- Historic Sites
Henry Francis Du Pont And The Invention Of Winterthur
How a shy millionaire’s peculiar genius transformed his “country place” into an unparalleled showcase of American furnishings A HERITAGE PRESERVED
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
Still, as I soon discovered in the Winterthur archives, there were mitigating factors. It was not an ignorant excursionist who had pitted against the museum a truly spectacular t wo-hundred-acre garden. It was H. F. du Pont himself, the “personification of the man of taste,” as one of Winterthur’s early directors described his patron. Interestingly enough, it was after du Pont had turned Winterthur into a museum that he devoted most of his energies to extending the gardens and, in general, upstaging his museum. “I sincerely hope,” he was to say in 1961, “that the gardens and grounds will of themselves be a country place museum where the visitor may enjoy, as I have, not only the flowers, trees and shrubs, but also the sunlit meadows, the shady wood paths, and the peace and great quiet of a country place which has been loved and taken care of for three generations.”
A cupboard caught his eye, and he suddenly realized, for the first time in his life, that Americans had produced fine furniture.
When an aide asked the old man in private why he had founded a museum in the first place, du Pont replied, “Because in fifty years nobody will know what a country place was.” To du Pont, the chief exhibit at Winterthur was Winterthur. If the fiefdom overwhelms the decorative arts “bastion,” it is because du Pont wanted it that way. It was his final act of self-assertion against the scholars, dealers, connoisseurs, and antiquaries who dominated the second half of his life much as his father had dominated the first half. Winterthur is the curious reflection of a very odd life.
A Civil War hero, the colonel was a ruthlessly ambitious politician, the Republican “boss” of Delaware, and a thoroughgoing domestic tyrant. It was a rule of his household that the children were to address him only in French, presumably in honor of the du Ponts’ native land. Love of power and pride of family were the twin passions of the colonel’s life. So, to toughen his sole male heir (and among the du Ponts female heirs count for little), the colonel sent him to Groton, a sports-worshiping school newly founded by Endicott Peabody in frank imitation of those muscular English public schools that specialized in trampling on timid, unathletic boys such as the colonel’s son. Young Henry hated the place, which did nothing to alleviate his nervous condition. The death of his mother in 1902 was another shattering blow, perhaps because it left him at the mercy of his father.
Apart from a spell of traveling, Henry Francis du Pont accomplished virtually nothing for an entire decade after he was graduated from Harvard in 1903. The prime of his young manhood is an almost perfect blank. He lived with his father at Winterthur, bought a rare tree, planted a few bulbs. When the colonel achieved his life’s ambition by winning a Senate seat in 1906, Henry was dragged off to Washington to serve as his father’s factotum.
Not until he was thirty-four did Henry F. du Pont do anything on his own initiative. In 1914 he bought seventeen Kurume azaleas—then rarities fresh from Japan— with the happy notion of one day planting them in the woods overlooking his father’s house, which the colonel had recently turned into a French Renaissance château. By then it was abundantly clear to the colonel that his only son had no future in the world beyond Winterthur. Since he loved planting trees and flowers, the colonel put him in charge of Winterthur’s farm. Henry found the assignment agreeable, for he had no interest in business or politics or society and very little wish to leave Winterthur at all. It was his haven in a world that had little, if any, use for him. Even after his 1916 marriage to Ruth Wales, a Hyde Park neighbor of Henry’s Groton schoolmate Franklin Roosevelt (who attended the wedding as the resplendent assistant secretary of the Navy), Henry stayed on at Winterthur, where his bride was compelled to serve as her formidable father-in-law’s hostess.