End of an era? What Hotel du Pont sale means
Soothing, classical music is playing on a Friday afternoon at the Hotel du Pont’s Green Room, the most lavish, ornate and sophisticated restaurant dining room in Delaware, but few diners are there to listen or drink in the elegant, European atmosphere.
Once considered the place to be and be seen in the city, the 97-seat room is less than a third filled at lunchtime with a handful of well-dressed businessmen seemingly discussing deals, and ladies of a certain age lingering over lunches.
An hour later, only a party of three is camped at a white linen covered corner table near a vibrant Edward L. Loper Sr. painting while across the room two other diners have settled into what one former maitre d’ called the room’s “power table.”
The four topper, overlooking Rodney Square at 11th and Market streets, is usually reserved for the state's most influential movers and shakers, with the DuPont Co.'s current CEO usually getting first dibs.
“Because it’s so large and open, the Green Room is a terrific place to spend a lot of money while letting a lot of people see you doing it,” former News Journal restaurant critic Al Mascitti wrote in 1992.
Besides Caesar Rodney’s statue sitting a few feet away from the building, few things are more significant to Delaware than the Hotel du Pont.
These days, however, not as many people seem to be visiting on a daily basis.
“The Hotel,” as it’s known to longtime Delawareans, has been considered Wilmington’s “front door” ever since the 12-story Italian Renaissance building opened in 1913.
The stunning showpiece was commissioned 103 years ago by DuPont Co. president Pierre S. du Pont. It has long operated more as a company and community service than a profit-making venture, though, for tax reasons, du Pont gave the hotel as his official residence, rather than Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, and supposedly saved millions of dollars.
"No expense had been spared to make the hotel as modern, comfortable, and luxurious as any in New York or Europe," wrote Leonard Mosley in his book "Blood Relations: The Rise and Fall of the du Ponts of Delaware."
"Reaping a profit from it was the last thing the DuPont directors had envisioned. It would be a showcase for the prestige of the company."
But much has changed in the last century. The appetite for leisurely fine-dining has been on the wane for more than a decade. And leadership changes at DuPont, followed by major job cuts last December and a planned merger with rival The Dow Chemical Co., have had many questioning the future of the establishment that boasts 20,000 square feet of kitchen space.
A frequently asked question in the city (besides how to curb crime): What will happen to the Hotel du Pont?
Rumors of the luxury hotel’s imminent sale have been circulating since fall 2014 when activist investor Nelson Peltz targeted DuPont’s hospitality division as little more than financial waste.
In April 2015, Wilmington-based Buccini/Pollin Group bought three of the Hotel du Pont’s parking lots. Now, the real estate acquisition and development company has apparently purchased or intends to purchase the landmark DuPont Building structure, which also houses the hotel.
DuPont's headquarters are no longer in the DuPont Building, but have moved to its Chestnut Run Plaza site. The building is owned by Chemours, a separate company which had formerly been DuPont's Performance Chemicals segment.
Buccini/Pollin, already the owner of several hotels, has declined comment, though documents point to it as the building's new owner.
The state on June 27 approved $1 million to an investor group dubbed 1007 Market LLC, named for the hotel's downtown Wilmington address. The LLC, formed in May, lists Robert Buccini as its agent and is registered at the same address as Buccini/Pollin's headquarters, according to state records. Barbara Neuse, Buccini/Pollin's chief financial officer, is listed at the CFO for 1007 Market LLC on the state grant application.
According to application documents, Buccini/Pollin intends to gut the office building in a $92 million renovation and lease 252,000 square feet on floors 4 through 13 to the Chemours Co. for 15 years. Other plans for the property, according to the documents, include leasing nearly 60,000 square feet of office space in the DuPont Building to new tenants and adding as much as 50,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space along 10th and Market streets.
Investment descriptions, however, did not detail specific plans for the Hotel du Pont, its iconic Green Room restaurant or the Gold Ballroom. That could be mean Buccini has no intention of running the hotel.
And in another wrinkle, a group known as Wilmington Hotel XXXIII LLC, also listed to Robert Buccini, applied on May 27 to transfer the Hotel du Pont's liquor license, Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner John H. Cordrey said Thursday afternoon. However, Cordrey said the request was withdrawn on June 24 by the group's attorney Adam Balick. He had no more information.
But Bill Sullivan, who once managed the Hotel du Pont, said the state cannot transfer a liquor license until after a property sale is completed. He said any transfer application would be premature and need to be withdrawn.
“They must have been ahead of themselves thinking the deal was going close before July,” Sullivan said.
So will the grande dame remain as it is into the next century? Some former Hotel du Pont employees think if restructuring the DuPont Building is the future, a transformation –– subtle or substantial –– would make good business sense.
Jacques Amblard, who retired as general manager of the Hotel du Pont in 2003 after nearly 30 years, said if changes are going to occur, new owners should preserve the building's historic artistry –– but not be too nostalgic for the past.
