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Prepared for August 30, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
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
Delaware, 800-448-3883. On the Web: www.winterthur.org. 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
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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