By Meisha Johnson


WILMINGTON, Del. (CBS) — Behind a long stone wall in metropolitan Wilmington sits a mansion that in its heyday resembled a real-life Downton Abbey: Nemours Estate.

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“So few people even in this immediate area know what goes on behind there, so we’re delighted you’re here to take you behind the wall,” Nemours Estate executive director John Rumm said.

Here was the estate of Alfred I. duPont, an industrialist and philanthropist. The 18th-century French-style estate was “modeled to some extent after Versailles.”

The Long Walk is a “long vista that goes from the mansion down to the reflecting pool. Beyond that, the Colonnade, and then beyond that, the Temple of Love,” John said.

The estate has “the largest French formal gardens in North America,” John said. The 300 acres include meadows, ponds, lawns, and woodlands.

“We’re an oasis here,” John said. “It’s a really special place.”

Inside the formal dining room of Nemours Mansion hangs a chandelier with 3,000 crystals, as well as portraits of French royalty.

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“Imagine eating dinner here with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette looking down at you,” John said. “That’s what Alfred I. duPont and his wife did every night, no matter if they were entertaining a large group or here by themselves.

“During the heyday during the late ’20s and ’30s, there were upwards of 50 people employed here, like a real-life Downton Abbey,” John said.

“The duPonts, you know, as people who owned a mansion, would showcase the public areas with their art,” John said. The rooms include the Drawing Room, which served as a reception area for guests, and the Conservatory, “which is kind of like the room turned inside out so that you feel like you’re sitting in the garden, looking out at the beautiful garden,” John said.

In the wood-paneled basement is “what we affectionately refer to as the Man Cave. Two bowling alleys, two billiard tables, hunting trophies. It’s a gentleman’s club. The ladies would sit in the drawing room, the men would go downstairs and do what men do.”

John said the mansion is preserved much as it was when the family lived there. “It was a home and we try to present it as a home,” John said.

But it’s so much more than just a home. When Alfred I. duPont died in 1935, “he specified that on the grounds of his estate, a children’s hospital be developed. That opened in 1940: the Alfred I. duPont Institute for Children. It’s now the flagship of what is the Nemours Children’s Health System.”

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Estate visitors can see the hospital from the historic grounds, and patients and employees of the hospital can see the estate’s grounds. “It underscores that we share not only a campus, but a legacy,” John said.

Nemours Estate is at 850 Alapocas Drive, Wilmington, DE 19803. It’s open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM and Sundays from noon to 5. Find out more about admission prices and special events at http://nemoursmansion.org.