The du Pont Estates: More than Mansions
Visiting the du Pont Estates
The Brandywine River flows gently under sweeping willow boughs whispering tales of American history on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Along its banks are stories of peace and contentment, as well as war and conquest, and it was here in 1802 that Eleuthère Irénée (E.I.) du Pont started the company that still bears his name today. Arguably the most famous family to have lived and worked the Brandywine Valley, the du Ponts built several magnificent estates in the Wilmington area that are open to the public. Three of the grandest – Longwood, Winterthur, and Nemours - are in close proximity and excellent options for a spring daytrip or weekend getaway. Explore one at a time, or for the truly ambitious with energy and comfortable shoes, do a short tour of each and come back later for more.
When the buds are bursting and the birds are singing, there’s no better place to be than Longwood Gardens, home of E.I. du Pont’s great-grandson Pierre S. du Pont, and just a 25-minute drive from Wilmington. From 1700 to 1906, the land was owned by the Peirce family, who in 1730 built the brick farmhouse that stands today. Later generations planted an arboretum, and by the mid-1800s Peirce’s Park was nationally renowned for its collection of trees. But by the turn of the century interest had waned, the arboretum was deteriorating, and the property went through a series of owners. In 1906, upon learning that the priceless collection of magnificent trees were slated to be cut down and sold as lumber, 36-year-old Pierre sprang into action and bought the farm. With no clear plan on what to do with his new estate beyond saving the trees, but with a lifelong love for nature and gardens and a fascination for grand water fountains, Pierre expanded and improved his surroundings over the course of several decades.
Today, a morning walk through Peirce’s Park will take you back in time and makes it easy to see why Pierre was so inspired and why Longwood became the favorite of his homes. Be sure to include a tour of the original house built by Joshua Peirce, and then revel in the magic of the gardens and fountains. Pierre’s vision for Longwood is evident at every turn: the Conservatory, carillon, topiary garden, Italian Water Garden, a massive pipe organ, and especially the Flower Garden Walk, which explodes in mid-April with more than 240,000 tulip bulbs in bloom. Worth putting on the calendar for summer 2017 is the reopening of the spectacular Main Fountain Garden after a 3-year $90 million restoration.
When lunchtime comes, Longwood has two good options. The Terrace Café has a menu that changes seasonally, but always has cream of mushroom soup and other fresh, local fare. (Kennett Square is the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World and having a bowl of mushroom soup is a must while visiting the area!) If you crave a more elegant lunch with a beautiful view, make reservations for the 1906 Fine Dining restaurant. Named in honor of the year Pierre purchased Longwood, the menu has a wide range of locally-sourced starters, salads and seasonal soups, and entrées that include Skuna Bay Salmon, Steak Frites, and Portobello Grilled Cheese.
From Longwood, it’s a short drive (less than 10 miles) to the biggest du Pont mansion, Winterthur. The house was built in 1839 by the daughter of E.I. du Pont, but it was Henry Francis du Pont who had the vision and creativity to create the Winterthur we see today. Henry, who was born at Winterthur, took responsibility for managing the estate in 1914 and set the example for living a farm-to-table lifestyle a century before it would become a common phrase. Under Henry’s guidance, Winterthur thrived as a working farm with two main objectives: to supply Winterthur’s table and the community with fresh farm goods, and to develop the herd of prize-winning Holstein- Friesian dairy cattle. This was an era of grow-your-own, and Henry was an avid believer. He was so fond of Winterthur’s farm goods, and he knew how they had been grown or raised, that he had them shipped by train when he was at his other residences. Henry also had a keen eye for furniture and art. Between 1929 and 1931, he expanded the mansion into one of the grandest homes in America, in part to house this unparalleled collection of American decorative arts and furniture, and over the next two decades continued to expand and improve the mansion and the grounds. Henry moved to the site of an 1837 cottage across from the main house, replacing it with a fifty room English style residence when Winterthur opened to the public in 1951, and lived there until his death in 1969.
