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Gilded Gardens

Nemours Estate boasts of the largest formal French gardens in North America and a spectacular château.


If you’re looking to get a peek into the lifestyles of the rich—the really, really rich—there’s no better way than taking tours of historic private estates that are now open to the public. Hearst Castle in California and Biltmore Estate in North Carolina are two of the most famous examples of private-opulence-turned-public-gawking sites, with thousands of visitors showing up every day.

But, if you want to visit an estate that boasts of sprawling French gardens and a spectacular château to boot, head to Wilmington, Delaware, and visit Nemours Estate, built by industrialist and philanthropist Alfred I. du Pont in 1910. Sitting on 81 hectares of carefully crafted gardens and meadows, this 105-room estate is now open to the public and is quite a sight to behold.

The du Ponts were French aristocrats who immigrated to the United States in the early 1800’s, right after the French Revolution, and quickly established themselves alongside the Vanderbilts and Carnegies as industrial giants. They started with a gunpowder manufacturing company, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, and went on to include vast plastic and chemical empires. The company scientists invented nylon, Kevlar and Teflon. At their peak, companies run by the du Pont family employed up to 10 percent of Delaware’s population.

The du Ponts settled near the Brandywine River in Delaware and developed most of the surrounding area. In fact, a stretch of Delaware’s Route 141 is known as DuPont Historic Corridor, since it is bordered on both sides by estates, golf courses, gardens, an airport and a children’s hospital—all built by the du Ponts.

But the crown jewel of their empire is the 1,200-hectare country estate built by du Pont as a gift for his second wife, Alicia. Du Pont, the great-great-grandson of Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the du Pont family patriarch, left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before graduating to work at the family’s gunpowder manufacturing plant in the Brandywine area. He went on to register over 200 patents related to his work.

Nemours Estate is named after the French town associated with Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours. Carrère and Hastings, one of the most renowned Beaux-Arts architectural firms in the United States, designed the mansion and grounds in the Louis XVI-Rococo style of French architecture. The firm, which was located in New York City, also designed the Frick Collection in New York City and the New York Public Library.

Nemours manor was built to resemble a French château, spread across five floors. Du Pont spared no expense, filling the house with rare French 18th-century furniture and an impressive collection of works of art, antiques and tapestries.

One of the largest spaces in the manor is the reception hall, where the du Ponts used to celebrate Christmas. The dining room boasts of a 25-foot-long table and a chandelier believed to have come from Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna where Marie Antoinette, queen of France, spent much of her childhood. There are artworks and paintings dating back as far as the 15th century, but most came courtesy of European masters and contemporary American painters and sculptors. Du Pont also made sure there was plenty of room for fun, with a billiards room, single-lane bowling alley and a garage full of antique cars.

Where the estate really shines, however, isn’t indoors, but outside—it has the largest formal French gardens in North America.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped with greenery, fountains, pools, a statuary and a pavilion surrounded by woods. At the center of it all is an elaborate maze garden with a central statue of Triton and Neptune, gilded with 23-karat gold leaf. Not surprisingly, the statue is named “Achievement.” There’s also a reflection pool that is more than 43,000 square feet large, with 157 jets shooting water 12 feet into the air.

The mansion underwent a three-year, $39 million (Rs. 260 crores approximately) renovation in 2008. Nemours Estate is now open for visitors from May 1 to November 13 and from November 19 to January 8 on all days, except Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Although the estate tours are self-guided, trained staff members in selected locations orient visitors, provide information and answer questions. Maps to the gardens and grounds are available at the visitor center. Ticket prices range from $6 (Rs. 400) to $100 (Rs. 6,600), depending on the visitor’s age and the time of the visit. Make sure you wear walking shoes, so you can comfortably explore the sprawling mansion and the gardens.

 

Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.