Photo courtesy of the DuPont Country Club
The DuPont Country Club’s new owners make a splash with major upgrades and ongoing improvements in Wilmington.
If there was ever any question about where Rockland Road got its name, consider the mounds of boulders piled behind the chain-link fence in the center of the DuPont Country Club property.
Here, tons of rock sit waiting to be moved after being excavated from the site. It’s these deposits that supplied the raw material for the stone walls that crisscross this part of the northern New Castle County countryside like those in the region’s namesake across the Atlantic. But this mother lode of Brandywine granite and other rock deposits aren’t being mined for walls. Their removal is to facilitate something the club’s owners hope will bring people together.
After a century in existence, the DuPont Country Club is finally getting a swimming pool.
Fencing and black fabric obscure the construction zone, but it’s clear the work is considerable. Signs touting the reborn club surround the property, bearing images of what’s to come. The renderings feature both the expansive pool complex and a new fitness center measuring more than 19,000 square feet. They represent the most significant changes to the venerable New Castle County institution since its move from the DuPont Experimental Station property in 1949.
It took lots of planning and digging to get to this point, and the appearance of COVID-19 in March 2020 could have easily scuttled plans. With only a few interruptions in the supply chain, the pool complex was completed in time for a June 2020 opening, delayed just a few weeks by the pandemic from its initial Memorial Day weekend target date. For the duration of the pandemic, the club has adhered to all state- and county-mandated COVID-19 protocols.
But as much as the addition of summertime swimming is a change for the historically golf- and tennis-centric club, the biggest change is in the club’s philosophy, courtesy of Rockland Sports LLC, which purchased the DuPont Country Club from the DuPont company in 2018.
The company is a joint endeavor between former DuPont vice president Don Wirth and venture capitalist/du Pont family scion Ben du Pont. With the club still bearing the name of the corporate entity, this purchase represents the first time a single du Pont family member has held such significant sway over the club’s future. And du Pont wants to guarantee it’s a future welcoming for everyone.
“This is not a white, wealthy, male club,” he says. “We’re trying to make this for working families. Just like society is changing, I think facilities like this have to change.”
Club History is Company History
Throughout its existence, the defining element of the DuPont Country Club’s name wasn’t “country club.” It was DuPont.
And despite the assumptions many Delawareans made about the club’s exclusivity, club historian Jane Maguigan would like to set the record straight: No, not everyone could join, but if you were a DuPont employee, you were eligible for club membership.
“I’ve heard the term ‘blue collar club’ several times, because it was for employees,” she says. “There was an element where men at the higher levels were involved,” but the club as it existed up until the corporation relinquished ownership in 2018 was, from its inception, very much an employee-driven endeavor.
It was some dozen rank-and-file DuPonters listed in the minutes for the club’s first meeting who convinced the company’s leadership to dedicate land and buildings to the effort, she says.
But that was by no means the first organized effort through the company to foster fun and fellowship. As early as the 1880s, DuPont employees were using Eleutherian Mills, the mansion at the original gunpowder mill that we now know as Hagley Museum, as the meeting site for the Rokeby Club, where employees enjoyed pool and exercise equipment.
After the turn of the 20th century, DuPont had expanded across the Brandywine Creek to what is now the site of the DuPont Experimental Station, and employee recreational activities followed suit, growing to include the DuPont Gun Club and the DuPont Athletic Association. In 1920, the two groups merged to form the DuPont Country Club, originally consisting of the gun club’s two-story building, tennis courts and a baseball diamond.
“Women’s baseball was really the most popular sport, but it was called ‘girls’ baseball,” she says, a sign of the times. But it’s important to remember, she notes, that these weren’t female chemists. Those who did hold company jobs were typically young unmarried women who manned the company’s secretarial pools. Women had, after all, only just been granted the right to vote the same year the club was formed. “The women were the players, but the managers and umpires were men.”
Tennis courts were eventually added as well. But parallel to the growth of DuPont as a company and the country club was the popularity of a sport that had only arrived in the U.S. a few decades earlier: Golf. It didn’t take long—two years, to be precise—before the country club added a nine-hole golf course. Eventually, the club sought a new clubhouse besides the “ramshackle” (as country club paperwork described it) former gun club building.
