The Wonder of Winterthur
BY MARILYN MACGREGOR
Guests on the North Lawn, 1935
Even before you turn down the drive and catch sight of the extraordinary house, you can feel yourself slipping into the past. A low stone wall establishes a boundary by the road, beyond which a meadow stretches away to a line of trees on a rise. It could easily be 200 years ago, in the days of sprawling country estates when a nascent US was coming into its own. Give in to that pull of history, for you are entering the wondrous world of Winterthur.
With its 60 acres of beautiful gardens near Wilmington, Delaware, Winterthur is among the finest decorative arts museums in the world. Its rooms are filled with pieces that, individually, would be the crown jewel of any fine collection of American antiques. It is a place of numerous stories: the urban elegance of the Port Royal Parlor, the simple rooms of a settler’s home, a neighborhood inn surrounded by beautiful house façades. “Winterthur is a special place, almost magical,” says Leigh Keno, renowned American antiques expert and cohost (along with his twin brother, Leslie, also a respected antiques expert) of the new Fox television show Buried Treasure. “The depth and breadth of the collections, the quality of everything— furniture, ceramics, textiles. It is the best in the world. And that is saying something.” He would know: Now at the top of his profession, Leigh spent about a month researching and cataloguing at Winterthur when he was 19 years old, a stint that ultimately helped the twins get their start in the world of collectibles. “We’d been interested in antiques since childhood,” says Leigh, “but Winterthur was a big part of my development in the decorative arts.”
This October, Winterthur celebrates the 60th anniversary of its public opening. Even now, of the many tales that this famed estate shares with its visitors, some 120,000 every year, the most compelling story of all is that of its longtime proprietors, the famous du Pont family. Winterthur was a country home of the du Ponts for more than a century and a half after visionary businessman E.I. du Pont, the son of a French economist and philosopher, purchased the land in 1810. Henry Francis du Pont, his great-grandson, is the brilliant, singular mind and spirit behind the Winterthur of today.
Well before 1951, when the estate officially opened to the public, du Pont’s house museum was taking shape in his mind. A Harvard educated botanist and antique collector, du Pont was sharply attuned to both the pleasures of nature and the particulars of impeccable design. He wanted his beloved family home to become a place where visitors could experience life as it was in Colonial and Post-Colonial America. He was among the first to recognize that early American artifacts should be valued as fine antiques rather than mere historical curiosities. Until the late 19th century, according to author and former Christie’s New York senior vice president Jay E. Cantor in his book Winterthur, Americans seeking “a well-mannered nobility they perceived to be lacking in American life” chose sumptuous, ornate European furnishings over their homegrown counterparts. But du Pont and a few others (including his sister, Louise du Pont Crowninshield) discovered a vast treasure of fine design and craftsmanship awaiting them here at home. Mr. du Pont’s moment of clarity came in 1923 when, on a visit to a friend’s home in New England, he spied a set of pink porcelain dishes on a pine dresser. The pairing of color and warm wood made a deep impression, one that inspired the future of Winterthur’s décor. (Watch for those dishes and pine dresser, now placed to greet visitors as they arrive for tours.) Decades later du Pont became so respected in the field of American antiques that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy called on him to lead the committee that would famously help restore the public rooms of the White House.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF WINTERTHUR; Jim Schneck (silver); Jeanette Lindvi