The Brandywine Region’s Best Mansions and Gardens
By Tab Hauser
Visiting the Brandywine region in Delaware and Pennsylvania is an easy and affordable two night trip to some of the best mansions and largest gardens in the United States.
This area is located south Philadelphia, PA, and north of Wilmington, DE straddling both states. This makes Brandywine an easy drive for people from Washington D.C. to Boston. As an added bonus to this area, you can take in a truly American art museum and stroll the brick sidewalks of a quaint colonial-era village nearby.
Brandywine River Museum in PA
Our getaway had us leave home on Long Island in the morning and arrive at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA in time for lunch at their river view cafe. This charming museum in a renovated three-story 19th-century grist mill features the works of the Wyeth family along with other American artists.
The Brandywine River Museum also has as additional galleries reserved for changing exhibits. We enjoyed viewing the Wyeth’s American paintings and illustrations as a look back to that era. We also liked the way the old grist mill was modernized with floor to ceiling windows giving the museum lots of natural light in the common areas.
Offered at the Museum from May through November is a tour to N.C. Wyeth’s Home and Studio as well the Kuerner Farm (which served as an inspiration for almost 1,000 works by Andrew Wyeth). We recommend allowing 90 minutes to stroll around the museum plus an hour more for the house and studio tour. We found the
studio an interesting way to see how the artist worked and lived. For up to date exhibit details visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.
Our next stop was ten minutes down the road to the Longwood Gardens. These 1077 acres that Pierre Samuel du Pont purchased in 1906 had a rather interesting history.
It was originally owned by William Penn who sold it in 1700 to George Pierce. His twin sons started an arboretum there naming it Pierce’s Park which was always open to the public.
After Mr. du Pont purchased the property he spent years making the land into what can be said as one of the best botanical gardens in the country. While his land was private, he did open it to the public at times continuing the tradition of the Pierce brothers. In his will, he established the Longwood Foundation so that his passion could be enjoyed for future generations.
Easy Trails through the Gardens
Longwood Gardens has easy trails for leisurely strolling through their twenty different gardens, tree houses, ponds, pools with fountains and long grassy meadows. Near the center of the property is du Pont’s home where you can learn about his life and understand Longwood’s history. At Longwood, the center of attention is not the mansion but the four-acre conservatory greenhouse that has different rooms for various plants, produce, bonsai trees, and flowers.
It is said that walking from room to room is an easy half a mile. In the back of the conservatory is the Pipe Organ Gallery. Here Mr. du Pont installed a 10,010 pipe organ along with the 72-horsepower motor that kept the air flowing to it. A highlight of a visit to Longwood’s conservatory is the fountain show. Check the times when you get your admission ticket and get a seat on the large veranda in front of the conservatory to enjoy it.
We picked Longwood Garden as an afternoon visit because it closes at 6 PM versus other area attractions that close at 5 PM. Also, it should be noted that during summer Longwood stays open into the night on certain days. For details go to www.longwoodgardens.org.
From Longwood Garden having worked up an appetite, we headed west about 10 minutes to the village of Kennett Square for dinner.
Mostly everything you need in the way of food or shops is on the Old Baltimore Pike that runs through it. We settled on the Half Moon Restaurant dining in the airy upstairs room rather than the pub downstairs. For a picnic lunch, we recommended visiting Talulu’s Table down the street.
Nemours Mansion and Garden
On our second day in Brandywine we signed up for the 9 o’clock tour at Nemours Mansion and Garden. The chateau and grounds, built in 1909, is one of the highlights of any Brandywine mansions visit.
After getting our confirmed tickets at the visitor’s center we watched an introductory film about Alfred and Jessie DuPont’s life and the mansion.
Afterward, we were shuttled to the mansion where our group was broken down to six people or less. At the entrance of the mansion, each person was given a flower as a tribute to Mrs. du Pont who loved having flowers all over her home.
Nemours sits on 300 acres of land. While our visit to Longwood Gardens centered on their gardens and not the mansion, Nemours was the opposite. Here the mansion, modeled on a French chateau with its 105 rooms at 47,500 square feet is the center of attention. It is surrounded by a formal French garden and a pretty walk down a long grass lawn to a one-acre reflecting pool complete with marble statues.
