Small Wonder: Wilmington

This city in the second-smallest state boasts a huge trove of historic landmarks

Every so often, a new city comes along to impress me, making me wonder: Where have you been all my life?

That was my reaction to Wilmington, Del., a historic city I'd often seen from Amtrak or the interstate but always passed through. Until recently, that is, when growing curiosity finally lured me into town.

The largest city in the second-smallest state, Wilmington grew from a Swedish settlement in 1638 to an industrial port that made flour, textiles, railroad cars, ships—and gunpowder, which transformed a plucky clan of French immigrants called the du Ponts into one of America's foremost families. They were to have an enormous influence on the city's economy and culture.

Wilmington is home base for visiting du Pont mills and mansions in the Brandywine Valley just outside town. But since the city itself was less familiar, I started there, on Rodney Square, a City Beautiful plaza wrapped with noble civic landmarks and the DuPont Co.'s huge headquarters (1905-31) with its Hotel du Pont

My favorite landmark was the 1922 public library, built on land given by Pierre S. du Pont. I ogled its terra cotta frieze and plain stone center section, the result of axing a planned portico, as stone owls studied me from second-story windows. You could call it imposing, or call it historic, the library orchestrates classical forms so refreshingly that I called it delicious.

A few blocks south on Market Street stands the Grand Opera House, built in 1871 at the peak of Second Empire bravura, with a look-at-me facade of vigorously articulated cast iron. Its restoration in the 1970s was a big deal for American preservation, then getting its feet wet. Activists, politicos, and civic leaders spearheaded the job; the National Trust provided advice  and funded a case study after the 1976 opening. "The Trust saw us as a model for other groups around the country," says study author Robert Stoddard. "The opera house was adopted and nurtured by the community. It became, and it continues to be, the anchor for development on Market."

It was a treat to tour the auditorium—a knockout with its horseshoe balcony, ornate ceiling murals, and iron balustrade—and learn that the Masonic lodges that built the Opera House still occupy its top floors.

What's in a Name? 

Visitors to Wilmington learn that the traditional spelling of the city's most famous benefactors is du Pont. But some family members, including Marion duPont Scott, who arranged for James Madison's Montpelier to become a National Trust Historic Site, spelled the family name without a space. And the chemical company founded by E.I. du Pont in 1802 is spelled DuPont.  

Philadelphia architect Frank Furness designed the Security Trust bank (1885) in the 500 block of Market, a beauty that charmed me with its take on the Queen Anne style. Opposite stands the prim Old Town Hall (1800), owned by the Delaware Historical Society; its history museum fills an ex-Woolworth's next door. The society also moved six 18th-century houses to the block—dubbing the result Willingtown Square, after the city's first name—and its library reuses the stunning Art Deco Artisan's Savings Bank (1930). Deco had a prolific, high-stylish day on Market, no example showier than the old Delmarva Power and Light building up the street.

There's also a new old kid on the block: The renovated Queen Theater building (1873) opened this spring as World Café Live, a restaurant and popular music venue that Stoddard praises for "starting a whole new synergy with the opera house." South from here, the city has pushed even more rehab, including a long row of spiffed-up 18th-to-early-20th-century buildings called Ships Tavern Mews, which won a 2005 National Preservation Honor Award.

Market descends to the Christina River waterfront, which public and private forces are reviving with shops, restaurants, housing, and museums in buildings old and new. The handsome Riverwalk links them all.

My river walk began at Furness' Wilmington rail station (1908), once known as Pennsylvania Railroad Station, but renamed by Amtrak for former frequent rider, now Vice President, Joe Biden. Next door is Furness' 1906 Pennsylvania Building, and a block away his 1888 B&O station. Between, in witty reference to the three, is a neo-Victorian parking garage (2004). I beheld another nod to history sailing down the
Christina—a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel, the Swedish ship that landed near here in 1638.

When you go ...  

Travelers interested in the du Ponts have two historic hotels from which to choose. The grand Hotel du Pont, part of the company's headquarters building, opened in 1913. A prize collection of regional art fills the Brandywine and Christina rooms. Not far away, the luxurious Inn at Montchanin Village stands in a hamlet named for the grandmother of E.I. du Pont. The inn is made up of 11 striking stucco, stone, and wood buildings. Restored by a du Pont descendant, the inn is well located for taking in the three major du Pont museums. Both hostelleries are Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. See  PreservationNation.org/hha.

The Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau website at visitwilmingtonde.com offers an overview of attractions in the city and Brandywine Valley.

