Henry Francis Du Pont And The Invention Of Winterthur

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SOME SIX MILES north of Wilmington lies a stretch of countryside chiefly inhabited by du Ponts, du Pont servants, and some two dozen major du Pont estates. Of these the largest, the loveliest, and by far the most eccentric is Winterthur, for seventy years the home of a shy, fidgety collector of antiques named Henry Francis du Pont. In Winterthur’s heyday as a private residence, between 1930 and 1950, it was far more than a rich man’s estate. It seemed like a European duchy, a private Ruritanian fiefdom carved out of America through the power of great wealth spent without stint.

The sprawling house, enlarged many times, contained 150 rooms and soared nine stories above the base of the hill on which the original Winterthur had been built by a du Pont in-law back in 1839. (Winterthur is the name of the in-law’s native village in Switzerland.) Some twenty-four hundred rolling acres, lusciously landscaped and placidly bucolic, secured the much-cherished privacy of H. F. du Pont, his wife, and two daughters. Winterthur’s farm supplied the family table with everything from milk and eggs to succulent guinea hens. Winterthur’s post office carried mail to the fiefdom. Winterthur’s own railway station received du Pont’s guests. Ninety-nine cottages housed 250 members of Winterthur’s population, which was variously employed maintaining one of America’s finest informal gardens, tending one of America’s finest herds of Hoistein cattle, or waxing and dusting America’s richest collection of antique American furniture, all of which H. F. du Pont had arranged in “period” rooms, a museum display technique which he chiefly regarded as a mode of home decoration. He slept in a Queen Anne bedroom, breakfasted in a Newport Chippendale morning room, played bridge in a “Chinese” Chippendale parlor, and dined in a Federal dining room. Footmen in knee breeches attended the family, and the atmosphere at Winterthur was so icily formal that one kinsman of “Uncle Harry” thought it “too tony” to bear and resolved never to return again. In a family not noted for humility, Winterthur was regarded as markedly pretentious.

 

When H. F. du Pont decided in 1950 to open his fiefdom to the public, it was hardly surprising that he created at a single stroke one of America’s most fascinating museums, “a foretaste of what Valhalla is really like,” as one chronicler of the “super rich” has put it.

Officially the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum describes itself in brochures as an “historic house museum,” a designation that seemed perfectly straightforward until I saw Winterthur for myself. Winterthur is “historic,” I had assumed, because its period rooms represent with matchless clarity and richness the sequence of stylistic epochs in America’s decorative arts from 1640 to 1840, when factory production put a finish to the story as far as H. F. du Pont was concerned. With some fifty thousand objects,from sconces to spatterware, displayed in two hundred period installations, all of them adorned with panels, moldings, and cornices salvaged by du Pont from old buildings, Winterthur seemed preeminently a “museum”—“the bastion of decorative arts connoisseurship in America,” as Museum News triumphantly expressed it in 1977. The phrase “house museum,” too, seemed self-explanatory: the envelope containing this awesome array of decorative arts treasures just happened to have been a private home, one depicted in the brochures as an incoherent-looking jumble of masonry half-hidden by towering white oaks.

Throughout my stay at Winterthur, however, I found it difficult to think of it as a “museum.” The “house” kept intruding its stupendous presence. Pacing through the bewildering maze of rooms, I found it hard to forget for a moment, despite the efforts of a first-rate guide, that this enormous, luxurious rabbit warren was not only the home but the chosen decor of an immensely rich man, one who was to leave Winterthur a $70 million endowment. True, there were moments when even the eye of a nonconnoisseur would feast upon the museum’s treasures—the richness of a Chippendale chest-on-chest done in the finest Philadelphia “high style”; the delicious curves of a scroll-back armchair from the New York workshop of Duncan Phyfe. But the untutored eye could not be held by the museum for long. It peered out of every window, trying to size up the bewildering house or searching for fresh views of the beckoning landscape.

To the untutored eye, in short, du Pont’s Winterthur fiefdom simply overwhelmed du Pont’s Winterthur Museum and even subverted its “historic” aspect. The sight of a breakfront Chippendale chest suggested little about late colonial America. Instead it excited thoughts of what it must have been like to collect such gems in the 1920s, the heroic age of “Americana” and the golden age of millionaires. The owner of the untutored eye enjoyed himself immensely but could not escape the feeling of falling below the mark. This conviction was fortified by remarks made at Winterthur in 1980 on the centennial of H. F. du Pont’s birth. At Winterthur, said the day’s principal speaker, “objects are not thrust aggressively and indiscriminately at excursionists. Presentation is more modest, requiring knowledge and understanding for true enjoyment.” I am not sure how the high-minded speaker distinguished “true” from false enjoyment, but I felt reasonably sure that I merited placement in the lowly ranks of “excursionists.”