Big Old Houses: Living Large
by John ForemanThis is Alfred Irenee duPont (1864-1935), photographed in North Dakota in 1906. "Oftentimes he would be seen thus," said his 3rd wife, Jessie, "contemplating whether or not to move a tree or shrub, or visualizing a fountain or building, or gazing in wondrous admiration at a glorious sunset or storm at sea."
Mr. duPont did a lot of visualizing in his seventy years, the net of which was a stupendous personal fortune, a dramatic personal life, a country house "a la Francaise," and an internationally famous children's hospital. His house, called Nemours after his family's ancestral village in France, is located on the outskirts of Wilmington, DE, a city — indeed, an entire state — that still depends on duPont family philanthropies to function.
Nemours is a 47,000 square foot house, packed with treasures and surrounded by a vast (the only word for it) formal garden inspired by Versailles, a description that, for once, is inspired by actual fact. I took hundreds of photos on my tour and the ones you see below represent a fraction of all I saw. Fraction or no, they are the first series of contemporary interior images of the house ever published, for which I am most grateful to the Nemours Foundation. Among the hundreds omitted for lack of space are views of a noble tree-lined driveway from Powder Mill Road.
In 1784, in one of King Louis XVI's later acts, Alfred duPont's ancestor, Pierre Samuel duPont (1739-1817) was elevated to the nobility. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as, after defending the king and queen from a bloodthirsty mob in 1791, escaping the guillotine by a hairsbreadth in 1792, and having his Paris "hotel" sacked in 1797, duPont and his family in 1799 wisely — if a bit belatedly — decamped for America. As it happened, duPont's son Eleuthere Irenee had learned the manufacture of high quality gunpowder during a stint at the Paris Arsenal. Upon arrival in America he learned — during one of those chic hunting expeditions that impoverished French aristocrats just seem naturally to fall into — that American gunpowder sucked. duPont had a visualization of his own, and by 1804, with a capitalization of $36,000, his E.I. duPont de Nemours mill began producing high quality gunpowder. The house in these images, designed by Carrere and Hastings and completed in 1910, speaks to the outcome of that visualization.
Before we go inside, a few words are in order about Alfred duPont. He was a tough youth, orphaned at 13, sent away to Phillips and MIT, but more at home on the rough and tumble floor of the family's gunpowder plant. duPont was handy with his fists, a genius with mechanics, and soon reputed to be the best black powder man in America.
The front entrance.
Mr. duPont with his third wife, Jessie Ball (1884-1970).
In 1902, the mandarins of the duPont family decided to sell the gunpowder business. Alfred was 38, (unhappily) married to Bessie Gardner (1864-1949), the father of 4, and nowhere near rich enough to buy the firm.
Notwithstanding which, he and his cousins Pierre and Coleman engineered the first leveraged buyout in American corporate history. Convincing their aged relatives to accept notes and stock on purchase, the new principals closed the deal with personal cash outlays of $2100 apiece, $700 of which went for legal fees. E.I. duPont de Nemours was reborn and, largely due to Alfred duPont's operational stewardship, profits surged.
Here (below, right) is Mr. duPont with his third wife, Jessie Ball (1884-1970). Prior to their marriage in 1921, his history with wives had not been good. A 1906 divorce from Wife #1 provoked a firestorm in the family, many members of which — including 3 of his own children — considered the ex-wife a "wronged woman." This wasn't helped by duPont's prompt remarriage to the melancholy Alicia Bradford Maddox (1875-1920), former wife of his secretary, whom she divorced two weeks before marrying duPont.
Their 1907 marriage sparked a swirl of rumors suggesting everything from adultery to illegitimacy. Nemours was supposedly built to please this woman, but apparently didn't succeed. She spent most of her time in Europe, leaving her husband to strike that characteristic pose mostly by himself. Developing Nemours captured his imagination, however, and it became a sort of supersized target for his creative impulses. Alicia duPont died in 1920, and on January 22, 1921, a day after her 37th birthday, Jessie Ball became 57-year-old Alfred duPont's 3rd wife. This time duPont struck gold; this marriage was a partnership of equals.
Years ago, while researching the Vanderbilts, I met an old guy named Osgood Field. Osgood was an authority on glaciers, a man as unpretentious in manner as he was generous with help and information on the Gilded Age in which he'd spent his youth. He was a member of the Sloane branch of the Vanderbilt clan. His parents owned High Lawn, one of the great Lenox summer places, and spent winters in New York in the northerly of Uncle George Vanderbilt's so-called "Marble Twins," occupied today by Versace, next door to Cartier."What was it like inside?" I asked. "Pretty fancy," he replied, which could equally be said of Nemours. The images below are of the foyer, to one side of which is a ladies' dressing room and toilet.
