French opulence and American ingenuity
It took just 18 months to build the Nemours mansion after ground was broken in 1909 on a 300-acre site north of Wilmington. There was no budget—just a handshake between Alfred I. duPont and his builder, who must have been awed by the scope of the plan.
The recent restoration of the house and formal French gardens, which reopened for tours last summer, took three years and cost $39,000,000.
Both then and now the results have been spectacular.
“Not only is this the grandest residence ever built in Delaware,” says Nemours Executive Director Grace Gary, “but there is nothing remotely like this house between Newport and Washington, DC.”
When visitors pass through the gates of the estate, they enter a setting that evokes France’s Chateau country. Lush woodlands and formal gardens surround an imposing Louis XVI-style chateau. The vista from the front steps of the mansion—inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles—has as its focal point a striking gold-leaf statue framed by fountains.
Alfred duPont wanted his home to reflect his French ancestry. “Nemours” was the name of his great-great-grandfather’s estate south of Paris. Pierre Samuel duPont immigrated to America in 1799 to escape the aftermath of the French Revolution. His sons built a black powder operation on the Brandywine that grew into an industry giant.
It would be easy to imagine Alfred’s life as one of ease and privilege. But he was happiest when working shoulder to shoulder with the men in the gritty powder yards.
The newly-built Visitors Center gives a sense of the man and why he built Nemours.
duPont’s life was marked by personal trials, family betrayals, and scandal. His parents died within a month of each other when he was 13 years old. He loved music but a degenerative disease robbed him of his hearing. After spearheading a buyout with his cousins to save the company from being sold in 1902, Alfred was edged out by his cousins who colluded against him. His first marriage ended in a bitter divorce.
He began building Nemours after his scandalous second marriage to a younger cousin. Pretty, newly divorced Alicia Maddox loved all things French. Alfred had won her hand but longed to win her heart.
Nemours would not only be grand—five floors, 47,000-square-feet, 77 rooms—but also state-of-the-art. Alfred, an innovative type who had attended MIT, specified a central vacuum system, in-house water bottling and ice-making operations, and gauges in his bathroom so he could monitor house systems.
Alicia remained unmoved and died in her 40s. At age 57, Alfred finally found happiness with his third wife, Jessie Ball. They traveled the world, acquiring Nemours” fabulous collection of French furniture, museum-quality art, tapestries, and decorative objects.
During the renovation, conservators placed some 100,000 art objects in storage while electrical systems were updated and the interior refurbished. Half the restoration budget was devoted to the gardens, considered the finest example of formal French gardens in North America.
In his will, Alfred provided for his other great legacy, the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, located on the same grounds as the Nemours Mansion.