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UC natives make themselves at home on duPont estate

UC natives make themselves at home on duPont estate

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008 7:17 am
By: Glenda H. Caudle Special Features Editor

By GLENDA H. CAUDLE Special Features Editor Alfred I. duPont, who became a partner in his family’s gunpowder mill and played a role in developing more than 200 patents — including one for the first gasoline-powered locomotive in the United States — also constructed the “grandest house ever built in Delaware, Nemours.” Grace Gary, who grew up in Union City and has enjoyed an amazing career that has allowed her to indulge her love of architecture and of history, was hired to restore that dwelling and reopen it to the public. The project’s first and most important phase was recently completed after three years of effort, to the tune of $38.6 million. Ms. Gary is celebrating that milestone. The younger brother who now makes his home with her in the gatehouse on the site — known as “Little Dan” to his many friends in Union City — is celebrating the arrival of guests each day to appreciate his sister’s effort. Their mother, Grace (Dietzel) Gary of Union City, whose family tree has deep roots in Obion County and whose own fascination with beautiful buildings, heritage and things “older than dirt” was passed on to her daughter, is celebrating her birthday Friday. And so the opportunity to share her children’s special project in Delaware comes at a most propitious time. “Little Grace” as Obion Countians know her, was educated in Union City and earned her first college degree at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va. She was also awarded a master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia. She was employed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for several years and then ran an organization called Preservation Pennsylvania, a statewide preservation group. Her next challenge was serving as one of 50 directors in Colonial Williamsburg (Va.) and she then moved on to Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, serving as executive director. Although she had left New Orleans by the time Hurricane Katrina visited its destruction, she has mourned its effects, not only on the city as a whole but on both Longue Vue and the home she had owned there. In Aspen, Colo., she headed up the Historical Society and then she returned home to attend to family matters for a couple of years. Throughout her stints at various historically-charged locations, she has also served as a tour guide for the National Trust study tours. These trips have taken her to China three times, to Russia a dozen times and to other countries to the north, east, south and west of her own. It was during her hometown stop-over, however, that she agreed to accept responsibility for the overhaul of the 70-room, 47,000 square-foot (“one acre under one roof”) duPont mansion and gardens, originally constructed in 1910 by renowned architects Carrere and Hastings. Their other projects included the New York Public Library, New York City’s Frick Mansion and the Henry Flagler Mansion in Palm Beach known as “Whitehall.” “In my world, unless you are part of an extremely large organization, it is not easy to pursue a straightforward career path. If you want to advance in salary and responsibility, you often have to go to a different institution. Since I am not married and have no children, it has been easier for me,” Ms. Gary says. “I’m hoping this is my last move, though. They (the Nemours board) have been warned about that,” she adds with a laugh. Although she is not a mother, Ms. Gary is a dedicated “big sister” and she ends each work day at 5 by returning to her home — the gatehouse for the Nemours estate — and inviting her brother to join her in their golf cart. The third member of the cart-riding trio is their 160-pound Newfoundland, Angel. They treat themselves to a trip within the boundaries of Nemours, but isolated from the mansion itself, to visit their wildlife friends. “Little Dan,” who was named for his father, the late Dr. Dan Gary, eagerly anticipates these opportunities to meet and greet an amazing variety of animals and birds each day. “Our golf cart outings are the highlight of Dan’s day, but he also has another favorite activity,” Ms. Gary says. “A 24-seat bus brings our guests from around the world from the Nemours visitors’ center to the mansion and the bus driver, Paul, is Dan’s best friend. He often gives Dan a ride.” Both modes of transportation around the estate afford Dan the opportunity to wave to visitors and serve as Nemours’ “official greeter.” His eager and enthusiastic “Hey!” is a welcome the mansion’s visitors cannot resist and their response further delights and encourages him. His sister adds that the guests’ second reaction to Dan’s warm welcome from the golf cart is often a startled double-take as they inspect the size of his canine companion. That famous golf cart also served as the mode of transportation when “Big Grace” Gary visited her children in Delaware a couple of years ago. Her 10-day tour was an opportunity not only to spend time with her son and daughter but also to explore the huge mansion her oldest child was carefully restoring. Her love of antique furniture and housing dating from many years gone by was fully indulged, although the daily golf cart rides at times were sometimes a trifle more “energetic” than she would have proposed herself. Welcome to Nemours Pressed for a Nemours job description, Ms. Gary laughs, “I run the place.” And running the place has meant taking charge not only of the multi-million dollar restoration effort but also of the staff. Since coming onboard four years ago and beginning the actual project a year later, she has completed not only the first phase of work dealing with architectural and landscape components but also the production of a 320-page