Once more, Nemours

A grand restoration of the duPont estate near Wilmington will refresh its French elegance.

Posted: September 21, 2007

No sense putting on airs if you're the straightforward First State, and an itty bitty one, at that.

When you have a home as fine as Nemours, built in 1910 by Alfred I. duPont, you don't pretend it's a "cottage," as they might in blueblood Newport. It's a mansion.

Set on 222 acres just north of Wilmington, Nemours has 77 rooms, seven ponds, a kids' playhouse the size of a model home in Levittown, and enough gold leaf on the walls, ceilings and statuary to gild an entire line of death masks for King Tut.

The French-styled country estate, which typically gets 14,000 visitors a year, is in the middle of the first, and largest, phase of a restoration that could take another decade to complete. Underwritten by $36.8 million from the Nemours Foundation, Phase 1 is supposed to wrap up by May 1, when the public will be welcomed, by appointment, once more.

"We're not changing the physical appearance so much as returning what was once there - with improvements," says Nemours executive director Grace Gary, who sometimes dons knickers and argyle socks, as duPont often did, when she speaks to guests.

The current project, launched in 2005, focuses on the interior and exterior of the house and what Gary calls its "million-dollar view": the formal gardens that stretch from the mansion's front door, almost as far as the eye can see, to the Temple of Love, whose life-sized statue of the huntress Diana once was pinged in the leg by a poacher's bullet.

Between mansion and temple, the eye passes over a vista lined with flower-filled urns, a one-acre reflecting pool with 157 water jets, a maze garden, a spectacular limestone colonnade, and sunken gardens, which actually had begun to sink.

One hundred people are working on the restoration, and on a recent visit the place is crawling with work crews, artisans and construction equipment, taking advantage of whatever warm weather remains for the year. Wires tumble out of a dining room wall. The conservatory is webbed with scaffolding. Paint is wet, planks cover the floors, and chainsaws drone in the distance.

Outside, a new visitors center is going up. The pool's a dry gulch, a new garden irrigation system is being dug, and the perennial beds cry out for perennials.

"It's really great," says head horticulturist Rick Larkin, who's clearly pumped.

He extols the estate's "phenomenal stand of trees," some of which have survived lightning hits. The collection includes mature Norway and Oriental spruces, lindens and beeches, Japanese maples, and American elms that have remained blessedly free of Dutch elm disease.

"It's amazing," Larkin says. "Mr. duPont practically had an arboretum out here."

His mission now is to return the gardens to what they were when duPont was alive, swapping American boxwood for English; trading the liriope for Hedera helix 'Ivalace,' a smaller-leafed English ivy with ruffles and dark, glossy leaves; and replacing the hollies with Cryptomeria japonica, a handsome pyramid-shaped conifer.

The look will be vintage duPont - and very French.

The mansion is built of Brandywine granite, all quarried on the estate, and trimmed in Indiana limestone. Yet the New York architectural firm of Carrère & Hastings loosely based its design on Le Petit Trianon, on the grounds of Versailles. Originally built for Madame de Pompadour, the baby chateau eventually became a gift from the ill-fated Louis XVI to his equally doomed queen, Marie Antoinette.

DuPont named his 47,000-square-foot manse after the French town represented by his great-great-grandfather, Pierre Samuel duPont, in the court of Louis XVI, who lost both the French monarchy and his head in one thump of the guillotine in 1793.

DuPont, the industrialist and philanthropist, died in 1935 of a heart attack, his net worth estimated at $40 million. His third wife and widow, Jessie Ball duPont, lived at Nemours till her death in 1970.

Using letters and photos, her diaries and the historical record, conservators have pieced together the original look of the mansion and gardens. Come May, the fabulous 18th-century French furniture and artwork will be back in place, along with the Royal Crown Derby, Meissen and Sévres china services, exquisite linens, and enough sterling, as the insurance appraisers discovered, to cover 225 square feet.

The mansion will be as it always was, but better. And safer. It will have new wiring, central smoke-detection and fire-suppression systems, and newly stabilized masonry.

How easy to imagine the duPonts greeting guests in the grand reception hall and dining amid the fresh flowers, five-armed candelabra, and fine everything. But guide Virginia Lewing reminds us that Nemours was a home, not a museum, and that despite the opulence, entertaining was more about family than flash.

"Would you understand old money versus new money?" she asks. "It was old money. They collected all these wonderful things, but they used them all."

Old money, new money. Jessie duPont may have been in another league altogether when it came to net worth. But in matters of the heart, there's no bottom line.

A prolific (if less than scintillating) diarist, Jessie apparently longed for her late husband decades after his death, especially when she returned to Nemours from Epping Forest, their retreat in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Oh, A.I.," she wrote in one entry, late in her life. "How long will I miss you?"

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Contact staff writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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