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Prepared for August 30, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

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Winterthur: A Trove of Design

Think about visiting Winterthur, Henry Francis du

Pont’s 1,000-acre country estate in Delaware’s beautiful Brandywine

Valley. Incongruous as it may seem at first to leave the Garden State

for, well, a garden state, Winterthur itself — home to an


collection of American decorative arts and naturalistic gardens —

is well worth knowing about, and it’s close to many other Brandywine

Valley attractions. You could make a full day of it and still get

home for a fashionably late dinner.

On a hilly tract of land that was once a working farm, Winterthur

(pronounced "winter-tour") consists of several buildings


175 period rooms of American furniture, a library, galleries, and

gift shops. The estate’s 966 acres also encompass 60-some acres of

"naturalistic style" gardens that can be surveyed via a tram

tour or on foot. So well-maintained, genteel, and proper is Winterthur

that it is only a slight exaggeration to observe that if ladies still

wore white gloves, they would be de rigueur for a visit here.

The place is staffed by a relentlessly smiling and courteous staff

whose manner conveys a respect for their employer and a pride of


"Good help is hard to find" emphatically does not apply at


Although it surely attracts both scholars and master gardeners,


appeals to weekenders and day-trippers, too, and, while offering a

lot, it demands much less in return. For my friend, Barbara, and me,

it provided a lovely venue for a catch-up day. Living at a distance

from each other, we linked up for the visit, during which we toured,

trammed, and had a pleasant lunch, and figuratively left the driving

to Winterthur’s greeters, guides, and waiters.

Leaving the specifics about du Pont pedigree to the


leaflet that’s available, suffice it to say that the family member

responsible for Winterthur as we see it today was Henry Francis, and

he was a horticulturalist and collector — each on a grand scale

— as well as, conveniently, a very moneyed person. The buildings

are earth-toned smooth stucco, quite inconspicuous within the


The entity now legally known as "The Henry Francis du Pont


Museum Inc.," began in 1839, with a 12-room Greek Revival


built by du Pont’s great aunt and her husband, Jacques Antoine


and named "Winterthur" after Bidermann’s ancestral home in


Henry Francis du Pont was born at Winterthur and lived

there all his life, moving to smaller quarters when he opened the

main buildings to the public in 1951. The story goes that at some

point, du Pont had discovered the charms of American decorative arts,

and eschewing the European decor with which he then lived, promptly

started to collect it. At first, he placed his purchases in the


building, home to his family of four; then, of necessity, he erected

more buildings as his collection grew. It now comprises 90,000


Deciding to beat the summer heat, Barbara and I elected a tram tour

of the gardens first. We were wise. The driver was informative; the

open-air tram, uncrowded; the gardens, delightful. And the temperature

eventually reached the 80s. Where 400 dairy cows once grazed, we saw

an array of wildflower fields, complete with bluebird boxes; ponds,

streams, and springs; the azalea woods, with massed displays of rare

and mature plants; walking paths and gazebos. Tall native trees were

everywhere: tulip poplars with their deeply furrowed bark; beeches,

in smooth gray, and white oaks. Winterthur’s Pinetum contains the

most extensive collection of rare conifers in the eastern United


Our guide pointed out tree groups whose interest and drama were


solely through different textures, all in green. Oriental dogwoods,

with banks of white blossoms, rather than the pointillist dots of

bright white that characterize native dogwoods, stood out in the


We learned that these trees’ foliage blooms first, and then

the flowers bloom over it, creating a thick, densely white look.


Japanese maples contributed an almost fluffy contrast here and there,

and a 300-year-old American sycamore looked simply noble. The estate

includes a private fire company, to whose members du Pont is supposed

to have said, "Ignore the house and wet down the trees."

As expected, areas of the garden bloom at different times, and we

were told that some people visit Winterthur weekly to assure catching

the daffodils or the azaleas and rhododendrons. Past both those


we encountered viburnum and mountain laurel. Carefully cultivated

to look naturalistic and as if they were here forever, the gardens

are planted exclusively with perennials.

Originally close to 2,000 acres, almost half the estate property was

sold for non-development, assuring an open-looking green buffer,


a golf course, among rolling hills. With implications closer to home,

the guide pointed out a pond thickly surrounded by varied high


Because predator foxes traditionally hide in such vegetation, Canada

geese — that would ordinarily settle here — eschew this little

body of water.