We found our tour intimate and we enjoyed the way our guide detailed many of the rooms we visited. For men, there was the ultimate “man cave” that Alfred Du Pont had in the “lower-level”. (Please do not call it a basement as our guide proclaimed). Part of the lower level had Mr. du Pont’s office, trophy’s, gym and heated sweat chamber, a two-lane bowling alley along with his billiard and pool room.
There was even a target catch to shoot low caliber rifles. Mr. du Pont’s area of the lower lever was decorated in dark wood and leather. You can almost smell the cigars and fine cognac the men enjoyed here.
The other half of the lower level was devoted to affairs of running the mansion which included the kitchen, a room for pumping and filtering their own spring water (with a gas added for bubbled water), as well as an ice-making room.
After covering this floor we were introduced to the first two levels of the mansion that included the dining room, library, drawing room as well as a beautiful room in the back of the house with large windows.
Much of the chateau was decorated with French antiques, tapestries, and artwork. Near the center of the home was a beautiful staircase where one can make their “grand entrance”.
After the house tour, we were given 30 minutes on our own to stroll the gardens and walk down the beautiful lawn to the pool complete with fountain and old rowing dory. From there we boarded the shuttle bus and were driven around the grounds with a stop in the chauffeur’s quarters and garage to view the old cars that Mr. du Pont used to own.
The drive around was informative and pointed out the different sculptures that we had walked by earlier. Tours at Nemours last two hours including free time in the gardens. Complete information for Nemours can be found at www.nemoursmansion.org
Our next stop just 15 minutes away was the former estate of Henry Francis du Pont called Winterthur. Winterthur is set on 979 acres with a 175 room, eight-story mansion that was converted into the largest collection of “decorative arts” in America.
This collection of Americana is said to have 90,000 pieces dating from 1640 to 1860. Within the 979 acres preserve is 60 acres set aside as one of the best natural gardens in the country. There is also an education center adjacent to the mansion for graduate studies.
To see Winterthur you check-in at the visitors’ building complete with gift store and a nice cafeteria. Here we picked up our reserved tickets for one of the specialty tours offered. Our tour was worth the upgrade because it included more of a historical and in-depth look into the mansion as well as seeing additional floors and rooms not included in the standard tour.
Admission to the upgraded tour includes the standard tour. We found our guide (a student studying there) very detailed in her descriptions of nearly all the furnishings in each room we visited.
The differences between Nemours and Winterthur mansions were very obvious. Winterthur was set up as a museum after Mr. Du Pont moved out of the mansion and as a result the floors, hallways, and former bathrooms are filled with wonderfully preserved antiques.
They even went as far as gutting bathrooms to make way for additional displays. While Winterthur can look like hoarders took over, Nemours is kept up as if the owners were ready to return from their Florida estate and take up residence again. Two interesting architectural points worth noting in the mansion was a closed-in courtyard, as well as a few specific rooms, redone.
In the courtyard, each of the four walls came from the outside of a home from four different early American buildings that were about to be demolished. While it sounds strange, it is interesting to look at. This courtyard was used for family gatherings. We viewed many rooms.
If the room was not interesting to look at for its historical pieces then it was interesting because of the way the room was placed in the mansion. Sometimes you would walk into a room that was literally cut out of an old home. It usually was there because it has a special feature like the wood being different or special windows or perhaps the design of it.
An example of this is what is called the Montmorenci staircase that came from a North Carolina plantation of that name that was about to be demolished. What makes this staircase unique was its complete free-flowing circular design. It is interesting to think about how construction was altered in the mansion to make this staircase work.
There was a lot to absorb on taking a tour of the twenty or so rooms we viewed. From the Mansion we were shuttled to the visitor building where we boarded a tram for the garden tour.
During the garden tour, the driver would stop along the way and talk about the various trees, bushes, and flowers that make Winterthur’s garden special. Details for your visit be found at www.winterthur.org
IF YOU GO:
Brandywine Region: A good place to plan your visit in regards to finding hotels, Bed and Breakfasts, and attractions that include wineries, museums, and even canoeing down a quiet river would be this website.