While researching rare book dealers, writer Bill Meehan came across a title once owned by financier John J. Raskob. The book’s primary feature was its unusual binding. Learning that Raskob’s records are held at the Hagley Museum and Library, the author spent months examining the 64-box collection organized by archivist Richard James. The following describes Raskob’s spectacular Archmere estate library and explains his taste in book collecting.
Pierre S. du Pont, then president of the family gunpowder company, hired John J. Raskob as stenographer fresh out of a two-year business school and soon recognized that his assistant’s knack for clever financial strategies warranted elevation to vice president. Raskob’s well-earned promotion and subsequent affluence allowed him, at the age of 29 in 1918, to move from his Canby Park brick residence into a newly constructed palatial estate in Claymont.
The impressive 15th-century-style Florentine villa nestled on 70 acres was called Archmere, after the eastern view to the Delaware River framed by the tree line. When envisioning the home of their dreams, Raskob and his wife, Helena, were convinced that it should include a library, whose purpose would be leisurely cultivation of the mind.
Perfected by interior architect Francis B. Wadelton, the library was magnificent in design and style. In The Estate of Archmere: A Personal View, author Stephen J. Rossey writes:
The room ‘to cultivate the brain’ places one back in the arms of antiquity. The ceiling is barrel vaulted. The burnished gold-leafed coffers are articulated with elongated polished panels ornamented with classical rosettes, vases and spiraling artificial foliage.
American black walnut raised paneling of squared diapers comprise the walls on the longitudinal ends. Two hundred and eighty lineal feet of glass shelving, broken into bays, divided by fluted walnut pilasters with stylized bluebells carved within the lower fluted areas and capped with Italian Corinthian capitals comprise the side walls. The pilasters bear bronze sconce lights that are decorated with gilt and green patina. The crowning cornice is from the Doric frieze, i.e. trigliphs and metopes. Unique to this room are the hidden wall cabinets with roller units for storage of large-scale documents…
Songbirds and spiraling artificial foliage decorate the carved gray Formosa marble fireplace mantle. The over mantel originally bore the portrait of Mrs. Raskob that was painted by William Smedley. Four antique portrait busts are wedded to the crown molding above the over mantle.
The rug, he added, extended the intended ambiance of the room by consisting of 8-by-10-inch blocks that duplicated the collection’s numerous Persian bindings and appeared, to the imaginative viewer, as shelves of books.
While the library functioned as a room where the Raskobs hosted dinner parties and other informal social gatherings, it was foremost a place for books.
Raskob’s luxurious living involved companionship with a collection of books tastefully unified by beautiful bindings. Whether single editions or multivolume sets, Raskob either purchased the most attractive editions available or placed orders with instructions for bespoke binding. These were, in other words, éditions de luxe.
After selling the property in 1931 to the Norbertine Fathers, who then started Archmere Academy, a private preparatory high school with such notable alumni as President Joseph R. Biden and opera singer Meagan Miller, most of Raskob’s nearly 1,500 books were dispersed to his New York City apartment, his office at the Empire State Building (which he and several du Ponts built) and his farm in Maryland, while several hundred volumes remained in Claymont.
While the library today is used for meetings, it contains reference books acquired by the school, with collection strengths in DuPont corporate and family history, as well as in Catholicism. Among numerous other sets, Raskob’s 50-volumed Harvard Classics smartly bound in polished levant Morocco and the 24-volumed Secret Memoirs of the Courts of France in brown cloth binding adorned with decorative gold detail in damask finish help fill three cases of wall shelving.
Raskob lived in a glorious age of American antiquarian book collecting and had the financial resources to hunt for rarities, but he remained an amateur bibliophile who formed a library consisting of visually appealing volumes in every imaginable subject, all unified by their gorgeous bindings. It was, he explained in a letter to the Grolier Club, one of the world’s most exclusive organizations for book collectors, “quite an elaborate library.”