Pert to a fault, our tour guide through selected period rooms carried

a remote light-control so she could increase the lighting, then dim

it again, for protective purposes as we moved from room to room. She

had an amazing facility for saying the full name, "Henry Francis

du Pont," at each of her numerous references to him — in yet

another example of employee respectfulness.

We learned that du Pont had collected beautiful and rare things, as

well as those made or owned by well-known people, and placed them

in rooms that were often paneled with wood purchased from old homes,

or wallpapered with valuable, antique paper. His ever-growing estate

served as a kind of shell for the walls, fabrics, furniture, and


items he purchased. And note: the Winterthur Corporation continues

to buy American furniture, from about 1840, when he left off, until

about 1860, when hand-made furniture was on the wane. One small


was stocked with particularly ugly Gothic Revival furniture and


collected since du Pont.

In the formal, Federal-style mahogany dining room, we saw six silver

tankards made by Paul Revere, Benjamin West’s half-painting (omitting

the British representatives) of the Treaty of Paris, and a portrait

of Washington by Gilbert Stuart. When a group member noticed the


flatware was unmatched, our guide explained that not until mass


began did the idea of matched pieces catch on — and lead,


to the pernicious bridal registry custom?

A "Chinese parlor" furnished in Chippendale style featured

wallpaper with an Asian motif and trompe l’oeil sections. To conserve

the precious paper instead of cutting it to fit around doorways, du

Pont hired painters to create matching faux wallpaper in those areas,

after which the real paper continued. And so did our walking tour,

through a range of rooms.

Since museums like Winterthur and neo-Colonial Williamsburg came into

being, a number of revisionist findings have been made. One


colors used centuries ago for walls, furniture, and fabrics were not

as pale as first thought; the gradual fading of what actually were

deep, vibrant shades had not been taken into account. And, furniture

was not always arranged in rooms as it is today, instead, it often

hugged the walls. The very use of furniture has changed, so while

a few side tables are shown at once in some Winterthur rooms, in


only one would have been used.

The basic "highlight" tour gives enough of an idea of the

place for visitors to know whether, another time, they want even more,

or they lean more toward "I’ll do the gardens and meet you in

the gift shop." This 45-minute tour can also be a prelude to the

more comprehensive ones — specialized one and two-hour tours that

might focus only on porcelain, or textiles, or fine art —


by prearrangement and at an additional cost.

Neither garden nor period room, but in many respects as interesting

as either: the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, permanently on

view in Winterthur’s Dorrance Gallery. For years, these 125 tureens

and other soup-related items were displayed at the Campbell


in Camden, New Jersey. Not till 1996 was the collection donated to

Winterthur, requiring those of us who had missed it in Camden for

no good reason, like my friend and me, to travel even further to see

it. Well, it was worth the trip. Besides the ornately ornamented


tureens you would expect to see, imagine your soup being served out

of a giant, painted-pottery boar’s head. And there were two of those,

as well as tureens shaped like rabbits and various giant vegetables.

Whenever fatigue or thirst threatens at Winterthur, there’s a tasteful

bench, cafe, or restaurant just a short distance away. We enjoyed

the Cappuccino Cafe’s good coffee between our garden and period room

tours — and resisted the Philly-style soft pretzels that beckoned

from among the more predictable sweets. Before a successfully short

assault on one of two gift shops, we opted for a buffet lunch in the

visitor pavilion that offered a half-dozen hot and cold entrees.

One gift shop, in the same building as the restaurant, was stocked

with books, candles, cards, children’s things. We skipped the second

and larger shop, where licensed furniture reproductions, plants, and

garden accessories are sold. It was time to head north for home, via

Delaware’s super-highway system which, unfortunately, travelers


the state are most familiar with. Oases like Winterthur can be found

only off the road less traveled.

— Pat Summers

Winterthur, Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington,

Delaware, 800-448-3883. On the Web: Open every

day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Monday to

Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 12 noon to 5 p.m. General admission


Fifth Annual Craft Festival at Winterthur is Saturday

and Sunday, September 2 and 3, featuring original crafts and artwork

by 200 juried artisans, with demonstrations of traditional and


craftsmanship; also live music and entertainment, children’s theater,

and festival foods. Saturday features fireworks and a concert with

the Delaware Symphony Orchestra; on Sunday, kids are free.

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