A historic home tour to Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library may be a temporary cure for my pandemic woes. It is known worldwide for its preeminent collection of American decorative arts, naturalistic gardens and research library. So I head up to Winterthur during the last weekend of October, I will get a peek at 1930s life in Delaware.
This 175-room baronial estate showcases an unrivaled collection of American antiques. It could easily be a stop on a French chateau tour. Spanning 1,000 acres, this country home includes a 60-acre naturalistic garden as well as forest, meadows, farm land and water ways. The Galleries feature objects curated by Winterthur employees. Selections span the museum’s collection of nearly 90,000 objects featuring decorative and fine arts made or used in America from 1630 to 1860.
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Historic Home Tour
Although the award-winning herd of Holstein Friesian cows no longer roam the property, Winterthur helps visitors understand how Henry Francis (H. F.) and his family lived nearly a century ago. He was a scion of an American industrial family.
But a young H. F. became smitten with colonial decorative arts after visiting Electra Havemeyer Webb’s Vermont home in 1923. He saw George and Martha Washington’s 50-set china. Afterwards, he became a collector. His wife Ruth described Winterthur as “his hobby.”
However, I would describe it as an obsession. du Pont’s eclectic collection included works of art, carpets, furniture, fireplaces, china, glassware, chandeliers and architectural paneling. Perhaps the most famous architectural acquisition is the Montmorenci Stair Hall. But H. F. collected big and small objects. His passion was breadth. He never stopped collecting until his death in 1969. Many objects were purchased for low sums.
New York Times Review
Now some critics find Winterthur to be institutional. In the New York Times’ article entitled Winterthur: More Museum Than House” (June 18, 1981), journalist Paul Goldberger described each room as a “a series of tableaux, a series of little stage sets, and not a house at all.”
But I am not sure that I agree that Winterthur is “more that of an institution than of a home.” On my historic home tour, I find du Pont’s residence is still approachable. I can picture myself reading in the Maryland Room. I’d love to sing around the piano in the Chinese Parlor. The house is cluttered with du Pont’s antiques and acquisitions. Still it still feels warm and cozy to me. It is certainly more welcoming than the displays of antique furniture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here at Winterthur, my writer’s imagination takes wing. I can imagine parties, holidays and intimate soirees at this mansion.
What I think everyone will agree is that Winterthur is a living national treasure. In fact, Winterthur sponsors two graduate programs with the University of Delaware. There is the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC) and the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). The former prepares museum curators, the latter trains conservators of works of art and cultural heritage.
Purchase of Historic Home
Winterthur is actually approaching 200 years old. His ancestor E. I. du Pont bought the four tracts of land in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware in 1810. Later it was renamed Winterthur. (The du Pont family immigrated from France in 1800.)
Winterthur mansion is named after a village in northern Switzerland, in the canton of Zurich. It was the ancestral home of Jacques Antoine Biderman. (He was the husband of Evelina née du Pont Bidermann). “Thur” is the non-traditional spelling for “through.” The village’s poetical name loosely describes a locale where you can travel “through winter.”
However, I arrive on October 31. So I am traveling through autumn at Winterthur. Everywhere I look—whether from the vantage of a window, door, balcony, stair or hilltop—I see fall foliage. Towering sycamore, oaks and Japanese maples now wear a patchwork quilt of maroon, rust, orange, gold and yellow leaves. But soon it will be discarded at winter’s time. I will wander up and down these forest paths for most of my day spent at wild Winterthur gardens.
I start my journey at the Visitor’s Center. The cost to buy an annual pass is $55. This means I have unlimited access for one year. (It is also a 100% tax deduction.) For those people who only want to visit once, the cheapest adult ticket costs $15 (general admission). The ticket is good for two consecutive days.
Historic Home Tour COVID Precautions
Due to COVID, Winterthur limits tickets to tour the main house. Entry is timed. Small groups are permitted to self-tour. A visitor can download the museum’s app to learn information about the individual rooms seen on the house tour. Alternatively, docents can provide a printed guide.
I took the first available timed entry at 10 a.m. to limit my exposure to other guests. We keep six feet distance at all times. I am joined by a couple from Princeton who drive down for a day’s excursion. There is a docent in each room who can answer questions. I take a leisurely tour, reading the description of the room on my free Winterthur app.
