Nemours, an estate evolving into an ecosystem

One of the formal side gardens, formed with small boxwoods , on the 100-year-old Nemours Mansion grounds. "We're trying to take this big pie and carve it into little manageable bites," Grace Gary, executive director, says of the never-ending work there.
One of the formal side gardens, formed with small boxwoods , on the 100-year-old Nemours Mansion grounds. "We're trying to take this big pie and carve it into little manageable bites," Grace Gary, executive director, says of the never-ending work there. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2011

Sometimes, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, the very rich are different from you and me. But when it comes to home improvements, they can be just like us.

Our humble houses and gardens are never truly "done," and so it is with the former Alfred I. duPont estate known as Nemours, a pristine mini-Versailles and public garden on 222 acres in Wilmington.

Despite the completion in 2008 of a three-year, $39 million restoration of the mansion and gardens, the work goes on - to the tune of $2.5 million a year. "You know how old houses are," says Grace Gary, an architectural historian and Nemours' executive director since 2004.

We do. But this "old house," going strictly by the numbers, is a monster.

Built in 1909 and 1910 in the French neoclassical style, the mansion was a gift from duPont, a gunpowder magnate, to his second wife, Alicia Bradford, who died in 1920. It was designed by the New York architectural firm Carrere & Hastings, which also designed the New York Public Library.

At an estimated cost of $2 million, Nemours - named for the duPont ancestral home in France - has 77 rooms filling five stories and 47,000 square feet, about the size of a football field, minus the end zones.

Steppelike, grassy terraces roll down the hill in front of the house to a reflecting pool, though "reflecting pool" sounds small and intimate and this one's huge. It covers a whole acre and requires 800,000 gallons of city water to fill up; Nemours' fountains need 200,000 more.

Rodney Robinson, the Wilmington landscape architect in charge of the recent restoration of the grounds, is now working on a plan to capture rainwater from the estate and Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children next door. The water will be stored in underground cisterns, then used to feed Nemours' fountains and irrigation systems.

Beyond the reflecting pool, where a replica of duPont's 15-foot Whitehall rowboat is tethered, Nemours' famous vista continues on, all splendidly restored - the maze garden with its grand gilt statue (Achievement), the formal parterre, the Colonnade and Sunken Gardens, more fountains and flower beds, all the way to the Temple of Love, featuring a newly waxed statue of Diana the Huntress.

She faces the house, a full quarter-mile away, providing a glamorous bookend for what Gary, sometimes called "the mansion lady," considers "one of the most wonderful vistas anywhere in North America."

It's looking pretty wonderful, all right.

Polka dots of sunshine light up the woods, as Gary shuttles visitors around in a golf cart that maneuvers like a middle-aged all-terrain vehicle. Slowly, it bumps through the rough patches, speed picking up, but not too much, on the straightaways.

The mock orange is having a wonderful year, its fragrance outrageously sweet. Nearby, a supersized weeping beech is a granddaddy, at 75. And there are birds everywhere: A redbellied woodpecker disappears into a tree hole, while inside Diana's temple, a mother robin sits motionless in a nest.

In addition to more than 70 species of birds, Nemours hosts white-tailed deer, red foxes, raccoons, groundhogs, opossums, turtles, frogs, fish, and Canada geese, not all of them welcome.

But they're part of the narrative now.

Like many institutions, Nemours is tweaking its image. Ever the historic house and landscape, it's evolving into more of an ecosystem, where all creatures and their creations coexist in harmony.

There are beehives now and a 4-H vegetable garden, and there's talk of homegrown honey and compost. All this down the hill from a mansion so opulent, it stuns even 2011 sensibilities.

The $39 million restoration focused on what organizational types call "the visitor experience" - the mansion, the gardens, and that signature vista. There's even a new Visitor Center.

In the last 21/2 years, the to-do list has shifted. Recent and future projects include: the water tower and Southern Gardens; pump houses, gates, ponds, and bridges; Horseshoe Fountain; chauffeur's garage; seven greenhouses, and the old orangerie, as well as duPont's wooden launch and five classic cars.

"We're trying to take this big pie and carve it into little manageable bites," says Gary, a duPont scholar and fan.

"I'm unshakable in my belief that he was a figure of regional importance and, I believe, national importance, too," she says, crediting duPont with keeping the family business in Delaware and the many benefits that accrued from that.

Gary cites duPont's philanthropy, too. For example, he underwrote a multiyear, statewide pension system for needy Delaware seniors in the pre-Social Security days of the Great Depression. The gesture cost him $450,000 and affected about 1,500 people.

"The issue isn't whether Delaware is a huge state or not. The man did it," Gary says.

He also provided for the now-$4.5 billion Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust, which supports the Nemours Foundation, which in turn supports the eponymous children's hospital next door, four pediatric clinics in Delaware and Florida, and other health-care initiatives.

A second Nemours children's hospital is scheduled to open in Orlando in 2012.

Very impressive. You wonder, though, why Nemours has so few visitors - 21,000 in 2010, a record dwarfed by 876,000 at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and 116,000 at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Wilmington. Both are former duPont estates.

Actually, Gary says, "a decision was made many years ago that our first priority is to make sure each visitor has a quality experience."

That means no more than eight "guests" per guide and no more than 48 people touring the house at one time. Brenda Lyons, a guide for two dozen years, says the tours - three hours, including house and gardens - are designed to be very personal.

Each visitor gets a carnation and an umbrella, if needed, and unlike many house museums, where rooms are roped off, Lyons says, "at Nemours, you go in and out of the rooms," as if you are visiting family.

No matter that the duPont family is world famous and that Alfred and third wife Jessie lived (happily) here in royal style. In some respects, they really were just like us.

OK, rich us.


Nemours Mansion and Gardens

Nemours Mansion and Gardens, at 1600 Rockland Rd. in Wilmington, is open for tours May 1 through Dec. 31. Children under 12 not admitted. Guided tours are offered at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and noon and 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Reservations are strongly recommended for individuals and required for groups.

To reserve, call 302-651-6912 or 1-800-651-6912, or go to www.nemoursmansion.org. Admission: $15. (There are no restaurant or picnic facilities at Nemours, but information on places to eat is available at the Visitor Center.)


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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

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