Take one relatively modest twelve-room du Pont family home in the lush Brandywine Valley, massively increase its size, add the artistic passion and altruistic vision of its last owner, Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), and you wind up with the world’s premier museum of 17th- through 19th-century American antiques and decorative arts. Opened officially in 1951, the connoisseur’s obsessive collection of more than 60,000 items (later acquisitions have brought the figure to nearly 85,000) range from silverware to spiral staircases, from furniture to almost 200 period rooms and galleries, most of which you can visit in the company of exceptionally knowledgeable guides, on various “theme” tours.
The estate’s garden, however, was H. F. du Pont’s first love: Well before he began to collect, he was a passionate gardener, and today some 60 of the estate’s remaining 979 acres (down from 2,500 at its height in the early 20th century) are given over to magnificent naturalistic gardens planted with native and exotic plants. The gardens are located close to the museum, and are accessible via the Garden Tram. Insatiable garden-lovers should take a trip just across the Pennsylvania border to Kennett Square and the Longwood estate’s more formal and refined 1,000-acre gardens, the fancy of H. F.’s cousin Pierre S. du Pont. Overnight visitors can also give Pierre a nod of thanks for the gilded, Italianate Hotel du Pont, which he opened in 1913 in nearby Wilmington as grand lodging for his family’s visiting business guests. A paean to European craftsmanship, this gracious Renaissance palazzo evokes the captains-of-industry era and the du Ponts’ penchant for collecting: More than 700 original paintings hung throughout the hotel capture the rural beauty of their beloved Brandywine Valley.