPont, the French aristocrat who immigrated to this country and founded a family fortune by making gunpowder.

Nemours, both the 47,000-square-foot mansion and the 220 acres of gardens, has just undergone a $39 million face-lift overseen by Sandra Parson Vicchio of the Baltimore architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross, which also designed the award-winning visitors center.

It reopened last spring after a year of planning and almost three years of work under the direction of Grace Gary, a veteran of historical preservation whose attention to detail is always in evidence: During our tour, she straightened a fork in the dining room and gently nudged a family photo over a scratch in a table.

"This is our treasure," she said, opening the front doors of the mansion to a cascading view of ponds, fountains, statuary, lawns and gardens.

"It is a million-dollar view of the finest French landscaping in North America," Gary said.

"[Alfred I. duPont] was the oldest son of the oldest son of the family's founder, and his family and his French heritage were so important to him. Nemours is an homage to all of that."

DuPont, along with a pair of cousins, would eventually buy the gunpowder factory and, using modern business techniques, establish the underpinnings of the vast duPont holdings of today.

After an acrimonious divorce from his first wife, Bessie, with whom he had four children, duPont married a distant cousin and divorcee, Alicia, and attempted to win the love of this diffident wife by building Nemours, which he designed to be a modern Versailles.

A family feud forced him out of the company he had helped rescue. That, and the death of Alicia caused him to reach out to an old family friend, Jessie Ball, 20 years his junior, and they married.

With the rejuvenating power of her love, and the business acumen of her brother, Edward Ball, he took up banking and real estate in Florida, where his personal fortune exploded.

But he and Jessie, whom he described in so many letters as the love of his life, returned often to Nemours, and Jessie would spend her last days there, outliving her husband by 35 years.

It is not possible, in this small space, to capture the grandeur of Nemours, which was named for the town in France from which the duPonts came. And it sits cheek-by-jowl with the children's hospital Jessie founded to honor Alfred after his death in 1935 at the age of 70. The hospital and its sister hospitals in Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania treat more than 240,000 children a year, many of whom cannot pay.

But as his will stated clearly, the trustees of his estate - about $40 million at his death but in the billions by the time Jessie died, thanks to her brother's skill and toughness - were to attend first to the house and the gardens, keeping them in pristine condition for the benefit of the public, before funding any of his other charities.

Because Jessie knew that her home would one day be a museum capturing the way such families lived at the turn of the 20th century, she discarded nothing, to the point of having the old "ice boxes" converted to refrigeration without changing their appearance.

Five of the family cars are still in the garage, and "the box of hairpins on Jessie's dressing table is her box of hairpins," said Gary.

The trustees of Nemours also determined that visitors would enjoy the beauty of the house and gardens without the press of crowds or the wearisome signs of heavy traffic. Only 42 visitors are allowed at any time, and they are divided into groups of six and guided by salaried docents with encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the family and of this place.

Much is still to come as the renovation of Nemours continues. More of the 77 rooms will be restored and added to the tour. Perhaps, too, the carillon, begun by Alfred to honor his beloved mother and father but not finished until after his own death, will someday be added. It is where Alfred and Jessie and her brother are buried.

After the reopening in May, tours were sold out for months. It is fall now, and the crowds are dwindling, but reservations are still a must.

Nemours is one of three public houses and gardens in the Brandywine Valley created by duPonts, but what is different about Nemours is its "lived-in" quality, right down to the odd knickknacks that are clearly the gifts of grandchildren.

In this way, the intimacy of Nemours stands in wonderful contrast to the vastness of its beauty.

if you go

Nemours in Wilmington, Del., offers tours at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $12. Visitors must be 12 or older. Reservations are required. Call 302-651-6912 or 800-651-6912 or e-mail tours@nemours.org.

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