A pair of du Pont cousins, one in love with a woman and the other devoted to plants, used their vast family fortune to create a pair of mansions within minutes of each other in the Brandywine Valley, but from two very different worlds.
Alfred I. du Pont, who grew up among the "powder men" his father employed and used his genius to expand the family's explosives business and save it from sale, poured his heart and a considerable fortune into building Nemours, which takes its inspiration from Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon at Versailles and is a tribute to the family's French heritage.
He hoped its opulence and its perfect gardens would win the love of his second wife, Alicia Heyward Bradford, whom he had married amid more than a whiff of scandal in 1907 and who was said to have valued the friendship, but not the marriage.
Seventy-seven rooms on five stories – a total of 47,000 square feet — and 300 acres of gardens, finished in 1910 in an astonishing 18 months, did not melt her heart and she spent much of their married life in France until her death in 1920.
Only his third marriage, to Jessie Ball, a schoolteacher 20 years younger who had had a crush on him at the age of 13, brought joy to du Pont and Nemours. After his death in 1935, it was Jessie who added to its art and antiques, enriching Nemours for the day in 1970 when it would belong to the public.
Alfred was orphaned at 13 when his his parents died within weeks of each other, but he followed his father's admonition to get an education and return to the family business. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1884, he used his considerable intellectual gifts to expand and modernize the company.
Henry Francis du Pont, on the other hand, never worked a day in the family's gunpowder business — or anywhere else. He went off to Harvard to study horticulture and returned to Winterthur, his birthplace, in 1903 to garden and breed cattle, and for 40 years he held primacy in both.
While Alfred's gardens, designed around fountains, colonnades and marble stairs, evoke a formal symmetry, Henry Francis was a devotee of William Robinson's revolutionary book "The Wild Garden," published in 1870, which advocated the use of hardy natives and exotics in a naturalized way.
Henry Francis chose the thousands of plants on the 60 acres of Winterthur himself, creating stunning collections that burst into bloom on the estate during the seasons, such as the March Bank and the Azalea Woods, the Witch Hazel Walk, the Quarry Garden and the Sundial Garden.
He was so devoted to his flowers that at every dinner party, the china and glassware were chosen to match what was in bloom in his 4-acre cutting garden. He selected the flowers himself, and his devoted florist demanded complete silence when she worked — each arrangement composed of a single variety.
In contrast, Nemours is planted with annuals you could purchase at a big-box store, but arranged in sweeps and aisles of color that are replaced with the seasons. It is what head gardener Ric Larkin describes as "ordinary plants in an extraordinary setting." At 222 landscaped acres, Nemours includes the largest formal French garden in North America.
A $39 million restoration of Nemours mansion and gardens, completed in 2008, polished a gem.
But the gardens are only half the stories of Nemours and Winterthur. The interiors of these two mansions tell their own tale.
Henry Francis returned to the family home and used his fortune to expand it from its original 30 rooms to 175 – the better to house the collection of Americana furnishings and decorative arts for which he developed a passion after visiting a friend's home in Vermont and seeing a simple maple sideboard.
At a time in which Americans still held French decorative arts in high esteem — as Alfred did at Nemours with his many rare 18th-century pieces – Henry Francis chose to celebrate the embrace his family received in this country after fleeing Revolutionary France, and he began to collect anything made or used before the Civil War.
There were more than 100,000 pieces in a collection that continues to grow. And when he and wife, Ruth, moved out of Winterthur to the simpler, 50-room "cottage" next door in 1951, he oversaw the conversion of every square inch of the mansion into rooms where the collection could be displayed.
Kitchens and bathrooms disappeared and made way for the art, architecture and furnishings he collected. Each room became a set piece that reflects either life at Winterthur during the height of the du Pont's time there, or life in early America.
These are just two of the mansions and gardens born of the du Pont fortunes that make the Brandywine Valley such a magic destination — Longwood Gardens is another — and they are just minutes from each other.
It is the contrast in vision and execution that make Nemours and Winterthur such remarkable neighbors.
If you go
Alapocas Drive and Powder Mill Road (Route 141), Wilmington, Del., 19803. Open May-December. Guided mansion tours are $10, available Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m., 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. Guided garden walks are $15, available Tuesday through Saturday, at 9 a.m. and Sunday at 12:45 p.m. Tours take a minimum of two hours. Tour space is limited and reservations are strongly recommended for individuals and required for groups. Food and picnic facilities are not available. Photographs are not permitted inside the mansion. Purchase tickets online at nemoursmansion.org or call 800-651-6912.
5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52), Winterthur, Del. 19735. Mansion and gardens open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission tickets are honored for two consecutive days and include access to the garden, a garden tram tour, the galleries and special exhibitions, and an introductory house tour (last tickets sold at 3:15 p.m). Admission is $18 for adults; $16 for seniors (age 62 and older) and students with valid ID. Cafe food service is available and visitors are welcome to picnic. For other tour information and reservations, visit winterthur.org or call 800-448-3883.