Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Nemours Mansion & Gardens, Wilmington, DE

Architects: John Milner Architects, Inc., Chadds Ford, PA; Mary W. DeNadai, FAIA, principal in charge; Christopher J. Miller, AIA, project manager

General Contractor: Wohlsen Construction Company, New Castle, DE

 

 

Awards

Restoration & Renovation

Winner: John Milner Architects

Nemours's Comeback

By Annabel Hsin

In 1909, Alfred I. duPont commissioned Carrère and Hastings to build a stunning 47,000-sq.ft. mansion for himself and his second wife, Alicia, in Wilmington, DE. The mansion's Louis XVI style paid homage to duPont's French heritage – its gardens were inspired by the Petit Trianon Palace gardens at Versailles. DuPont later named his home after family patriarch Pierre Samuel duPont de Nemours, who served at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

A year after the sudden death of Alicia in 1920, duPont married Jessie Ball, who was 20 years his junior, and the house underwent many changes that reflected her tastes. After duPont's death, Jessie remained in the home until her death in 1970. Under the terms of duPont's will, the estate was subsequently opened to the public as a museum with the Nemours Foundation overseeing its operations.

Over the next three decades, the interior of the mansion was modified to accommodate administrative needs while the architectural and landscape components deteriorated due to minimal maintenance. In 2004, the foundation initiated an ambitious restoration, hiring Chadds Ford, PA-based John Milner Architects to oversee the project.

"We had to bear in mind that this was to be restored thinking that Alfred and Jessie could walk around the corner at any moment," says Christopher Miller, AIA, project manager. "It was intended to be a well-maintained home. That was our charge and challenge from the beginning."

John Milner Architects undertook extensive historical research to document various architectural changes and to investigate the extent of the damage throughout the 225-acre property. The master plan had three parts – the gardens, mansion and mechanical systems – to be completed in two phases within two years. Programmatic goals included repairing the exterior walls and foundations, restoring museum spaces, installing fire sprinklers, relocating staff offices and guides' meeting rooms, creating additional storage areas and updating the mechanical system, as well as providing accessibility for both office and museum guests.

"One of the most important issues was to pinpoint the period for the restoration of the house," says Mary DeNadai, FAIA, principal in charge. "It wasn't that straightforward. Alfred died in 1935 and his wife lived until the 1970s; from the time of his death to the time of her death, she acquired things on her own and made changes. We needed to find out what those changes were and decide how they would be incorporated. The period chosen for the restoration was the 1950s because Jessie was there as a widow, but the house still kept its context from their period together."

The investigation found that while the house was structurally sound, the surrounding terrace and nearby sunken garden had suffered years of water infiltration that had compromised the integrity of the concrete and reinforcement systems. All of the terraces, as well as the stairs and walls of the sunken garden, were dismantled and labeled for later reassembly. The land was excavated to reveal a layer of deteriorated coal tar over the foundation walls, which was removed. A traditional approach was taken to conserve the foundation and involved the installation of a drainage system and waterproofing membranes below grade levels.

When the design team began, the inappropriate modifications they found included exterior stucco walls painted pink, storm windows and doors with wide frames and a trelliage painted a green color that didn't exist during the duPonts' era. After careful paint seriation analysis, the exterior stucco was restored to a delicate cream color with pink and yellow undertones; the custom paint was manufactured by Pittsburgh, PA-based PPG Industries. Limestone details, such as the balustrade and cornerstones, were cleaned. Masonry components were repaired with an epoxy mortar mixture (supplied by Hanover, MD-based Cathedral Stone Products) consisting of masonry dust extracted from existing walls. The storms were replaced with storm doors with appropriate profiles and the windows were all upgraded with low-E and UV-filtering glass and storm panels manufactured by Allied Windows of Cincinnati, OH.

"The biggest inappropriate change was the exterior and interior paint colors of the house," says DeNadai. "After Mrs. duPont passed away, maintenance people would repaint rooms to freshen them up but they didn't do any kind of paint analysis to come up with the right colors. They would say for instance, 'This wall is beige, now let's paint it beige.' However, there are lots of different beiges."

Frank S. Welsh of Bryn Mawr, PA-based Welsh Color & Conservation took paint samples from plaster and woodwork, as well as polychrome features, and analyzed them under a high-powered microscope. He documented the sequence of paint colors used over the years. Colors that corresponded with the restoration period were selected for interior walls; custom paints were supplied by M.A.B. Paints of Broomall, PA.

Existing walls in the reception hall, main corridor and stair hall were built using Brandywine granite and covered with a thin layer of plaster scored and painted to resemble blocks of French limestone. During the restoration, the walls were refinished in a faux ashlar glaze and each block was hand-painted to ensure that no two stones were alike.

"The walls had been painted over so many times that we needed to do a lot of strategic analysis to determine the pattern," says DeNadai. "There are actually five different colors in those blocks. We took some historic black-and-white photographs, then blew them up to re-create a grid on drawings and elevations to show how they were dispersed." In addition to restoring the walls in these areas, the black-and-white marble tile floors were treated with non-slip sealants. "We wanted people to be able to walk on that floor and not put down all these protective pads, which would change the entire appearance and experience of the room," says DeNadai.

All of the decorative light fixtures were upgraded and connected to a light control system with five different modes; the system was manufactured by Coopersburg, PA-based Lutron Electronics Co. "The 250 lights include ceiling pendants, chandeliers, sconces and table and floor lamps," says DeNadai. "It was quite an undertaking. The crystal chandelier in the hallway going towards the dining room, for instance, was dismounted, taken apart and rewired. In some cases, we augmented fixtures with uplighting and features that give us more reflected light to help people see objects without adding spotlights."

Beyond the dining room, the first floor of the servants' wing was restored and is included in the museum tour. Staff offices were relocated from the third floor of the main house to the second floor of the servants' wing, which previously provided temporary sleeping quarters for guests of the Foundation. The third floor of the servants' wing and mansion was repurposed for mechanical equipment and additional storage. "The storage was critical from the standpoint that the duPonts were collectors and never threw anything out," says DeNadai. "We needed to make sure we could capture these spaces and utilize them for some efficiently designed storage for the furniture, art collection and rugs that were not on display."

In compliance with building codes, a high-pressure-mist fire sprinkler system supplied by Ashland, MA-based Marrioff Hi-Fog, was discreetly installed in all levels of the house. "The ceilings of the first floor are very decorative," says Miller. "In order to install the sprinklers, we found that the only real solution was to remove the entire second-level oak flooring. The sprinklers have relatively small heads that allowed us to integrate them with ceiling designs so that in many of the rooms you don't notice them. This system gave us code flexibility in terms of dead-end corridors and open staircases."

After two years of rigorous construction, the Palladio Award-winning restoration and renovation has returned Nemours and its surrounding gardens to their former splendor. "The clients really wanted to do the right thing, and they took all of the right steps to achieve the end result of a true preservation for both the present and well into the future," says DeNadai. "The project has always been about how to best restore and maintain the building, as well as to develop a cyclical maintenance plan to keep it from reverting back to before we started this project. It's going to be much easier to maintain going forward. The clients are now able to maintain everything in situ."  

 

 

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