Henry Francis du Pont and friends at the East Terrace
Louise du Pont Crowninshield (center) attends a wedding at Winterthur
Pool party dÃ©cor, 1935
Henry Francis du Pont at the Rose Gates
Spring azaleas in the garden
Night view of Yuletide at Winterthur
Upkeep of the silver collection
The Baltimore Drawing Room
Items from Winterthur at the Delaware Antiques Show
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.
In addition to New England, the architectural styles of other East Coast destinations like Rhode Island and North Carolina further informed du Pont’s aesthetic. Philadelphia craftsmanship is particularly well represented here. From 1750 until after the Revolution, Philadelphia was a center for artisans of the Chippendale style, which originated in England but took on regional characteristics in various American cities. In the Port Royal Parlor, two sofas crafted by Thomas Tufft, one of Philadelphia’s finest furniture makers, once belonged to statesman John Dickinson. At either end of the room, a pair of high chests—one from the Gratz family, the other from the Van Pelts—testifies to the prosperity of the city during this period. Both display flame finials and other details unique to Philadelphia Chippendale.
The chance to see these furnishings up close, and the glimpses they offer into the lives of Philadelphia’s most pedigreed Colonial families, made Winterthur an immediate success. The public response left du Pont “flabbergasted,” according to Maggie Lidz, estate historian and curator of garden and estate objects, and the author of two books about Winterthur. “He expected a trickle of visitors instead of the flood that rushed in,” she says. “The rules were very different then; you had to write to reserve in advance, and you stayed for a full day. There was only one type of ticket.” A current ticket, good for two days, allows a range of options for today’s visitors, including house tours, garden tours and walks, tram rides, and museum exhibits. Members have an even wider selection of events and tours, and there are programs for collectors and designers as well as a busy schedule of special activities. One stellar event, the Delaware Antiques Show, has been drawing top-notch dealers and collectors from all over the country every year since the 1960s; this year’s show features star designer P. Allen Smith. And staff and visitors alike enjoy Yuletide at Winterthur, a festive annual celebration of American holiday glee and gift giving, during which the house is lavishly decorated to reflect historical and du Pont family traditions.
The holiday season is an especially poignant time of year for Kevin Fox, a longtime employee. His father worked at the Winterthur Creamery, helping to bottle milk as a child, and he remembers Winterthur before Mr. du Pont’s death in 1969. “Winterthur was a family,” says Fox. “Everybody knew each other. My friends and I skated on the ponds and sledded on the hills. At Christmas, Mr. du Pont gave every child a toy, and my parents got a turkey and a big box of candy.”
Whether exploring the house’s mix of grand spaces and quiet nooks or strolling throughout the grounds, whose charms shift from the glorious blaze of azaleas in spring to the winter majesty of ancient trees, a visitor feels a constant presence of proportion and harmony. Lidz puts that sense of careful attention at the heart of the museum. “At this time, in fact, we are intent on moving even closer to Mr. du Pont’s view of Winterthur as a unity of house and land, after some years when they were regarded as separate aspects,” she says. “For him the house, gardens, and grounds were essential parts of the whole, and we want to communicate that.” In 2002, Winterthur’s 1,000 acres were placed under a conservation easement to ensure that the estate lands will remain undeveloped forever. Says Lidz: “It was a move in keeping with those ideas; we see it as a way to make people more aware of the importance of land and open space.”
|Former Winterthur curator John Sweeney and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy touring Winterthur in 1961|
Education is another aspect at the fore here. “Our most important mission is to continue Mr. du Pont’s vision of Winterthur as a teaching institution,” says Lidz. In 1952, one year after the public opening, he instituted a program of instruction in American Material Culture, calling it “the best way to keep Winterthur alive.” From this initial step, two prestigious curatorial degree programs, in association with the University of Delaware, now produce experts for every leading museum in the country. Equally prestigious is a conservation degree program begun in 1974, filling a need in the US for scientifically trained experts in analysis and conservation of historical objects. Winterthur’s role in this field often extends well beyond the United States: For instance, Lois Olcott Price, director of conservation, has been working with Iraqi professionals at a US-funded institute for the past three years, helping them reclaim and conserve their national heritage. “Iraq has a great store of treasures, but the country has been isolated,” says Price. “Among other things, we are helping them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the area of conservation.”
It is a safe bet that du Pont would be thrilled to see how Winterthur is thriving, its “guests” remarkably well provided for. He would enjoy the 26 rooms that remain frozen, just as he arranged them, but he would also be pleased by the much-needed changes. He would be especially tickled to find that fresh flowers are still placed in each of the rooms. “We cannot match his profusion,” says Lidz. “Mr. du Pont had as many as 25 arrangements for a single room, carefully planned by type and color, making the entire room a bouquet. But we do come as close to his style as possible.” The fresh flowers may seem a small part of the overall picture, but they are as essential as the broad fields, one more way that the outside and the inside of Winterthur work together to continue Mr. du Pont’s vision of a harmonious, historical whole.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF WINTERTHUR; Jim Schneck (silver); Jeanette Lindvi