A 45-minute guided tour of the mansion is recommended to see many of the approximately 90,000 objects in Henry’s collection, including exquisite ceramics, glass, furniture, metalwork, paintings, and prints. Be sure to stop by the Library if time allows, and enjoy an outdoor walk to see some of the most beautiful azaleas found anywhere. Bird song and blooms will greet visitors on a self-guided walk of Winterthur’s gardens and tall trees, and on a quiet day in the early season it’s easy to imagine the Winterthur working farm of 100 years ago.
If you are making your visit an overnighter, or are an ambitious day-tripper, make time for Nemours Estate, just a fifteen-minute drive from Winterthur. Nemours, which opens each year in May, was built by Alfred Irénée du Pont in 1909 and is named after the family’s ancestral home in France. A great-grandson of E.I. du Pont’s, Alfred was a shrewd businessman who convinced his cousins Pierre and Coleman to join him in buying the company in 1902 rather than see it sold to outsiders. He was also the last member of his family to serve an apprenticeship in the powder yards, a course of training which prepared him to make numerous innovations in gunpowder production that led to a more efficient and much safer working environment. Alfred married second wife Alicia Bradford in 1906 and built Nemours as a gift in her favorite French architectural style. After Alicia died suddenly in 1920, Alfred married Jessie Ball the following year. They lived at Nemours through his death in 1935 and hers in 1970. The estate opened to the public in 1977.
Nemours has some of the best examples of French-inspired formal gardens anywhere in North America and is spectacular in the early season. Plan on spending 10-20 minutes in the Visitor Center to become oriented, then shuttle over to tour Nemours Mansion. Be sure to take in the view from the second-floor balcony overlooking the formal gardens, part of nearly 200 acres of fantasy land. If turn-of-the-century innovation is of interest, the basement of Nemours offers much to appeal, including back-up furnaces and a generator, an ice-making room and a water-bottling and carbonating operation. Be sure to leave time to explore the 15+ acres of gardens and grounds, where a spring meander through this beautiful landscape is priceless. French sculptor Prosper Lecourtier’s massive elk sculptures mark the start of the Long Walk, and then it’s an expansive vista to the fountains and reflecting pool where, when the 157-jet fountain is resting, the entire Long Walk is reflected. Completing the scene are the Four Seasons sculptures, the Temple of Love, and the iconic 23-carat gold leaf statue Achievement, which anchors the Nemours gardens.
After a long day, the good news is that a delightful dinner is just a short drive away. Krazy Kat’s restaurant at Montchanin Village offers creative American cuisine with seasonal ingredients sourced regionally, in a setting that is at once historical and whimsical. Traces of the village blacksmith shop are evident, and the feline-inspired décor adds a lightheartedness that adds to the ambiance. The choice of half portions for entrees invites diners to try something new (the seafood and filet mignon always receive rave reviews) and their well-stocked wine cellar is impressive. It’s the perfect spot to plan a return visit and reflect on your day spent enjoying the legacy of the du Pont family and, hopefully, gaining new insight into some of its members who were as committed to innovation and conservation as they were to commerce and expansion.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
1001 Longwood Rd, Kennett Square, PA
March 4–May 26: 9:00am–6:00pm
May 27–September 30:
Thurs–Sat, 9:00 am–10:00pm
Spring Blooms on View April 1–May 26, 2017
Note: Tickets determine arrival time, buy early so you won’t be disappointed.
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52), Wilmington, DE
Opens March 1:
Library: Mon–Fri, 8:30am–4:30pm
Note: Tickets can be purchased onsite and are good for 2 consecutive days.
850 Alapocas Drive
Wilmington, DE 19803
Tues-Sat, 10 am to 5 pm;
Sun, noon to 5 pm;
June-Sept: extended hours on Thurs
Tickets can be purchased on site. Reservations are required for groups of 15 or more.
Krazy Kat’s Restaurant
528 Montchanin Rd, Wilmington, DE
Dinner: Mon-Sun, 5:30pm–9:30pm
Also open for Breakfast, Lunch and Sunday Brunch
If you decide to turn your daytrip into an overnighter:
Hotel du Pont
11th and Market St, Wilmington, DE
The Inn and Spa at Montchanin Village
528 Montchanin Rd, Wilmington, DE