The Experimental Station’s neighbors were George and Louisa du Pont Copeland, and because the new clubhouse would be in view of her mansion, she took a special interest in its construction, Maguigan says—so much so that she put herself personally in charge of collecting the fieldstone from which it would be built. The new clubhouse was dedicated in 1924. An 18-hole course designed by Donald Ross was built in addition to the original nine holes, and by 1929 the club maintained a total of 14 tennis courts.
By 1937, the club had added the 18-hole Nemours course on land across from where the current country club building sits. With the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, many aspects of club life changed. Estimates are that between 600 and 700 memberships were taken off the rolls because those members were fighting overseas. The war also created a shortage of manpower for groundskeeping, leading one draft of the club’s minutes to note that golf pro Tommy Fisher was doing a great job with the “old men and young boys” he had to work with. However, the club’s corporate parent helped protect the land from being repurposed to support the war effort.
With the war’s end and the return of GIs from overseas, the club’s membership exploded, threatening to overwhelm the Experimental Station location. Simultaneously, DuPont the company had become one of the nation’s biggest innovators, moving far beyond explosives into chemicals and fibers and becoming a leader in research and development. As such, the demands on the Experimental Station grew and necessitated further expansion.
By 1946, the club had decided to move, and purchased what is now the main country club property from the Woodlawn Company, established in 1901 by industrialist William Poole Bancroft to help preserve open space “along the Brandywine and up Rockland.”
The plans for the move included a new clubhouse, designed with modern amenities for dining and events and equipped to handle the club’s growing membership, as well as a new 18-hole golf course.
Flush with earnings from its growing corporate presence, DuPont hired renowned golf architect Alfred Tull to design the new course, making it the only other course besides Augusta National, home of The Masters, to be designed specifically for spectators to enjoy the game. The Georgian Colonial clubhouse, meanwhile, was the first building in the U.S. to be built entirely of structural steel since the end of the war. It included men’s and women’s locker rooms, ballrooms, dining facilities and luxurious public areas. Both the new building and golf course were dedicated on May 28, 1949.
Back to the Family
Ask Rockland Sports LLC CEO Rob Wirth, son of cofounder Don, about differences between the membership on that day 72 years ago and now and he lights up, specifically noting a promotional video filmed at the club’s 2019 Independence Day celebration. In it, members made up of diverse families with children of all ages enjoy the daylong event with food, games, live music and face painting, culminating in a fireworks display.
“Then you look at the 1949 opening day pictures of this building and it’s mostly men, some of whom brought their wives, in suits and ties,” he says. “It’s just so different between then and now, and I think it’s a really good example of what we’re becoming as opposed to what we were back in the day.”
As the 20th century wound down, DuPont as a corporate entity ceded management of its downtown theater, the Hotel DuPont and the country club to its hospitality department. And with the changing fortunes of the 21st century, including a significant reorganization of the company and its various subsidiaries, DuPont was looking for ways to divest itself of those properties to save money and focus on its core missions.
For Ben du Pont, the country club going on the block presented both a challenge and an opportunity. “The Wirths and I weren’t thinking about getting into the hospitality business so much. Part of my motivation was I live right over there,” he says, pointing from a country club conference room in the direction of his home just down Rockland Road. “Brantwyn,” long an event venue now operated under the DuPont Country Club umbrella, “is my grandfather’s house. I just didn’t want to see this become a big development. I think that would’ve been bad for the community, and I think DuPont was of a like mind. The challenge when you put a beautiful piece of property like this on the market [is] the developers all circle. I think we were a little of an anomaly as a buyer, saying, ‘We want to develop it less than you do,’ and fortunately DuPont was really willing to work with us.”
So willing, in fact, that du Pont says the company was willing to accept a lower price (the exact figure is confidential) based on his assurances that the club would be kept intact.
Indeed, swaths of open land in Delaware comparable to that of the country club are red meat for developers. Comprising 525 acres of prime northern New Castle Count real estate, the site could have easily become high-end townhouses and seven-figure single-family homes in the wrong hands.
“I think people were genuinely nervous,” du Pont says. “Developers are really good at playing this game—they buy a property, they run it into the ground, then go back to a judge rather than the seller and say, ‘Hey, look, it’s not sustainable as a club. I need to put 100 townhouses in here.’ Another buyer could have played that game.”
