Built by Alfred I. duPont as a gift to his second wife, Alicia, Nemours is a Gilded Age confection glittering with gold and crystal. If this mansion on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware, seems more like a palace designed for European royalty than an American country estate, there’s a good reason: it was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s La Petit Trianon at Versailles.
At any season the house is richly decorated, with elaborate coffered ceilings, carved woodwork, gleaming marble floors, and lush upholstery. But as the holidays approach, Nemours takes on an even more glittering appearance, reflecting the duPonts’ own Christmas celebrations. Clearly they loved Christmas, and curators of Nemours have followed their traditions, with decorated trees in each room and flowers everywhere.
Pots of brilliant poinsettias flank the sweeping grand staircase and swags of evergreen boughs drape across the carved stone mantel in the library. A miniature sleigh is filled with red and white roses and wrapped gifts tumble from beneath each tree. With these holiday decorations added to the already sumptuous interior, Nemours becomes a Christmas extravaganza.
But in the best of taste, and with charming personal touches that bring the duPonts and their lives into their former home. From their first Christmas in Nemours, in 1910, their high-ceilinged rooms were decorated with giant Christmas trees decorated in a charming mix of exquisite treasures and family trinkets. Blown-glass ornaments from Venice mix with paper cutouts made by children in the neighboring Alfred I. duPont Institute, a children’s hospital that occupies part of the 3,000-acre estate.
These paper ornaments honor the duPonts’ own traditions, which incorporated favorite family mementoes and toys into their decorations. Family treasures, such as the 19th-century German crèche set with hand-painted figures, are brought out and displayed as they were in the duPonts’ time, and a bedroom tree may include a well-worn rag doll.
The decorations today reflect how the family observed the holidays, as the house rang with social activity. Touring the house, visitors can almost picture themselves sipping a cocktail with other guests in the solarium, a window-surrounded room where small tables sit around a central Christmas tree that reaches to the frosted-glass chandelier. Or curled comfortably in a chair by the fireplace in the oak paneled library, surrounded by 2000 books and a dazzling Christmas tree that brightens the room’s more somber lighting.
In the music room, where the décor weaves musical instruments into the tapestry chair upholstery, the sconces and andirons; in the magnificent 30 by 35-foot entry hall with its checkerboard marble floor and painted coffered ceiling; in the splendid drawing room that stretches the entire width of the first floor – each has its own splendid tree soaring almost to the ceiling.
Four stemmed ruby glasses at each place on the dining room table promise a full-course gala Christmas dinner. Lighted by a magnificent five-tiered crystal chandelier overhead, reputedly from Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the long table is formally set — a portrait of Marie Antoinette looks on.
The kitchen, where the sumptuous Christmas dinner would have been prepared, smells of gingerbread, as though the cook were already busy make the cookies for the Christmas party the duPonts gave for all the estate employees and their families.
By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Europe Correspondent, Planetware
Luxury Travel Editor, BellaOnline
Features, Global Traveler Magazine