Riverwalk was calming—water does that to you— but I was eager to see more of the city, so I headed east to its oldest building and one of North America's most venerable churches, Old Swedes (1698), built by the settlers' progeny not far from the Kalmar Nyckel dock. A bell tower, side porches, and other accretions came later, but the original stout stone section still dominates the leafy churchyard, a scene popular with painters such as Howard Pyle and Andrew Wyeth.

West of Market, I climbed Quaker Hill to the Friends Meeting House (1817)—brick and severe. The Quakers who grew the city met here; one was abolitionist Thomas Garrett, who helped Harriet Tubman convey enslaved African Americans to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Row houses and churches march up Quaker Hill streets in a parade of historical styles. A few blocks away, the Gothic Revival Trinity Episcopal Church (1890) rises above another historic enclave, cleverly labeled Trinity Vicinity, with mews-like streets and tidy brick houses.

Pleasantly exhausted by my walking tours, I slid behind the wheel of my car and headed out of town in search of the du Ponts.

In 1802, on Brandywine Creek, Eleuthère Irénée (E.I.) du Pont founded his gunpowder plant, Eleutherian Mills. The 235-acre estate, now called Hagley Museum, interprets that industry and the family's entrepreneurial and artistic genius.

I started at Hagley's mill, which once made powder kegs and now offers presentations on explosives, the company, and its products—including 20th-century "wonder" fibers. I popped into a restored 1880s machine shop noisy with metal working, then over to workers' houses and a school. The real catnip, especially for the kids in tow, was the powder-making demo in the roll mill. With great animation, docent Olga Fischer threw open the sluice gate on the millrace; water flowed into the turbine and, via various gears, powered the iron wheels that mixed sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal into gunpowder.

E.I. du Pont built his manor here in 1803. It remained a family residence until 1890, when a mill explosion nearly did it in. (The years yielded a grisly toll: 288 explosions and 228 deaths.) After the powder works closed in 1921, the mansion was restored and grandly refurnished by Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a founder of the National Trust and namesake of its Crowninshield Award. Next to the house, Hagley has recreated E.I.'s formal French garden of flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees.

Louise's brother, Henry Francis du Pont, was busy up-valley at his own domain, Winterthur, collecting American decorative art to share with the world. The result is nearly 90,000 objects—furniture, paintings, ceramics, glass—stuffed into a house that he expanded from modest to immense to accommodate them all. It is the leading museum of its kind. I toured a warren of impressive rooms, amazed at the man's passion. And scope: Henry amassed 54 dinner services, earthenware to Chinese porcelain. He gardened zealously, too, as I saw in the surrounding meadows and woods in full spring bloom, a "natural" park he shaped fastidiously.

Down the Brandywine is Delaware's grandest house, Nemours (1910). Architects Carrère and Hastings designed, and Alfred I. du Pont built, this 72-room fusion of French and American taste with Versailles-like gardens. Executive Director Grace Gary took me around, starting at the visitors center, which explains the du Ponts—by this point, I was getting lost in the branches of the family tree—and their world. Alfred ran the firm with his cousins (including Pierre S., who built the downtown hotel), but because of family and company quarrels, ultimately fell out with both. Still, says Gary, "family was vitally important to Alfred. He built Nemours not just for himself, but in homage to the du Ponts."

Nemours reopened in 2008 after a major restoration and was as opulent as I had expected, its limestone-and-stucco walls enclosing richly finished and festooned rooms. To cite but one: I have a thing for entry halls, and this reception hall is a confection of faux-stone walls, checkered floor, and a coffered ceiling. In contrast was Alfred's woody retreat in the basement, with billiard room and bowling alley. Best of all was to stand in front of the house and relish what Gary calls "the million-dollar view" of gardens descending a quarter-mile-long axis, their lawns, pools, statues, and stonework guiding the eye. "Modern Delaware is largely the result of Alfred's determination to keep the company in the family and in the state," Gary told me.

On my way out of town, I sampled some very modern Delaware when I returned to the Riverwalk and dropped in at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, a non-collecting museum of artists' studios and galleries in the early 20th-century Harlan and Hollingsworth railroad-car assembly plant. Installations with titles like "Splinters" and "Perforations" and "We Are Our Stuff" fill the spaces. I chatted with Executive Director Maxine Gaiber about the center, and about getting visitors to Wilmington. Gesturing toward the Amtrak line that runs right behind the building, she declared, pausing between words for effect, "I want to put up a big sign that reads 'Get … off … the … train!'"

Great advice.              

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