ornamental metalwork

Grand Entrances

As part of a larger restoration project at Nemours Mansion and Gardens, Robinson Iron revives the estate’s gates and ironwork elements in time for its centennial.

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As part of a recent $39 million complete restoration of Nemours Mansion & Gardens in Wilmington, DE, Robinson Iron of Alexander City, AL, spent three years restoring the ironwork on the house and grounds, including the Russian and English Gates (pictured), cast-iron window guards, elk statuary and lily pond fountain. All photos: Nemours Mansion & Gardens unless otherwise noted

By Lynne Lavelle

At a time when extravagant displays of wealth are on the wane – due to tact, necessity or both – and "no expense spared" applies to a vanishing few, Nemours Mansion & Gardens in Wilmington, DE, is the ultimate in escapism. The 300-acre Carrere and Hastings-designed country estate was built in 1910 for the industrialist Alfred I. duPont. It is widely considered the grandest estate ever constructed in the state of Delaware; the house itself is a 47,000-sq.-ft. "American Versailles" and the formal French Neoclassical garden is the largest in North America.

In accordance with duPont’s will, and following the death of his third wife, Nemours was turned into a house museum in the mid-1970s. And as the Nemours Foundation prepares for the house’s centennial next year, a recent $39 million complete restoration of the building and grounds has revived their early opulence and called attention to the life and works of duPont himself, whose philanthropy impacted the lives of many.

Designed by Carrere and Hastings and built in 1910 for the industrialist Alfred I. duPont, Nemours will celebrate its centennial next year. The house itself is a 47,000-sq-ft. "American Versailles," and the formal French Neoclassical garden is the largest in North America.

"The first thing he said in his will was, ‘preserve and maintain the mansion and gardens,’" says Grace Gary, executive director of Nemours Mansion and Gardens. "This meant something to him, and that is one of the reasons why the foundation wanted to return it to the condition that it ought to be in. He gave so much to many others and this was all he asked."

The Nemours Foundation provides one of the largest networks of pediatric clinics in the country, as well as a children’s hospital in Delaware. And among the many lesser-known deeds of duPont discussed in the newly built visitors’ center is how for three years prior to the creation of Social Security, he paid a monthly pension from his own pocket to needy senior citizens throughout Delaware.

"I think that story means a lot more to those who heard it after last August than to those who heard it last May," says Gary. "Alfred was much more than a rich man who built himself a fancy house, and I think for at least the next couple of years, these are exactly the kinds of stories that we need to hear in our society."

The elk statuary were cleaned and refinished, revealing their surface detail. On one, a foreleg stress fracture was repaired; the crack was ground out, welded and ground smooth.

A host of specialized conservators, conservation scientists, project managers, technicians and support staff worked inside and out at Nemours for three years. Though the house was in a fair condition cosmetically, the foundation had the means ($36.8 million of private funding) for a complete overhaul, including rewiring, HVAC, fire suppression systems, stained glass, lighting, decorative painting and flooring.

This meticulous attention to detail is reflected in the garden’s restored landscaping, hardscaping, stonework and statuary. For added authenticity, visitors – who previously arrived at the rear of the house – now approach via the front drive, just as Mr. and Mrs. duPont’s guests did. They pass through the cleaned, repaired and refinished wrought-iron English Gates, one of several pieces restored by Robinson Iron of Alexander City, AL.

Working closely with Virginia N. Naudé, principal of Philadelphia, PA-based Norton Art Conservation, Robinson Iron spent three years restoring the Russian and English gates, cast-iron window guards, elk statuary and lily pond fountain. Their weight and fragility posed significant challenges during disassembly and removal, which had to be performed without endangering the site or creating a hazard for other tradespeople or restoration work. "It’s a very sensitive site," says Scott Howell, vice president of Robinson Iron. "There were a lot of surrounding things that we had to be careful with and provide protection for, such as removing the balcony rails without damaging the stone on either side. The sheer number of pieces was also very difficult. We removed large pieces such as the elk, but we also removed all of the ironwork on the building itself. That was a significant number of items."

It was determined that the interiors of some floral details on the English Gates would remain black, while their exteriors were covered in 23.75 carat gold leaf. The detailing now matches documentary historic photographs.

First, the Russian Gates were removed through the 12x12-ft. English Gates, which were then disassembled to allow crane access for the remaining materials. Fragile wrought and repoussé ironwork components were carefully catalogued on site, packed for shipment and offloaded at Robinson’s restoration facility. There, Naudé, Howell and Robinson Iron president Richard H. Robinson established restoration, replication and gilding schemes. "We had a methodology for each individual element," says Howell. "Virginia Naudé was with us every step of the way. She was there on the days we dismantled and reinstalled the pieces, and she also visited us in Alexander City on several occasions to view the procedures that we were using."

Now highlighted in 23.75 carat gold leaf, the Russian Imperial Crown, and Catherine the Great’s birth and death dates are clearly visible again on the restored Russian Gates. Photo: J. Scott Howell

For the majority of the ironwork, Robinson removed the old paint coatings, determined what repairs or replacements were required, then used a zinc thermal spray, followed by an epoxy primer and finish coat. The most significant damage was found on the English and Russian gates, which were badly corroded and required replacement elements. "Most of the ironwork was really in pretty good condition, considering its age," says Howell. "In many cases, only the finishes had worn away."

Delivery and reinstallation of the ironwork were as precarious as its disassembly and removal, requiring careful coordination with other subcontractors. "We used a lot of equipment that could reach into the building to install some of the heavier items," says Howell. "Going back in was just as delicate as coming out."

With the Russian Imperial Crown and Catherine the Great’s dates of birth and death highlighted in 23.75 carat gold leaf, the restored Russian Gates were reinstalled atop cleaned limestone piers. Cleaning and refinishing have revealed the surface details of the elk, the statue of Young Faun and the overscaled cast-iron frog and turtles; and the gilding and gold leaf of the window guards and English Gates match historic photographs once more. "Everything has been returned to its original state," says Howell. "There are no missing elements and the corrosion has been dealt with. The maintenance staff will only need to repaint every 10 to 15 years."

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