Winterthur House Tour
My tour begins in the Conservatory. The glass room features a jungle of willowy plants in all sizes and shapes. I can easily picture HF and wife Lucy enjoying afternoon tea or playing bridge on a winter afternoon. Notably, the conservatory was built in 1929. It replaced the house’s tile-roofed porte cohere. Residents and guests could get out of foul weather quickly after arrival at the estate. du Pont relocated the conservatory to the west side of the house. Guests would move into the foyer from the conservatory.
The foyer is impressive. Historical paintings hang on the walls. But I am more interested in the family photographs set up on a table. I particularly enjoy seeing the pictures of H.F. and Ruth’s daughters, Pauline Louise and Ruth Ellen. The girls described Winterthur as “their anchor.” It was the place where the family returned each year. The du Pont family also owned homes in New York, Southampton (Long Island) and Florida’s West Coast.
Winterthur Free-Flying Staircase
Winterthur’s circular staircase is one of the house’s most striking architectural features. H. F. acquired the Montmorenci Stair Hall from a Southern plantation home in North Carolina. It was rebuilt at the house. He surprised his daughters with the “elegant, free-flying staircase that replaced the marble steps” when they returned from a five-month world cruise in May 1936.
Winterthur Marlboro Room
Sunshine is the predominant theme in the Marlboro Room thanks to a distinctive yellow wing chairs. I associated subdued colors with colonial America But the decor sings brightly like a goldfinch. I also feel the eyes of Edward Lloyd upon me. Artist Charles Wilson Peale painted this “rare” 1771 family portrait. A portrait of the elder du Pont (Pierre Samuel) hangs on another wall. He arrived in the United States on January 1, 1800
Winterthur China Hall
There is small beige room that connects H.F.’s 1930s addition with the original 50-room house which he inherited in 1926. Built-in cabinets display elegant Chinese porcelains dating back to the late 1700s.
Winterthur Chestertown Room
du Pont acquired Chippendale room woodwork dating back to 1764 to decorate this intimate room at Winterthur. The towering windows look out on the forested landscape. The chairs are also Chippendale.
Winterthur Baltimore Drawing Room
This intimate room gives a stunning view of the greenery outside the house. Large Grecian urns line the windows. The furniture is Federal-style. During World War II when the du Pont family had to close down many rooms in their mansion, this room served as the family’s living room.
Winterthur du Pont Dining Room
Many dinner parties were held in the majestic dining room. The du Ponts loved to host family and friends at their mansion in Delaware. H.F. owned 54 sets of china and 70 sets of custom-made linens. Wood burned in the elegant fireplace during the cold winter nights. Over the mantle hung the portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. The First President looks down upon guests in the room.
Winterthur Chinese Parlor
This exotic room flaunts its finery like a peacock. The 1780s hand painted wallpaper features scenes of ancient China. Dark gold brocade curtain hang to floor. They lighten the busy walls. The Steinway grand piano is the centerpiece. It is Ruth’s beloved instrument. On the day when I visit, I can hear the piano played throughout the house. “Among my happiest family memories are hours with Mother at the piano,” recalled her daughter. She would belt “out old or new, happy or sad songs in music hall fashion.” The family also gathered in the Chinese Parlor to play backgammon and card games.
My historic home tour begins and ends at the Conservatory. Through these windows, I can see the dogwood and black gum trees turning red. The oak and beech trees change to russet. The hickories and tulip poplars are now colored bright yellow. The wildflowers, spicebush and fern line the woodland floor. Winterthur catalogs what is in bloom throughout the year on its website garden blog. You can also find photos and videos its social media channels. I highly recommend subscribing to Winterthur’s Instagram page to see the daily posts. My favorites are always garden photographs.
Winterthur bewitched me. This is more than just a country home in Delaware. It is a haven. If I lived nearer than my 2.5-hour drive from Washington, DC, I would visit Winterthur regularly. This is a place that calms the spirit. You can lose yourself just meandering down paths through Oak Hill, Quarry Garden, Sycamore Hill, Icewell Terrace, Winterhazel Walk and Magnolia Bend. Winterthur host a monthly walk with Chris Strand, Director of Garden & Estate. He helps guests discover landscape architect Marian Coffin’s important work in developing Winterthur’s garden.
It is said when asked why he chose to turn Winterthur into a museum, du Pont responded: “Because in fifty years nobody will know what a country place was.”
Winterthur offers a variety of tours, exhibitions, programs, and activities throughout the year. General admission includes a tour of some of the most notable spaces in Henry Francis du Pont’s former home as well as access to the Winterthur Garden and Galleries, special exhibitions, a narrated tram tour (weather permitting), the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, and the Enchanted Woods children’s garden.
5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52)
Winterthur, DE 19735
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