Here's the main hall, from which radiate corridors to: 1) the principal main floor rooms; 2) the entrance foyer; 3) the main stair; and 4) french doors to a south facing terrace. The interiors of houses on this scale are frequently designed by separate architects. As far as I can ascertain, however, Thomas Hastings did these.
Gabriel Ferrier's portrait of Alfred duPont, hanging over the hall fireplace, looks to me like the work of his ex-wife's divorce lawyer. The artist's attitude wasn't unique. duPont's 1902 buyout partners, cousins Pierre and Coleman duPont, actively took his first wife's part. When duPont had her and her children evicted (on one week's notice) from their house, then razed it to the ground, the cousins built her a new one at their own expense. The bad blood came to a head in 1916 when, after a flurry of internecine lawsuits, company shareholders voted Alfred duPont off the board. You wouldn't know it from this house, but when a big deal went south in 1920, duPont was close to bankruptcy.
While his business and family dramas unfolded, duPont continued to supervise — and probably plan — Nemours' extravagant formal gardens, while simultaneously filling its interiors with things like Marie Antoinette's clock, standing to the left of the stairs.
The corridor below leads to the drawing room, a glittering affair filled with Louis XVI antiques. I'm told the paintings, rugs, objets, lighting fixtures and furniture, not just in the drawing room but throughout the house, were all chosen by duPont and his second wife, not by a decorator.
My informative guide, Skip Harrington, is standing on the Savonnerie because, unlike most of the rugs in the house, this one is a repro.
On the southwest corner of the building, adjacent to the drawing room, is this beautiful conservatory, complete with live warbling birds in cages and glossy plants in attractive pots. Treillaged walls are among my favorite decorative treatments, and these (not surprisingly) are particularly good.
Also adjacent to the drawing room, seen below looking ready for a 12-step meeting, is the music room. That's Jessie Ball duPont over the fireplace, painted in 1926 by H.M. Linding. She was a considerably more competent person than this painting suggests. At the time of her marriage to Alfred duPont, she was vice-principal of a San Diego elementary school, a successful real estate investor, and the primary support of her aged parents, the last of whom died coincident with Mr. duPont's arrival. As his third wife, she poured proverbial oil on his troubled family waters and reconciled him with his alienated children. Her brother Edward would never have gone to work for him otherwise, nor played important subsequent roles in his businesses and charities.
That's a Romney portrait over the piano, Skip in front of the door to the drawing room, and my nephew Forest by the exit to the drawing room corridor.
Music room and morning room flank either side of the drawing room corridor. In a place like Nemours, the elegant morning room in the images below qualifies as an "intimate" setting for informal visiting, tea, reading the paper, that sort of thing.
On the opposite side of the main hall, a balancing corridor leads to the dining room. We'll visit a small writing room and connecting library en route.
The main block of Nemours is anchored on the southwest by the drawing room, and on the northeast by a splendid formal dining room. Houses this big usually have a smaller family dining room for smaller family meals, but I didn't see one here. I imagine Alfred and Jessie, alone over luncheon salads, at opposite ends of the enormous table. Nemours' aesthetic muse, Louis XVI, hangs over the fireplace,
Nemours' vintage service areas and bathrooms are all thrillingly intact. Skip demonstrates the serving pantry's elevator-type silver safe. Its multiple shelves move up and down inside a protected shaft in order to accommodate a bumper crop of sterling. PR Manager Steve Maurer (with the blue ID necklace) is taking a breather from worrying about us stepping on the rugs.
Where is Skip pointing? At a refrigerator befitting a palace.
I could have posted 20 pictures of the kitchen alone, but these 3 will have to do. The door beside the stove leads to the servant hall, alas not on my tour.
The tile floored gents' room has a door to the main hall (out of sight on the right), and another to a stair leading to the basement.
The basement of Mr. duPont's Wilmington house — specifically, the area beneath the main block — is an antique version of a private health club. His private gym includes a shower (he didn't have one upstairs), a "sweatbox" (probably about as useful as modern models), a mechanical horse (for, well, I'm not sure what for), and a cigar holder (smoking is so relaxing).
The health club corridor, if I may call it that, passes a combination shuffleboard and screening room, a bowling alley and a billiard room en route to Mr. duPont's office at its far end. It's a mystery, to me anyway, why the owner of this magnificent house would put his office in a windowless basement room.
The service wing, running perpendicular to the main block, has appropriately simpler corridors.
Some boiler room, right? I could have posted a dozen shots of this one too ...