An easy drive from Philadelphia, the Brandywine Valley’s scenic hills, waterways, gardens, estates and art collections make for an ideal spring or summertime getaway. This seductive rural enclave straddling the Delaware and Pennsylvania lines showcases the links between wealth and philanthropy, industrial history and decorative arts, Europe and America, art and the landscape that continues to inspire it.
The Brandywine Valley is inextricably associated with the Wyeth family — three generations of artists whose work the Brandywine River Museum of Art celebrates. But the area also flaunts the heritage of a family of aristocratic industrialists, the du Ponts, whose forebears fled France in 1800 and earned an unlikely fortune from manufacturing gunpowder.
Those gritty origins have spawned an unusual concentration of attractions. The original du Pont “black powder” plant, whose successor is the Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont company, has been enshrined in the Hagley Museum & Library. Longwood Gardens, one of the nation’s premier botanical gardens, was a du Pont family gift. But the family’s legacy arguably reaches its apex in two magnificent estates just north of Wilmington and only about 5 miles apart, the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library and the Nemours Estate. Both garbed in gardens, they illustrate the contrasting sensibilities of two du Pont heirs and their wives.
Both estates are just outside downtown Wilmington, and an easy day trip from Philadelphia — or, combined with some of the other sites mentioned below, a weekend getaway from New York, Washington, D.C., or beyond.
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
This estate was the longtime home of Henry Francis du Pont and his wife, Ruth Wales du Pont. H.F., as he was known, was a great-great-grandson of the immigrant patriarch, Pierre Samuel du Pont. He inherited a 50-room, stucco-covered French Provincial house carved into the hillside from his father, Henry Algernon du Pont, in 1926. Seemingly unscathed by the Great Depression, he added another 100 rooms between 1929 and 1931.
It’s home to his legendary American decorative arts collection, displayed in meticulously designed, almost-period-perfect settings. So esteemed was his taste that first lady Jackie Kennedy consulted him during her early 1960s refurbishing of the White House.
H.F. voraciously collected furniture, architectural elements, ceramics, paintings, silver and other items from the Colonial, Empire, Federal and Victorian periods. He owned 54 sets of china and 70 sets of custom-made linens, and household staff changed the draperies with the seasons. Decorations still rotate, with flowers, artificial fruit and place settings suggesting that the evening’s entertainment is poised to begin. Artifacts associated with titans of early American history, including silver tankards fashioned by Paul Revere and china owned by George Washington, are juxtaposed with du Pont family portraits and mementoes.
Exhibition galleries feature more of the collections and burrow more deeply into the history of the estate and the family. “Jacqueline Kennedy and Henry Francis du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House,” a new exhibition, tells the story of H.F. and the first lady collaborating to transform the White House into a home of grandeur as well as historical significance, with Winterthur as the inspiration. The exhibition runs through Jan. 8.
Where to Stay
Hotel Du Pont: This 217-room Italian Renaissance-style icon in downtown Wilmington is a classy and historic option. Amenities include a spa, gym and French brasserie, Le Cavalier, which replaced the hotel’s well-known Green Room in 2020. From $299
Inn at Mendenhall: This cozy 70-room hotel in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, one of Best Western’s BW Premier Collection properties, is convenient to the museums and gardens and boasts a popular fine-dining restaurant. From $114
A champion breeder of Holstein Friesian dairy cattle, H.F. also was an enthusiastic horticulturist, cultivating 60 acres of naturalistic gardens along the estate’s hilly, winding roads. Fanciful architectural elements, known as follies, dot the grounds. A carpet of blue scilla, golden celandine and other early bulbs covers the March Bank, named for the month of its peak flowering. In April, a half-million daffodils sprout in cloudlike configurations — and cherry trees, forsythias and magnolias burst into pastel pink and brilliant yellow blooms. The eight-acre Azalea Woods, in shades of lavender, pink, red and white, are a May highlight.
You’ll find some 25 miles of paths and walking trails to stroll along, and visitors are welcome to bring food and drink for a picnic on the grounds (pets not permitted).
Address/contact: 5015 Kennett Pike, Wilmington; 302-888-4600; Winterthur.org
Getting there: Fly into Philadelphia International Airport, about 26 miles east of the museum. From East Coast destinations, you can take Amtrak to the Wilmington station — now the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station — about 7 miles south of the museum. Winterthur parking is free.
