|Big Old Houses: Preserved in Amber
by John Foreman
Here I am in du Pont country, a swankily rural district barely 6 miles from downtown Wilmington, Delaware. I'm about to enter a sort of Disneyland for the serious-minded called "Hagley." Its 200 acres of historic reconstructions, research facilities and informative ruins, will leave you knowing more about the du Pont family and the manufacture of gunpowder than anyone you know. I confess I had no inkling that gunpowder, of all things, was the foundation of the du Pont fortune.
This dreamy sounding moniker derives from the name of its builder, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (1771-1834), who was no dreamy kind of a guy. To the contrary, du Pont was a highly cultured, highly educated, highly practical, no-nonsense Frenchman who, together with his extended family, escaped the Terror of revolutionary France, survived an 85-day transatlantic voyage, dove into the wilderness of the newborn United States, and not only made a living, but founded a family fortune.
The big house at Eleutherian Mills, completed in 1802, is the ancestral home of the American du Ponts. We're discounting the French commune of Nemours, where the original du Ponts (and, interestingly, aerialist Philippe Petit) were born. The fine allee in the image below, grassed over and abandoned in favor of a more functional (if less attractive) modern road, marks the original approach to the house.
|The old drive ran arrow-strait from the gate to a circle in front of the house. Nowadays, a paved approach scuttles in from the left (or north). Since 60,000 visitors troop through Eleutherian Mills every year, I suppose aesthetics had little hope of trumping practicality. What hasn't been trumped, happily, is the exceedingly refined Georgian architecture. Éleuthère du Pont is said to have designed the house himself, and in an era bereft of professional architects — at least in America — this seems a credible assertion.|
|This house was built at the same time — and practically in the same place — as the family's gunpowder mill. Black powder, in the (perhaps P.I.) words of the Hagley library, "helped blaze the way for each new frontier as our empire swept westward. It helped fight America's wars. It is the progenitor of one of the world's largest corporations."
In the custom of the 18th century, du Pont, his father, his wife and three children, all lived together and literally on top of the family business. Their house was sited on a bluff directly above their gunpowder mill, spread in full view along the shoreline of the Brandywine Creek. The image below shows the west or entrance facade of the house (facing away from the river and the mill), probably almost as it looked when built. A wing, barely visible on the right (south) side, was either part of the original plan or added very shortly after.
OK, not everybody cares about that sort of thing, but I do. Much more interesting is the exotic front porch, which, with its flared eaves and fussy New Orleans ironwork, looks like an unexpected mixture of A.J. Downing and the Vieux Carré.
|Here's the house after an 1850 enlargement. The exotic porch in this image is much more visible. I read in Hagley Library literature, under the heading "Surprising library finds," that Éleuthère's father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was "instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase in 1803." Well, if he was down there, maybe he not only saw porches like this, but brought one back. This is sheer guesswork, obviously, but I like the feel of it. The biggest change in 1850 was the new north wing (on the left), which balanced the older wing on the south.|
|Here's the house at Eleutherian Mills today, showing the results of a fashionable makeover completed in 1923. The New Orleans porch has been banished to the other side of the house (we'll see it in a moment), and replaced by a more scholarly front door. The cornice has also been altered, and frankly improved.
During the '20s, quite a few people with taste and resources were either renovating Colonial period houses or building good copies. Colonial Williamsburg was, after all, a product of the same period, one whose zeitgeist was that of scaled down good taste. How convenient that Senator Henry Algernon du Pont (1838-1926) was able in 1921 to buy Eleutherian Mills, renovate the house, and make a gift of it to his daughter, Mrs. Louise Evelina du Pont Crowninshield. Mrs. Crowninshield was in her mid-40s at the time, and she and her husband occupied the house for only a short period of each year.
|Below is a view of the north wing, added in 1850. Mrs. Crowninshield installed the plaque that commemorates the dates of construction and rebuilding. The house is made of stone — according to family legend, one enormous stone blasted into a million pieces — and covered with a stucco skin.|
|A piazza on the east facade overlooks the river and the mill. What's that on top of it? Why, it's the old front porch, evidently too historic (or perhaps too loved) to be thrown under the fashion bus of 1923.|
|The view from the piazza, of waterfall and mill foundations, shows just how close to the family all that gunpowder was. The first time it exploded was in 1807. Mr. du Pont was at his desk, back to the window one hopes, when the window blew out and landed on his head. A series of explosions enlivened family life at Eleutherian Mills for another 80-or-so years, until one in 1890 was so bad they finally abandoned the place. The damaged house was patched together in 1893 and became a workers' clubhouse.