volume about the mansion, a 17-minute film that serves as an introduction and is showcased at the visitors’ center, a new interpretive effort and a new exhibit. Ms. Gary had previously overseen a $12 million restoration project in New Orleans, but the Nemours’ effort dwarfed that task. “The work here simply had to be done. The president of the foundation and the chairman of the board of directors knew it had to be done and when my predecessor retired, they turned to a search firm and found me,” she says. Everyone involved knew the project was of “historic” proportions, but no one visualized an almost $40 million commitment, at that point. “Anyone who has done a home renovation knows you are never prepared for what you get into,” she says. “And because of the sheer size of Nemours, there were many surprises on the front end — the biggest of which was the condition of the sunken garden. It was in much worse condition that any of us expected and it took longer and cost more to repair it. On the plus side, however, we had an extremely good architectural firm overseeing the work. They spent a year ‘exploring’ before they actually began work, so there were fewer surprises along the way for this 100-year-old house.” Asked what evokes the most pride in her “home,” Ms. Gary says the visitors’ center is a source of great contentment. “We started with bare earth there and put up a lovely building and developed an exhibit that goes into much greater detail than any other house museum I know of. The film is also an important part of the experience at Nemours. With the mansion, we took what we were given and did the best we could, but the visitors’ center was a clean slate, so we could always move forward and accomplish our own vision there instead of working with what someone else had already done.” That center is, she says, the first thing she would show a visitor from home — and she hopes she will have ample opportunity to do just that. “The center puts the entire estate — the mansion and gardens — into context. When folks from Obion County come to see us, we’ll start there. Then we’ll bring them into the house and gardens themselves.” To prepare in advance for such a visit — or, if such a trip is not feasible at this point, but one’s curiosity has been piqued — it is possible to visit the Web site at www.NemoursMansion.org and take the virtual tour, listed among the options, to view photos. Among the highlights Ms. Gary hopes visitors will enjoy are the 12-foot tall statue that was re-covered with 23 karat gold leaf. “Achievement” occupies the center of the garden and was designed by French artist Henri Crenier. It “looms over the maze garden on an elevated marble pedestal base … as the inspired centerpiece of the Nemours vista,” according to a press release about the reopening of the home. The gardens themselves follow the model of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, near Paris. And then there is the restored gate that once belonged to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. The furnishings of the home — a source of delight for the visiting “Big Grace” Gary of Union City — include rare French 18th century pieces, and the collection of great art by such notables as James Peale, Frederick Remington and J.M.W. Turner represents a devotion to true artistic talent. Decorative objects designed by Tiffany, Limoges, Wedgwood, Severs and Royal Crown Derby are among the treasures the Gary siblings enjoy daily and are eager to show to guests. Those more appreciative of the architectural and mechanical challenges that went into the restoration may wish to learn more about the ups and downs (quite literally) and the in and outs (and there were several) of inserting sprinkler and smoke detection systems into the first-floor ceiling of the dwelling or about the effort to re-point mortar and repair other stonework. Visitors will learn that all was done with an eye toward achieving the look the original owner of the home envisioned while making it comfortable and safe for the guests who come calling a century later and enduring enough to welcome visitors for many years to come. And, for guests from this part of the country, there is always the chance Dan will invite a hometown buddy along on the golf cart ride to greet his friends the white-tail deer, red foxes, hawks, ducks and heron — if Angel is willing to share her space in the back seat. Thank you, Mr. duPont Alfred I. duPont has been described as a quintessential Victorian whose remarkable achievements helped change the way we live today. He was a “photographer, manufacturer, pugilist, musician, politician, banker, inventor, suffragist, newspaper owner, yachtsman, businessman and philanthropist,” according to the Nemours Web site. His concern for the well-being of children also lead him to establish the Nemours Foundation, which continues to serve families today. In addition, he played a key role in the development of the Nemours estate and designed the hydraulic systems that supplied water to the fountains and house, refined the architects’ design of the mansion facade, oversaw the construction of the greenhouses and introduced the latest mechanical and electrical technology of the time. His will, read when he died in 1935, instructed his trustees to maintain and preserve Nemours Mansion and Gardens “for the pleasure and benefit of the public.” It is a commitment to honoring his wishes that has defined the effort to restore his beloved home. Additional work planned over the next decade will focus on out-buildings and ancillary gardens, but Nemours will remain open through all future work. And you are invited to visit. The Garys — and Mr. duPont — said so. Call (302) 651-6912 for reservations to visit Nemours or go to the Web site for details. Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle@ucmessenger.com. Published in The Messenger 8.28.08

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