Visit: Shuttles from the Visitor Center, or a five-minute walk, will take you to the mansion and the adjacent exhibition galleries. Garden tram tours (Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., included with admission), also departing from the Visitor Center, offer a 30-minute overview of the estate’s history and its 1,000-acre grounds. Reservations are required for “A Closer Look” house tours ($10, available Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). You can also tour the house on your own.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open daily around the winter holidays (check website for details); may be closed to the public for some weeks in January and February.
Admission: $22 for adults, $20 for 62-plus (with tickets good for two consecutive days). Purchase in person, online at Winterthur.org or by calling 800-448-3883, extension 7029.
Best time to visit: Weekday mornings to avoid crowds and have time for the house tour.
Best season to visit: Spring, with its flowering trees and shrubs, and during the winter holidays, when both house and grounds are gussied up.
Accessibility: Shuttles, garden trams and most walking paths are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served) at the Visitor Center and Galleries Reception Atrium. Assistive listening devices are available for guided tours and special presentations.
If Winterthur celebrates American history and craft, this estate built by Alfred I. du Pont (just a 10-minute drive from Winterthur) gestures back at the Old World and the family’s ancestral French hometown, Nemours.
With its colonnaded portico and guardian sphinxes, the 47,000-square-foot, 77-room mansion, designed by the New York firm of Carrère and Hastings, resembles a French chateau.
An introductory film, scored with Alfred’s own music, calls it “a modern Versailles,” constructed in 1909-10 for his second wife, Alicia. (Orphaned at 13, Alfred was a composer, as well as a Hagley “powder man,” inventor, Florida real estate investor and philanthropist.) A year after being widowed, he finally found happiness in 1921 with his third wife, Jessie Ball, a descendant of George Washington’s mother. Look for the James Peale portrait of Washington in Nemours’ Reception Room.
Alicia and Jessie, we’re told, had different decorating styles. The Drawing Room, with its Rococo Revival furniture, reflects Alicia’s preference for French design, though a portrait of Jessie in a luminescent gown hangs over the fireplace. The Morning Room, with its souvenir velvet chair from the 1937 coronation of George VI, represents Jessie’s Anglophilic tastes. You’ll notice that the upstairs bedrooms are more modest, but the Venetian Room stands out for its Murano glass chandelier and matching light sconces and mirror.
The estate’s formal gardens include the Vista, with a tree-lined walkway and elk statuary; a Reflecting Pool once used for swimming and boating; a Maze Garden; a Colonnade memorializing Alfred’s great-great-grandfather Pierre Samuel du Pont and his great-grandfather E.I. du Pont; the Sunken Gardens designed by Alfred’s architect son, Alfred Victor; and the Lower Gardens. The delicate pink blossoms of weeping cherry trees crown the gardens in April.
The walk from the house ends at the neoclassical Temple of Love, housing a bronze statue of Diana the Huntress cast by the 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Only the modern pediatric hospital next door, Alfred’s principal philanthropic legacy, interrupts the transporting otherworldliness of the grounds.
Address/contact: 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington; 302-651-6912; nemoursestate.org
Getting there: Fly into Philadelphia, about 20 miles east of the estate. From East Coast destinations, you can take Amtrak to the Wilmington station about 4 miles south of the museum. If you’re driving, look for the entrance to Nemours Children’s Health, Wilmington, and follow signs for the estate. Parking is free but it’s a 10-minute walk to the mansion.
Hours/admission: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Dec. 30-March 31, and Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. $20 for adults; $18 for 62-plus.
Best season to visit: Late spring or summer, when the pools are filled and the gardens are flowering.
Accessibility: The mansion and paved roads on the property are accessible, as well as most of the gardens and grounds. Golf carts are provided for those needing assistance. Guests may bring their own wheelchairs and scooters to tour the mansion (none are available onsite). Garden tours via a wheelchair-lift-equipped shuttle are offered.
Other Brandywine Valley Highlights
1. Brandywine River Museum of Art (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania)
This museum is closely identified with the Wyeths — the renowned illustrator N.C., his son Andrew and his grandson Jamie. But Thomas Padon, the museum’s director, aims to situate the Wyeths in the continuum of American painting, including other artists inspired by the region’s bucolic landscape. “I’ve tried to open the Brandywine up,” Padon says, while “still being mindful of our heritage with the Wyeth family.”
