(Photographs by Felicia Chua)
As our inaugural field trip for the Summer 2014 season, the first-year fellows toured the mansion and grounds of Nemours, the former home of gunpowder magnate A.I. duPont. Located in Wilmington, Delaware, the palatial estate, modeled after Versailles in a formal French style, was draped in the heat and humidity of a true Mid-Atlantic July.
We were greeted at the Visitors Center by Public Relations Manager, Steve Maurer, who escorted us by vehicle up to the center drive of the mansion, catching glimpses of the gardens and fountains through the allee of thickly planted oak, chestnut, and cryptomeria.
Our second host, the Head of Horticulture at Nemours, Richard Larkin joined us at the front entrance of the mansion where our view was no longer obscured by the allee. Although hesitant to wander the grounds in the heat, Richard and Steve expertly guided us through the shade to view the estate’s gardens.
The extensive boxwood designs, gravel paths, and gold leaf details were balanced by the charming wildness of a rural historic site. The trees led our gaze down one-third of a mile of intensely manicured formal gardens, highlighting architectural features that included fountains, ponds, a sunken garden, Greco-Roman temples, and statues and stonework of old gods.
Currently sitting on three hundred acres, the site for the house and garden was chosen by A.I. duPont to honor a memory of his father, anecdotally relayed to us by Steve Maurer, “While on a walk in the woods with his father, E.I. duPont, a young A.I. was brought to a spot surrounded by tulip poplars. His father told him that he would like to build a house there so he could spend his days reading and eating ice cream.” There were five original tulip poplars on the property of which only one remains. It is very badly in decay and currently being held upright by a concrete slab, preserved as an historic and emotional connection to the past.
A Lord & Burnham greenhouse sat unused, derelict, and beautifully invaded by flowering butterfly bush. It stood in sharp contrast to the meticulously restored and maintained house and gardens, both a testament to the skill of the staff, as well as a reminder of the effects of time and nature unchecked.
The house itself was stunning, and the taste and style of their personal esoterica may be unmatched. It was to great disappointment that we were not allowed to take photographs inside of the mansion, but understandable. The duPonts of Nemours surrounded themselves with objects of personal appeal. Amassing a collection based purely on personal preference, the house was filled with paintings, rugs, furniture, and objets d’art unified by a strong aesthetic taste. Some personal highlights included a locked refrigerator in the lower level of the house where A.I. duPont kept his ice cream, and a basket of vegetable and fruit shaped ice cream molds (alarmingly made of lead)!
The functional design of the house was equally impressive. Being an MIT trained engineer, A.I. DuPont spared no expense or craftsmanship in Nemours’ mechanical systems. Early ammonia based refrigerators, ergonomically conscious cork flooring, and redundant generators were all installed, and remain as a testament to innovation and classic industrial design.
Nemours follows faithfully in the family motto “To Love and To Know.” Built for his second wife, and honoring the memories of his father, Nemours is a revelation in that which A.I. duPont both knew, and loved.