The grand estate already shines with its former aura 5 months before it reopens
The long-awaited $38.6 million renovation of Nemours Mansion and Gardens is entering its final months, with May 1 set as the day it re-opens to the public. Throughout the grand French neoclassical home, built in 1910 in the manner of great homes such as Versailles and Blenheim Palace, floors and stairways are covered with thick
A portrait of Louis XVI, who made a duPont ancestor a financial adviser, looks out on boxes, crates and parts of furniture in the dining room. The same is true of portraits of the home's owners, Jessie Ball duPont in the sitting room, and Alfred I. duPont in the hallway. But, here and there, the spectacular details of the home shine. In the promenade that leads from the home's entry to the Temple of Diana, the sculpture "Achievement" by Henri Crenier on a marble pedestal base gleams with fresh 23-karat gold leaf applied by hand.
Inside, golf leaf has been painstakingly hand-painted on to trim in many rooms. The ceiling medallion and details in the dining room look like they should be on a piece of Wedgwood, not plaster.
And yet, it's not hard to imagine a real family living in this house, even if it is 47,000 square feet spread over five floors, and the laundry room is connected to the house by an underground tunnel.
The 1910 kitchen has been upgraded with a 1950s stove. Still grand, but clearly two eras collide there, and renovators are leaving it that way. The abundant number of paintings -- even with fabulous pedigrees such as James Peale, J.M.W. Turner, Charles Willson Peale and Frederick Remington -- look like paintings that someone bought for love, not for notoriety.
And there are moments of great wit: The bronze sculpture of the huntress Diana at the far end of the garden looks toward the house, where two huge bronze stags flank the front door.
"If there's one thing that we want people to go away with, it's that this is not a museum; it was a home," says Steven G. Maurer, public relations manager for Nemours. "We want people to get a sense of Alfred I. duPont and Jessie Ball duPont living here."
Those who were familiar with the home before it closed three years ago for renovations will find that the paint colors, which were researched and returned as close as possible to the original, are brighter. Statues, paintings, furniture and tapestries have been refurbished. Late last week, many paintings hung on the walls, but sculptures, furniture and tapestries often were still crated or covered.
The lily pond that once could be seen outside the conservatory has been reinstalled on the foundation of the old one that had been filled in. All of the pools -- including the 800,000-gallon reflecting pool -- between the house and the temple have been dug up, replaced and relandscaped.
The renovation also has included replacing a lot of the home's electrical systems.
Nemours was built by Carrere and Hastings, who also designed the New York Public Library, New York City's Frick Mansion and Whitehall, the Henry Flagler Mansion in Palm Beach. Nemours, named for the hometown of Pierre duPont, who was Louis XVI's financial adviser, was built on the strength of a handshake agreement between Alfred and the architects, Maurer said.
The home's symmetry is striking. In each room, if there's a window, door or architectural element on one wall, it's reflected on the opposite. The dining room, to the far left of the entry, is balanced by the sitting room to the far right of the entry.
The home originally sat on 300 acres. About 75 of those now are the site of the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. The remaining 220-plus acres are filled with pathways and wildlife that includes red fox, white tail deer, blue heron, red tail and red shoulder hawks, merganser ducks and native yellow-eared sliders. (Diana's right leg bears a round dent, the result of a poacher's bullet, Maurer said).
The duPonts honored their French heritage in many ways in the home. Trim features the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of France, and a small maze outside the sitting room has a fleur-de-lis design, as does the large maze over which "Achievement" reigns in the garden.
In the stairway that leads from the entry to the second floor, stained glass proclaims "Rectitudine Sto," or "Upright I Stand," a motto favored by Alfred. The walls of the walls of the entry way are built of stone blocks, which are painted in beige and then varnished in different shades for a striking, clean and modern look.
Alfred specified in his will that he wanted the estate to be preserved and improved for the public. Some aspects of the renovations have been amusing, Maurer said. There have been signs on some doors that warn "Do Not Shut This Door Behind You. If You Do, You Will Not Get Out."
With rooms shut off, and tunnels blocked, people could easily get locked into a space -- and renovators were worried that no one would know for days because no one came into that part of the house, Maurer said.
When the home opens, guests will stop at the visitors center, where they will see a short film about the history of the duPonts and the home. Small buses will take them to the house for a tour of the structure and the grounds with a tour guide.