Welcome to CityScapes, a column in which we explore some of the nation's oft-overlooked cities and towns: their local history and real estate offerings. Have a suggestion? Do let us know.
The most populous city in America's second smallest state, Wilmington, Del., often finds itself lumped in with its much larger neighbor to the north, Philadelphia. But Wilmington didn't always play second fiddle to the Pennsylvania heavyweight, and that's largely thanks to the influence of one powerful family. During the Civil War, Wilmington's industrial capacity swelled following demand from Union forces for military equipment; by 1868, Wilmington was producing iron ships, carriages, and gunpowder in enormous quantities. At the center of this industrial upswing was the now-famous du Pont family, French immigrants who had established a gunpowder manufacturer in Wilmington in the early 1800s. Their corporation would later become known as DuPont—today the world's third largest chemical company—and sold nearly half of all that gunpowder used by the Union Army in the Civil War. Needless to say, some of the family's new found wealth was spent on some extravagances, like Alfred du Pont's 47,000-square-foot Nemours Mansion (above).
Photos: Color Outside the Lines
? Completed in 1910, the Nemours Mansion, now converted into a museum and educational facility, was a truly massive private home with some 70 rooms and 300 acres of lawns and gardens. The du Ponts weren't finished lavishing their chemical fortune on other, even larger, houses. Winterthur, the country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, was set on 2,500 acres of land north of Wilmington and counted 175 rooms under its roof by the time it was completed in the 1930s. The estimated 100,000 square feet of interior space includes entire rooms that were removed from older American houses and reinstalled at Winterthur as part of Henry du Pont's obsession with Americana. It's no surprise that collection was turned into a museum, and the estate is now considered to possess the finest collection of American antiques in the country, numbering over 85,000 objects.
While the du Pont family spent a fair bit of time and energy on their own amusement, many members of the family were dedicated public servants, including the governor who would kick start the second wave of economic development in Delaware and reduce the reliance on DuPont as the state's largest employer, Pierre S. du Pont, IV. In 1981, this particular du Pont devised a strategy to draw major credit card companies to the state by doing away with the usury laws that formerly regulated the amount of interest a lender could charge its customers. Intended to draw a couple of banks from surrounding states, the plan resulted in the relocation of 30 banks and many Fortune 500 companies to Delaware.
WHAT'S ON THE MARKET NOW:
? For that influx of bankers and money managers, this 1922 Tudor offers a taste of the du Pont lifestyle in Wilmington without the upkeep of, say, a 175-room mansion. This house has just eight bedrooms and seven bathrooms spread over 8,000 square feet, but at least it has a name—Bramshott—and a more reasonable price tag at $3.95M.
? If that doesn't quite cut it, how about an actual former du Pont estate? For $3.19M, the next buyer of this property gets the original headquarters of the DuPont company, built in the 1870s and converted to a private residence in the early 1900s. Dubbed Gablestone, the mansion lies not far from the original Du Pont mill on 4.2 acres. Fine, fine, but the interiors could really use a going over. Let's just say that Henry du Pont would not be impressed with the choice of furnishings.
? For buyers unimpressed with all the older houses, there's always some newer construction, but it simply doesn't have the cultivated look of a hundred year old home. Take this $2.85M mansion built in 2002. It certainly shares the taste for extravagance of Delaware's first family, but with not quite the same quality standards.
· History [City of Wilmington]
· Nemours Mansion [official site]
· Winterthur [official site]
· Bramshott [Sotheby's]
· Gablestone [Century21]
· 16 Summit Lane [Zillow]