The museum, housed in a converted mill, also has a du Pont tie: The American artist George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, a Wyeth friend and du Pont descendant, cofounded its parent organization, the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art.
A key exhibition this year runs May 28-Sept. 5. “Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist” will feature work by nearly two dozen early 20th-century painters, none of whom had formal training. Not only did they fundamentally change the art world, but they also helped diversify it in terms of ethnicity, class, gender and ability. John Kane, Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses and Horace Pippin are among the artists represented.
Visit: $18 for adults, $15 for adults 65 and older. Regular hours are 9:30 to 4:30 p.m., closed Tuesdays. Guided tours of the Andrew Wyeth Studio are available on select days, $28 for adults, $25 for adults 65 and older (includes admission).
Address/contact: 1 Hoffman Mill Road (10½ miles north of Wilmington); 610.388.2700; brandywine.org/museum
2. Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania)
Yet another du Pont legacy, this majestic property was an early 20th-century creation and, later, gift of Pierre S. du Pont. The sprawling mix of conservatories, gardens, fountains, restaurants and a shop includes 400 acres open to visitors. At night, illuminated, choreographed fountain shows from May through October are a big draw. Longwood President and CEO Paul Redman also recommends the Meadow Garden — “a living Andrew Wyeth painting.” An enhanced Orchid House opened in February, and come June, Longwood’s Wine and Jazz Festival returns and its open-air theater resumes its summer performance series, featuring jazz artists and a bell choir.
Visit: Buy timed tickets online, $25 for adults, $22 for adults 62 and older.
Address/contact: 1001 Longwood Road (Kennett Square is 12½ miles northwest of Wilmington); 610-388-1000; Longwoodgardens.org
3. Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington)
Last fall, this museum completed a rolling reinstallation of its main floor galleries to place more emphasis on works by women, Blacks and local artists, including some new acquisitions. The museum’s greatest strengths are American illustration (including works by Howard Pyle, a teacher of N.C. Wyeth) and its Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of British Pre-Raphaelite Art — “one of the most significant” such assemblages outside of the United Kingdom, according to Margaretta Frederick, its curator. Frederick says the museum wants to be “more all-embracing,” with “broader appeal” to local audiences. The museum closed the Pre-Raphaelite galleries last June and reopened them in July under the rubric “Radical Beauty.”
Visit: Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission $14 for adults.
Address/contact: 2301 Kentmere Parkway; 302-571-9590; delart.org
4. Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington)
The du Ponts’ American success story began here, along a peaceful stretch of the Brandywine River, which powered the black powder mill founded by the chemist Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours in July 1802 — the genesis of today’s DuPont company. E.I. and his brother emigrated from France in 1800 with their father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, and their wives and children.
Stroll the Powder Yard Trail, see a functional 19th-century machine shop and restored mill buildings, and climb Workers’ Hill, with a foreman’s home, Sunday school and other restored buildings. Guides demonstrate a water-powered turbine and a small gunpowder explosion. Although the gunpowder produced at Hagley was used by Union forces in the Civil War and in other military conflicts, the majority of it was for other purposes, including clearing fields for farming and construction.
Visit: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; a Historic Home and Garden tour starts every half hour. Tickets available on site, $10 for adults, $8 for those 62 and older.
Address/contact: Enter at 298 Buck Road; 302-658-2400; hagley.org
5. Mt. Cuba Center (Hockessin, Delaware)
The former home and estate of Pamela and Lammot DuPont Copeland is a more modest and tranquil alternative to Longwood. A botanical garden focusing on the conservation of native plants, it includes a Trial Garden dedicated to research, a Dogwood Path, formal and naturalistic gardens, meadows and ponds. A stroll through the gardens takes about an hour, and there are more than two miles of hiking trails for those who want to extend their walking afterward. Ecological gardening classes and other programs are offered.
Visit: Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; purchase tickets online, $15 for adults ($3 extra for a one-hour tour). More in-depth tours are also available.
Address/contact: 3120 Barley Mill Road (Hockessin is about 10 miles west of Wilmington); 302-239-4244; mtcubacenter.org
Philadelphia-based freelancer Julia M. Klein regularly writes about the arts. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
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