Initially pledging to put $18 million into renovations and improvements, Rockland Sports has upped that figure to $21.7 million with the addition of 1,500 new families to the club’s membership rolls. Considering that during the last 30 years of its ownership DuPont did little more than add new lockers and make other minor site improvements to host the LPGA tour, the figures are staggering. And the investment isn’t just a one-time infusion, du Pont says. “Our plan is to put between $1 million and $3 million into the club per year for improvements forever. I think you’re going to see us sharpen our pencils and say, ‘What’s the next fun thing we can add?’ every year.”
During its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the club “was fortunate that it had a benefactor in the company that probably didn’t care too much about [return on investment] so much as the fact that they had this big beautiful facility,” du Pont says. Because for the first 95 years of existence membership was open only to DuPont employees, there was also a ready pool of members.
“Now we’re responding to the market,” du Pont says. Membership is open to the public and tiered levels to join begin at $130 a month, comparable to those for midrange and luxury fitness centers. “We’re firmly focused on making it an affordable multi-sport club for working families.”
Although du Pont might be considered the marquee name behind the club, since Rockland Sports’ purchase and the initial media coverage that followed, it’s very much been the younger Wirth operating as the new face of the organization. The club’s former tennis pro and a fit father of three young children is almost like a human distillation of its new target market: busy young parents looking for activities they and their kids can enjoy individually, as well as opportunities for the whole family to spend time together.
It’s particularly evident how much his family perspective translates into the club’s new philosophy as he guides visitors around the property. While many of the signature areas of the clubhouse remain relatively untouched—the ballroom where you partied at a wedding reception or your high school prom remains much the same—other areas are already vastly improved from when Rockland Sports took possession and focus on enjoyment for families as a whole.
The 1970s-vintage décor of the club’s dining rooms, for instance, is long gone. Legends Pub now projects a casual upscale vibe, with leather couches and a warm stone fireplace.
Next door, 1920 Restaurant offers access to the expansive terrace that overlooks the tee for the first fairway on the reconfigured DuPont Course. What was once a dated buffet area next door is now a quick-serve area for grab-and-go meals. Down the hall are the newly added massage studios.
But it’s outside that the most significant changes are immediately evident. On the former site of the Montchanin golf course, originally expanded from nine to 18 holes in 1965, sits what is now the crown jewel of the club: a 9,000-square-foot indoor golfing facility featuring a lounge area with a fireplace, bar, outdoor seating and—most importantly—six practice bays tricked out with TrackMan electronic golf simulators. On what was the Montchanin fairway is now an 8,000-square-foot practice green and one of the longest driving ranges in the U.S.
In spite of the persistent chill and drizzle outside in February 2020, 15-month member David Yates (who was an employee member in the early 1970s and transitioned to the golf business in 1975) is warm, dry and happily practicing his long game using the TrackMan, which essentially turns each bay into a giant interactive golf game that uses a wall-sized projection screen and digital technology to track shot distance and trajectory, then provides instantaneous feedback on swing, body position and power.
“This is the best facility I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “I’m anxious for the outside to open up.”
A few bays down, Mike Carona, a member since 1988 and a DuPont employee for 39 years, is similarly awed.
“Its training capability is amazing,” he says of the TrackMan system. “It’s immediate feedback. I think it helps you relate to the feel of the swing. I really think this is going to put the club in the next growth phase.”
It’s this sort of response Wirth values from both the veteran players and those he hopes will see the value of the indoor training center for new and junior golfers.
“By building that practice facility and the driving ranges and having the two courses, we’re going to get the experienced golfers who are going to bring their foursomes and have a good time because this is the best facility on the East Coast, I believe,” he says. “Then creating the programming within those facilities to support junior development just gets us into that whole space that most clubs can’t do because they don’t have the space.”
And then, of course, there’s the pool complex, including a large lap pool, a kiddie pool area and a diving well, which opened in June 2020. In addition to the expanded fitness center that opened in September 2020 and the golf training center, the pool complex completed the trinity of new upgrades, welcoming families all summer long with poolside food service, high-speed Wi-Fi and the opportunity to enjoy the club’s bucolic setting in a way that’s never been possible before. And to think it was only 100 years in the making.
“It’s pretty amazing that on the 100th year that the club had been in operation we finally opened a pool,” Wirth says. Even with the challenges of a global pandemic, “we were really lucky. EDIS, our contractor, did a fantastic job navigating and managing the project to make sure we completed both [the pool and fitness center] on time. And having a great crew helps, too.”