I'm not sure whether Hagley's farm manager had moved in or not by 1916, when another giant blast killed 30 men. Then in 1920, 75,000 lbs of powder went up again, in a fulmination that practically leveled the nearby home of one Judge Edward G. Bradford, and rattled windows in downtown Wilmington. This time, five were killed. In 1921 the mill was closed, which was when Sen. du Pont bought the entire complex, including the house.
|There's not much to say about the south elevation, except that it's the kitchen/service courtyard. The door leads to the kitchen; the servants' hall is to the left of it.|
|Time to go indoors; my Hagley guide, Louise, first; then me. You may wonder, as did I, why, if the house and the mill were named Eleutherian, the place today is called Hagley. That name was attached to an adjoining property owned by one Rumford Dawes and acquired by Éleuthère du Pont early on in the gunpowder business. Hagley Hall is the name of a big English country house in Worcestershire, famous in its 18th century landscape. Why did Dawes call his property Hagley? I haven't the remotest idea. Why is the property on which the du Pont house sits today also called Hagley? Haven't a clue.|
|Here is Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958) and her new husband, Francis Boardman Crowninshield (1869-1950), on their wedding day in June of 1900, at Christ Church in nearby Montchanin, Del. The bridegroom is not to be confused with Francis Welsh Crowninshield (1872-1947) the elegant editor of Vanity Fair. I'm not sure I can confidently define "second cousins," but I think that's what these guys were, as they shared the same grandfather. While Frank of Vanity Fair charmed and amused the haute monde of New York, Frank of Boston and Delaware rode with TR's Rough Riders in Cuba and won yachting cups on both sides of the Atlantic. The latter Frank and his wife were, God bless 'em, active throughout their lives in historic preservation.|
|The interiors of the du Pont house are restrained, elegant, perfectly maintained, and a bit chilly for my taste. The house speaks with the upper class accent of the 1920s, which would be okay but for the fact that the foundation which owns it has decided to interpret it not as a private house, but as a museum containing a somewhat random collection of 19th century furniture and decorative arts. I suspect that someone in the late 1950s, when the building was first opened to the public, decided that it was somehow unseemly to allow strangers in a du Pont family home. Ergo, for all its physical perfection, Eleutherian Mills purposely doesn't look like anybody has ever lived here. I think that's a mistake, but I'm not the one running the place.|
|The morning room, located immediately to the left of the front door, is full of good antiques, family portraits and rare dishes. I'll bet Mrs. Crowninshield had some great chintz covered furniture in here.|
|Beyond the morning room, in the "new" north wing, is the dining room, notable for its superb block printed scenic wallpaper. I can see people living here.|
|This door at the east end of the dining room leads to a divine period serving pantry, precisely the sort of thing I love to see in a big old house. It's connected by dumbwaiter to a prep pantry on the floor below.|
|We're going to pass the main stair (imported from another house) and step out onto the former front porch, stacked since 1923 on top of the eastern piazza. The original front door surround was moved here at the same time.|
|The drawing room extends east and west along the south side of the center hall. It was clearly a pair of double parlors when the house was built. The present-day pair of doors and fireplaces would originally have been separated by a columned screen, or maybe double doors, or perhaps (especially after 1850) sliding doors. Today's furnishings — good antiques, awkwardly placed — give little sense of what a room like this would feel like to people who actually lived here.|
|I expect this attractive paneled room, located in the south wing off the drawing room, was the Crowninshields' library. I didn't see any bookcases, but probably they weren't built in. Of course, I might be wrong, but I don't think so.|
|Upstairs on the second floor are four bedrooms, I think. The north wing turned out to be unexpectedly off limits.|
|Mrs. Crowninshield's bedroom overlooks the drive on the southwest corner of the bedroom floor. I doubt the crib or the hobby horse would have been much to her taste. The adjacent bathroom, no doubt a nifty 1920's number, has been replaced by a 19th century nursery, or approximation thereof.|
|Mr. Crowninshield's bedroom, which connects with that of his wife, has been disguised as a high Victorian library. It reflects the taste, so we are told, of an adventurous du Pont admiral whose photo hangs on the wall. I'll grant that this infusion — or perhaps intrusion — of Victoriana speaks to the history of the house, but it has nothing to do with the house as a place where people lived.|
