Hotel Du Pont anchors a weekend of history
With average temps hovering in the high 40s from December to March, an offseason escape to Wilmington, Delaware certainly won’t get you that tan you’ve been dreaming about all winter. But I discovered there’s a lot to love about this river town.
The city has long been known for its welcoming small-town charm and abundance of activities and attractions to explore. However, it should also be recognized for its rich architectural history.
Enter Hotel Du Pont. Centrally located in the heart of downtown, the hotel stands stately as a Wilmington landmark at the corner of 11th and North Market streets. It has enviable proximity to the area’s most renowned museums, spectacular gardens, and thriving arts community, allowing guests to discover nearby restaurants, attractions and the many hidden gems of the Brandywine Valley.
This fall, this native Western Marylander checked in for a weekend at the regal hotel, where I had plenty of R&R to reflect on Wilmington’s vast sights and delights. From museums to mansions, history lessons to five-star dining here’s how to while away your own weekend in this nearby city.
History and Heritage
When you check in to this prestigious hotel, make sure you get the grand tour. An architectural icon, Hotel Du Pont has many stories to tell. The 12-story Italian Renaissance building debuted in 1913 after a labor of love by French and Italian craftsmen who carved, gilded and painted this landmark to life.
Then and now, arriving guests are still greeted by common areas framed by ornate, hand-carved wood, mosaic and terrazzo floors and imported European chandeliers. But, despite its legendary past, the Hotel Du Pont was revitalized in the 1950s.
The beautiful, handcrafted furniture, Oriental carpets and lighting fixtures were replaced with chrome, artificial leather, modern rugs and new lighting. The handsome walnut reception desk was covered. The Palm Court—the mezzanine floor above the lobby—was paneled off with plastic; new carpeting hid the mosaic and parquet floors.
The exterior of the hotel was altered as well. The 37 balconies on the facade were removed. And the striking iron and opal glass marquee, a symbol of elegance for hotels of that era, was replaced by a new 127-foot long steel and aluminum marquee. Despite all the modern upgrades, the hotel still remains a landmark of luxury with alluring old-world charm.
Enchanting event space
Expansion of the property brought even further enhancements, with the addition of the Gold Ballroom, Du Barry Room, and a 1,250-seat Broadway theater, the famous Playhouse on Rodney Square. Two 12-foot high American walnut doors, hand-carved with designs of peacocks and urns, frame the entrance to this impressive room. And, at the top perches, a large hand-carved Caen stone imported from France.
When I first entered the Gold Ballroom during my tour, my eyes were immediately drawn to the ceiling. Built-in the French Neoclassic and Louis XVI styles, remarkable design touches are frequent across the vast room, including ornate decorations, shimmering overlays and unique scenes created in the sgraffito technique—multiple layers of hand-etched, colored plaster—with bas-relief medallions of famous women from history circling the ceiling. Another striking room in the hotel was the Du Barry Room. This Federal-style room is appointed with white pillars, parquet floors, elegant sconces and a glossy crystal chandelier imported from Yugoslavia.
One of the best parts about staying at Hotel Du Pont was that it hosts a wide array of food options right inside the hotel. Upon entering the Green Room, the hotel’s signature restaurant, I immediately noticed its carved oak paneling, a coffered oak-beamed ceiling, gold chandeliers and Italian mosaics. The vibrant ambiance paired with seasonally inspired French fare and a diverse wine selection, made my stay truly relaxing. I spent many of my nights cozied up in their lounge on a plush leather sofa snacking on Truffle duck fries while enjoying friendly service and a wide-ranging drink menu.
While the Green Room recently closed this January, don’t worry. A new concept is coming this spring to Wilmington’s storied venue to take its place; a French brasserie—Le Cavalier at The Green Room.
The restaurant will be helmed by Chef-Partner Tyler Akin, a Wilmington native and the restaurateur behind Philadelphia concepts Stock and Res Ipsa Cafe.
Pulling influences from Provence and North Africa, Akin will design menus that showcase innovative riffs on French classics, from steak Frites with bone marrow salsa verde to bouillabaisse with scallops, octopus, monkfish and head-on shrimp with handmade Moroccan couscous, alongside seasonal offerings that showcase the vibrancy of Delaware foodways.
Guests can also indulge in entrées like swordfish à la Grecque, made with roasted heritage chickens, gnocchi Parisienne with jumbo lump crab, and large-format options like the rougette de veau, a red wine-braised cut of veal shoulder glazed and served with roasted maitake mushrooms. Nods to memorable Green Room classics will include the signature almond macaroons, high tea service three days a week and holiday menus.
The heart of every big city is its downtown and Wilmington is no different. Hotel Du Pont boasts a prime location with endless day-travel options for travelers and locals alike. Here are a few.
Built from a humble Quaker farm into one of the most exceptional gardens in the world, Longwood gardens, situated on roughly 1,077 acres, showcases 20 indoor gardens, as well as 20 outdoor gardens, fountains, a meadow and farmhouse, as well as a grand 4-acre conservatory. Built-in 1914, the conservatory is still considered one of the world’s most prestigious greenhouse structures. Must-see items include the central fountain garden, offering daily and illuminating performances.
Most widely known for being Alfred I. DuPont’s former home in 1910, Nemours combines the majesty of formal French gardens with the natural beauty of native woodlands. He employed the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings to design the 77-room mansion, and now, guests can enjoy its surrounding grand foundations, intricate displays and sweeping natural landscape.
Brandywine River Museum of Art
Initially built in 1864, the museum has been a staple in the community since 1971. The gardens feature native plants of the greater Brandywine region displayed in idyllic settings within a patch of walking trails. The plants are selected to provide a succession of bloom from early spring through the first frost. A can’t-miss feature includes the River trail, which runs along the Brandywine and riverside sculpture garden.
Winterthur Museum Garden and Library
A garden-rich Du Pont family estate in the Brandywine Valley, Winterthur is one of the few surviving great American country estates. It features a famed “wild garden” set among roughly 1,000 acres of Brandywine Valley meadows, ponds, woodlands and wildlife. There’s plenty to take in, from the historic reflective pool and the enchanted woods children’s garden.
While I was visiting, English royalty took the stage with its impressive “Costuming the Crown” 40-costume exhibit, an original exhibition of exquisite fashions from the Emmy Award-winning Netflix drama “The Crown.” From the dazzling gold of the Queen’s coronation robe to Princess Margaret’s iconic wedding dress, viewers, like me, got a behind-the-scenes look at how costume design plays a crucial role in recreating history. “Downtown Abbey” fans will know they hosted a similar exhibit from that show.
Running now through January 2021 will be the Re-Vision 20/20: Through a Woman’s Lens exhibit. In celebration of the 100th anniversary year of the 19th amendment, the exhibit looks at objects through the lens of women’s stories, recognizing the everyday women who forged a better path for themselves, and ultimately for future generations, in “creative, intellectual and entrepreneurial ways.”
If you go: The hotel is 60 minutes from Baltimore and just two hours from Washington, DC, making it the perfect weekend getaway for those who like a big adventure with little travel time.