Take the Green Room. Amblard said the perceived, buttoned-down, sit-up-straight stodginess needs to lighten up, especially if the facility wants to attract younger diners. As it is now, he has said, it is too much "like a museum."
"It would be very sad to change the Green Room. It would be the loss of an art. But it can not be stuffy. It does not have to be like the good old days. It could be more progressive," Amblard said in a phone interview from his native France.
If the hotel is to survive for another 100 years, he said, a cultural shift must occur.
"The market is not built for real luxury now. The fact of the matter is that the city has changed. You have to create an atmosphere that people want. People have changed. And, obviously, the times have changed," Amblard said. "There's not the activity in the downtown business of the '70s and '80s."
Amblard said if Buccini/Pollin is the hotel's owner, "it would be nice for them to tell the community what they plan to do. But it is their business and they can do what they want."
Still, Amblard added: "My thought is what are they going to do? Are they going to continue some of the traditions of a luxury hotel? I don't think they have been in the luxury business."
According to its website, the Buccini/Pollin Group currently has under management or development 36 hotels including The Hampton Inn & Suites in the Washington D.C.-Navy Yard. The new hotel features 168 guest rooms and suites in a 13-story high rise. A spacious suite with a king-sized bed could cost about $240 on a weeknight.
The Hotel du Pont, with 217 rooms and suites, has had a four-diamond rating from AAA Mid-Atlantic for more than three decades, which means it provides guests with a personalized experience and attentive service in comfortable, high-quality surroundings. A weeknight rate for a luxury suite is about $440.
"I would assume they're going to keep the name of the Hotel du Pont and hire and train a team of professionals to maintain the quality, " Amblard said. On the other hand, he noted, "the name could be a double-edge sword. It is so recognized that people are going to have high expectations."
A growing trend across the country is the conversion of historic hotels and buildings into condominiums. A blending of the old with the new has already taken place at New York's Plaza Hotel, built six years before the Hotel du Pont, and earlier this week, a Chinese company purchased the city's landmark Waldorf Astoria hotel. It plans to convert the rooms to private apartments and condominiums. In Phoenix, Arizona, the city's landmark 1915 Barrister Building, formerly the Jefferson Hotel, might also become condos, restaurants and shops.
R. Britton Colbert, who provides advisory services to hotel owners and operators, said the residential conversions are popular because it is a more stable investment. Investors can sell the condominium unit and turn a profit on the sale rather than run the risk of having unsold rooms for the night. Condominium conversions also reduce labor costs because there is less need for maid or front desk service.
"A residential conversion takes the mystery out of trying to rent 200 rooms a day," he said. "The hotel business, by definition, has a lifespan of one day. It is very perishable."
The Hotel du Pont's cultural and social significance to Wilmington and the state cannot be overstated. Birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, after funeral gatherings, grand galas, proms and other special occasions are part of its storied history. The Rotary Club of Wilmington has been meeting there continuously on the same day and same time for almost a century. Celebrations in the Green Room, the Gold Ballroom and the smaller du Barry Room are woven into the fabric of local families' lives. Moments there have become cherished memories.
"It's the center of the universe in Delaware for every major charitable, political or social event," said Tom Hannum, who spent 33 years working at the Hotel du Pont before retiring in 2011. "It was a special place to have special events."
Hannum said he, like many other Delawareans, proposed to his wife in the Green Room.
The former executive chef and food and beverage manager, Hannum said staff was told to view Delaware students attending high school proms at the hotel as possible customers, the future brides and grooms who would one day come back and book wedding receptions in the Gold Ballroom. Generations of Delaware families come every year for the holiday teas as well as the Santa Claus and Mother's Day Sunday buffet brunches.
Important historical events of both local and national significance have taken place within its walls. The late Sen. Bill Roth ended his political career there –– twice. Once, when he fainted outside the building in front of TV cameras in 2000, and a few months later in November, when he conceded the race to challenger Tom Carper. The Philadelphia Phillies have exercised in the Gold Ballroom during World War II. Amelia Earhart was a well-known face, as was Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, whose stingy dime tips didn't escape notice.
At least eight sitting presidents, including John F. Kennedy Jr., have visited. Other notable guests include astronauts Buzz Aldren and John Glenn; actors Christopher Reeve, James Earl Jones and Meryl Streep; Nobel Prize winning authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison; polio vaccine founder Jonas Salk; ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; and South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu.
"I got to cook for Bill Clinton when he was president, and kings and queens and multiple celebrities," said Hannum, now the chef and an owner of Buckley's Tavern in Centreville. "Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were here a lot, well, when they were married." Willis grew up in nearby Penns Grove, New Jersey.
The Hotel du Pont has long been a training ground for Delaware chefs. Past employees have included everyone from superstar Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas, who has mentioned his Hotel du Pont training in several of his cookbooks, as well as Toscana's Dan Butler, Dave Banks of Harry's Savoy Grill, Patrick D'Amico of Middletown's Metro Pub & Grill, Bill Hoffman, chef/owner of Hockessin's House of William and Merry, and Andrew Feeley, executive chef of Bluecoast in Bethany Beach.