|This little room, connected to both Mr. C's bedroom and the back stairs, appears to have been a sort of private living room or boudoir, where occasional breakfasts were taken. The curious colored glass lever on the wall is a servants' call.|
|The northwest bedroom, called the blue room, contains a melange of period furniture, some of which belonged to Éleuthère du Pont himself. The door beside the fireplace leads to an intact bathroom, unfortunately also off limits.|
|More unfortunate was my inability to see anything at all on the 3rd floor. Service areas and maids' rooms are important architectural and social components of a big old house. Given the long history of Eleutherian Mills and its various alterations, these I wanted to see.|
|If the stairs up were verboten, those to the basement were not. Actually, the basement is below grade only on the west or entrance facade. The other three sides are all above ground. These stone floors and stucco walls could as easily be in southern California as mid-Atlantic Delaware.|
|A hall from the foot of the stairs leads north to a stylish breakfast or family dining room. We're in the north wing now, directly under the formal dining room.|
|Parallel to the main basement hall is a service corridor connecting the prep pantry at its northern end with the kitchen at the south. A dumbwaiter brings food from here to the serving pantry next to the dining room upstairs.|
|I have one of these old chestnuts, a vintage Monel sink, in my old house in Millbrook. Monel is an alloy of nickel and copper, with a soupcon of iron and a few other traces, that was once highly popular in mansion kitchens. Its popularity stemmed from a subtly forgiving surface which made it less likely for butter fingered scullery girls to break expensive dishes. Monel is sometimes confused with German silver, a harder nickel alloy containing zinc, which is frequently used for silver-plated cutlery. One of the problems with Monel is its tendency to stain if you so much as give it a hard look. Plus which, it scratches. My Monel sink has a gloriously soft glow, the result of many years of careful polishing with a non-abrasive cleaner. It looks like somebody used Ajax on this one.|
|The kitchen, located directly under the drawing room, was recently opened to the public and, not surprisingly, it has become one of the most popular parts of the public tours. Those hard ceramic sinks were designed for washing indestructible pots and pans. I've got the identical pair in my kitchen at home, although my wooden drain boards have, as they say, grown legs. I used to have a stove like that too, until the oven door fell off so many times that I sent it to an old guy in Rhode Island who called himself "The Stove Doctor" and ... well, you don't want to hear the rest.|
|Mrs. Crowningshield survived her husband by 8 years, dying at a Boston hospital in July of 1958. She was 89 years old. Her New York Times obituary noted many philanthropies, a committee membership during the Truman-era redecoration of the White House, a vice chairmanship of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a summer house called Peaches Point in Marblehead, Mass. The latter turns out to be a spiffy seaside Colonial mansion which, on March 28, 2009, was "Luxlist's estate of the day."|
|A beautiful garden is on the site of the original, if not quite within its original boundaries.|
|Besides the du Pont mansion, the 200 acres of the Hagley Museum include a reconstructed power plant, workers' village, machine shop, powder yard, graining mill, rolling mill, etc., etc., etc., not to mention a research library, restaurant and museum store. These many structures speak eloquently to a vanished world of gunpowder production on the banks of the Brandywine Creek. The people who lived here and worked in the mills were part of an almost self-sustaining community, one that raised most of its own food. Hence, the big barn, located a literal stone's throw from the mansion. Its current immaculate condition would probably stun farm managers of the past.|
|Proximity to the house proved handy in the automobile age. Today the barn's bottom level garages contain a few obligatory vintage cars of the sort that ornament many open-to-the-public estates. Who knew there was such a thing as a duPont automobile? Not me. Between 1919 and 1931, however, E. P. du Pont manufactured 600 of them, including the specimen below.|
|Here's a nice note on which to end, a 1940 publicity shot for du Pont's "Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry" campaign. Could she look any happier?
Many thanks to the Hagley Museum for their patience and kind hospitality, and to the Collections of the Hagley Museum and Library for use of the vintage images. The link is www.hagley.org.