TO residents, the Hotel du Pont has brought international acclaim to this modest city, and it has served as the cornerstone of the city's history.
''It's truly one of the most magnificent hotels in the United States,'' says Scott Gerloff, executive director of Historic Hotels of America, of which the Hotel du Pont is a charter member. But ''what makes this hotel unique is that it's much more than a hotel in a city. It's a hotel that's so much a part of the city.''
In fact, when the hotel lost its four-star rating in 1990 because of deteriorating facilities, ''It was very upsetting for the entire community,'' says Carolyn Grubb, publicity manager for the hotel.
So in 1991, the du Pont underwent a $40-million renovation that lasted 20 months. During that time, it was closed except for the dining rooms. Individual hotel rooms were enlarged, reducing the number from 296 to 216. The new decor was ''sympathetic to the historic character of the building,'' Mr. Gerloff adds, and the hotel has since regained its original luster and four stars.
The Hotel du Pont was built in 1911 under the watchful eye of industrialist-philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont, then president of chemical giant E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. At a cost of $1 million (more than double the amount for a first-class hotel of its size then), it is filled with intricately carved wood paneling, high ceilings, and Queen Anne and Chippendale furnishings.
It features guest rooms, an elegant lobby, exquisite ballroom, and four restaurants (two of them four-star). The hotel also houses more than 700 original works of art, including those by three generations of noted artists from the Brandywine Valley - Wyeths, McCoys, and Schoonovers.
The hotel is steeped in tradition. The design of the lobby, especially its gold, blue, and red sculpted ceiling, was drawn from the Ducal Palace in Venice. The space served as a grandstand, where guests would line up to catch a glimpse of celebrities staying at the hotel. It is said that Charles Lindbergh, who came through in 1927, received the greatest ovation of any guest.
Du Pont was an avid theatergoer, and the Hotel du Pont is the only grand hotel with a 1,250-seat theater. Built in just 150 days, shortly after the hotel opened in 1913, the Playhouse has hosted a number of top performers, including Sarah Bernhardt, Ingrid Bergman, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers.
The Gold Ballroom is undoubtedly the most spectacular room in the hotel. Du Pont wanted the ballroom to tell a story of love. Thus, the room became a tribute to women through the ages. The 27-foot ceiling is circled with bas-relief medallions of 20 famous women. Among those represented are the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, Pocahontas, and Catherine of Russia.
Despite its legendary past, the Hotel du Pont, like many historic landmarks, fell victim to modernization in the 1950s. The beautiful handcrafted furniture, oriental carpets, and original lighting fixtures were replaced with chrome, artificial leather, modern carpets, and new lighting. The handsome walnut reception desk, set in iron and bronze-finished grillwork, was covered. The Palm Court on the mezzanine level was paneled off, and carpeting hid the mosaic and parquet floors.
The exterior underwent changes as well. The 37 balconies on the facade were removed (partially because they were deemed unsafe), and the striking iron-and-opal-glass marquee was replaced with a new 127-foot-long steel and aluminum one.
Many people in the community were not pleased. ''The '50s were not a good time for historic buildings,'' Gerloff says. The philosophy then was, ''old is bad.'' America had just come out of World War II, he says, and ''everything was going to be changed and different.''
Beginning in the early 1970s, the hotel management started to restore the hotel to its original elegance. The lobby has been fully restored, and the public areas have been refurbished.