Renaissance man and philanthropist Alfred Irénée DuPont always had an interest in children with disabilities. He desired to build an orthopedic hospital but died in 1935 before realizing his dream. Fortunately, his will provided for The Nemours Foundation, and the Alfred I. du Pont Institute, a pediatric orthopedic hospital, opened in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1940. It continues to expand and thrive while treating children for bone, joint, muscular, and nerve conditions on an ability-to-pay basis. If you learn biographical details about Alfred, who lost an eye in a hunting accident, he sounds like a rather humble, complex man who almost never sat down. After becoming deaf, he said, “If I could get my hearing back for 3 hours, I’d play the violin for 2.”
Like many wealthy guys, he had trouble with women and married 3 times. In 1884 he went to work in the family gunpowder plant where, over time, he became responsible for 200 patents while claiming, “I have always been one of the men.” He married a cousin 3 years after becoming a Dupont apprentice. He and Bessie had 4 children. The marriage lasted 19 years but ended badly. Alfred apparently evicted his children from the family home, charmingly named Swamp Hall, tore it down, and married another cousin, the also divorced Alicia, within a year.
This marriage also unfolded unhappily but not before he built for Alicia a five-story, 47,000 square feet, 77 room mansion named Nemours generally modeled on Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon palace at Versailles. It was completed in an amazing 18 months because the owner’s surname was du Pont. But this château with 300 acres of formal gardens apparently didn’t win Alicia over, and the conflict ended in 1920 when she died. During most of this marriage, the du Ponts were fighting over control of the family business and Alfred ended up leaving.
But then his life turned around. In 1921 he married a woman with a wonderful name–Jessie Dew Ball, who was 20 years younger than he. This marriage worked and Alfred wisely invested in Florida real estate, banks, railroads, etc. In 1925 he officially moved to Florida.
The Mansion at Nemours, still said to be the grandest residence every built in Delaware, can now be toured. Ruth and I were lucky to show up on a slow day. We didn’t know that reservations were required. After we whined and begged, some nice ladies let us sign up for 2 hour+ afternoon tour. 48 people are allowed into Nemours at tour time, but they’re separated into smaller groups. Ours was 6 and we tramped through palatial rooms on 3 of the 5 floors, climbed up and down stairs, toured the basement, etc. The mansion was, of course, full of priceless treasures–reportedly 100,000 of them. Rather than go into detail, let me just say that Alfred designed a 225 feet storage elevator to accommodate the dining silver. Tours are not conducted from January 1 through May 1. I suspect that it takes 4 months to polish the silver. After the house tour, we were driven among Versailles-like lawns, pools, statuary, and plants. I couldn’t take pictures inside but had free range in the gardens. However, rain was threatening.
Jessie saw the hospital project through to completion to honor Alfred, lived in Nemours for 50 years, and died in 1970. A multi-year, $39,000,000 restoration was completed in 2008. If you like places like the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, you’ll love the Nemours Mansion in Wilmington, and it’s somewhat easier to get to than the original Versailles.