The DuPont Co. once spared no expense when it came to catering to guests, clients and DuPont employees, Hannum said. Swedish chefs were flown in when King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia of Sweden, along with their 130-member retinue, visited in 1988. A week-long Spanish celebration included flamenco dancers from Spain. Japanese chefs came in the 1980s.
"We were there to help DuPont do its business," Hannum said.
The cavernous kitchens and tremendous capacity of storage – Hannum said he had 17 walk-in refrigerators – were also the envy of most visiting celebrity chefs, including the legendary Julia Child, who filmed a "Good Morning America" segment in the Green Room.
"I knew chefs at casinos in Atlantic City who were jealous of our kitchens," Hannum said.
Last year, Hannum and some other investors, including former DuPont engineer Vance Kershner, now president and CEO of LabWare, tried to buy the Hotel du Pont. Hannum said the group was told that they had to be the good stewards of its history – keep the Hotel du Pont name as well as maintain its high standards.
Even though he retired five years ago, Hannum admits he still uses the word "we" when talking about the Hotel du Pont. While he was excited for the opportunity to maintain its traditions, Hannum said eight months ago the group was told by a real estate company that they lost the bid.
Talk of “The Hotel’s” sale has long been a Delaware tradition. Winds of change began blowing as far back as 1927. That’s when the hotel was renamed the DuPont-Biltmore and operated by the Bowman-Biltmore Co. It was later reclaimed by DuPont in 1933, but questions about its viability remained.
More than 20 years later, the company investigated – and discarded – another plan to sell the hotel.
After massive cutbacks in 1991, the DuPont Co. once again began searching for a company to operate the hotel. Several of the world’s most highly-regarded hotel companies submitted proposals, but DuPont eventually dropped the search. In 1992, it began a $40 million renovation on the building under Amblard's watch.
The Hotel du Pont has been an institution for so long, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a treasure it truly is, though, in recent years, sometimes more magic could be found in the Gilded Age-inspired atmosphere than on the Green Room dinner plates.
The decor, peerless in elegance and grandeur, revels in Old World, Old Money opulence. Original oil paintings by Wilmington native Loper, Howard Pyle, his student Frank E. Schoonover, and artwork from three generations of the Wyeth family line the walls. The carved-oak paneling in The Green Room rises two-and-a-half stories to a coffered, gilded ceiling.
The first week the Hotel opened, it is said 25,000 visitors toured the rooms – costing anywhere from $1.50 to $10 – to see the rich woodwork, mosaic and terrazzo floors, handcrafted chandeliers, and gilded hallways created by French and Italian craftsmen.
Former general manager Amblard remembers its heyday. "I came in 1974 and it was the only hotel at the time." He remembers the hustling and bustling at lunch time and dinner. As soon as a table was vacated in the then-operating Brandywine Room and the Green Room, it was almost immediately filled.
"That was the time of the three-martini lunch," Amblard said.
The Green Room never got its name from the hue of its furnishings. It actually comes came from Helena Springer Green, the wife of John J. Raskob, the builder of the Empire State Building who was once Pierre S. du Pont's right-hand man. Raskob also designed Rodney Square.
Little has changed since The Green Room received a 2004 face-lift by Washington, D.C.-based design firm Leo A. Daly, prime architect of the National World War II Memorial. At that time, company officials said the new furnishings, including chairs, tables, linens and window treatments, were part of ongoing rejuvenation efforts to stem the declining tide of diners.
Hannum said the hotel has long fought a perception that it's too expensive, and should only be saved for a special occasion. Entrees can range from $28 to $46. "It's known to be expensive, but you just think that it's expensive because it looks so good. You could spend the same for a nice dinner in Philadelphia. I think the Green Room is probably the most beautiful room on the East Coast."
Chewy, almond macaroons, the hotel's signature dessert, are still delivered free of charge at the end of every meal and to the rooms of hotel guests. But other traditions are dying. The last resident of the hotel was in the mid 1960s. And the days of men dressed in coats and ties for dinner seem to be long over.
While The Green Room's dress code remains business casual, the rules have been relaxed, if not tossed aside. On a Friday evening, it was somewhat jolting to see a few patrons, most likely hotel guests, strolling out of the dining room in jeans and sneakers.
That's the future, Hannum said. No one wants to wear ties. He said fine dining doesn't necessarily mean fine attire, it's more about good food, done very well, and quality service. "You can go out in New York in slacks and a shirt and still spend $400."
And Hannum can't imagine a world without the Hotel du Pont.
"It should always be the centerpiece of Wilmington. It should always be the front door of Delaware."
Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861 or email@example.com and on Twitter@pattytaloricoContact Jeff Mordock at (302) 324-2786, on Twitter @JeffMordockTNJ or firstname.lastname@example.org.