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In Delaware and Pennsylvania, a peek at the homes that big money built

The Oscar-nominated film “Foxcatcher” may have put the Du Pont name back in the spotlight, but black sheep John du Pont, notorious for shooting and killing Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, was just one of thousands of descendants from one of the wealthiest families in America.

The family’s legacy and love of the arts, botany and philanthropy is evident in the stately mansions, museums and gardens tucked away in picturesque Chateau Country and Brandywine Valley where northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania converge, about 25 minutes from the Philadelphia airport.

The lush rolling hills, horse farms and elaborate, grand estates will have you feeling like you’ve stepped onto the set of a British costume drama.

Here are a few highlights:

Hagley Museum & Library

The Du Pont dynasty was forged here at the gunpowder factory along the banks of the Brandywine River. It was founded by Eleuthère Irénée (E. I.) du Pont in 1802 after he emigrated from France, where he studied explosive production techniques.

Visitors can learn about black gunpowder manufacturing with explosion demonstrations, a 16-foot-tall water wheel, turbine and 19th century machinery housed in historic stone structures before touring the Georgian-style estate and French influenced gardens of the ancestral Du Pont home.

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View of the millrace at Hagley, referred to as “the most beautiful mile of the Brandywine” (Hagley Museum & Library)

Info: Hagley Museum & Library, 200 Hagley Creek Road, Wilmington, Del.; (302) 658-2400.  Museum open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.) Library is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission: Adults $14; children 6-14, $5; students and seniors $10; children 5 and younger free. *Beginning March 2, tours are not visiting the interior of the Du Pont residence while it undergoes restoration.

Nemours Mansion & Gardens

Built in 1910 by Alfred I. du Pont for his second wife, Alicia (Heyward Bradford), the opulent Louis XVI-style chateau reflects the family’s French heritage. 

The five-story, 47,000-square-foot estate designed by architects Carrère and Hastings features marble floors, coffered ceilings, a bowling alley, billiards room and antique car collection. 

Illuminating the main dining room is a spectacular chandelier believed to be from Marie Antoinette’s childhood home, Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

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Nemours Boxwood Garden (Liesl Bradner / For The Los Angeles Times)

The pièce de résistance of the 10-acre grand vista garden modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, is the gilded 23-karat gold leaf sculpture “Achievement,” by French artist Henri Crenier.

Info: Nemours Mansion & Gardens, 850 Alapocas Drive, Wilmington, Del.; (302) 651-6912

Mansion and Gardens Tours open May 1-Dec. 31. Reservations required for groups. Guided Mansion Tours: Tuesdays through Saturdays:  9:30 a.m., 12 and 3 p.m. Sunday:  noon and 3 p.m. $15 individual, $13 groups of 20 or more

Garden Walk: Tuesdays-Saturdays: 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m.; Sunday: noon, 2 and 4 p.m. $10

Winterthur Museum & Library

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Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is on 1,000 acres of rolling meadows, hills and world-class gardens. (Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library)

Winterthur (pronounced “winter-tour”) is the former home of collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont, and is one of the premier museums of American decorative arts. Objects from the nearly 90,000-piece collection, including a set of six tankards crafted by Paul Revere, are displayed throughout the 175-room mansion.

Outside, tranquil paths adorned with vibrant blooming flora amid 60 acres of gardens and meadows lead past a koi pond through woodlands to the Enchanted Woods, a magical, Shire-like children’s garden with a flower labyrinth, fairy cottage, Tulip Tree House and Troll Bridge.

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The Reflecting Pool area relies on the principles of axial symmetry and proportion (Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library)

Besides 50 fireplaces, an on-site fire department, post office, and (non-functioning) train station, the 1,000-acre property once boasted a prizewinning herd of Holstein-Friesian cows.

Info: Winterthur Museum & Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del.; (302) 888-4600. Museum and Garden open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays. Library open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Adults $20; child (2-11) $5; younger than 2 free. Students with valid ID and seniors 62+ $18.

Longwood Gardens

The main conservatory at Longwood Gardens (Longwood Gardens)

The former arboretum once owned by William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, was designed by Pierre S. du Pont in 1906. 

More than 1,000 acres and 11,000 species of plants adorn 40 indoor and outdoor horticulture displays including a topiary garden, ornate tree houses, a 10,010-pipe organ and the glorious 600-foot-long Flower Garden Walk bursting in spring with 140,000 rainbow-colored tulips and blooms.

The conservatory offers hands-on water features, secret stairways, an orchid house and cascade gardens.

Although the magnificent 5-acre Main Fountain Garden is undergoing a $90-million restoration, visitors can take in the serene Italian water garden inspired by Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy, and also see the gardens in a whole new light with the nighttime installation, “Nightscape: A Light & Sound Experience.”  Beginning July 1, several site specific locations will be illuminated with abstract visual projections, rotating sculptures and sensory displays choreographed to original scores from Philadelphia artists.

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Italian water gardens at Longwood (Longwood Gardens)

In 2014, Longwood Gardens earned the dubious distinction “best loos in the land,” in Cintas Corp.'s annual best bathroom contest. A verdant 4,072-square-foot curved wall festooned with about 47,000 ferns and other plants lining a hallway leading to 16 individual restroom pods with solar-powered fixtures and sleek designs make for an unforgettable trip to the loo.

Info: Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pa.; (610) 388-1000. Open Jan. 12-Nov. 25, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Nightscape hours extended to 11 p.m. Adult 18 and older $20; senior 62 and older $17; student 5-18 years with valid student ID, $10; child 4 and younger free. Nightscape tickets (includes daytime garden admission): Adult 19 and older $27; students 5-18 $17; children 4 and younger free.


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