Henry Francis Du Pont And The Invention Of Winterthur

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Although the World War was making the du Pont family enormously rich—the colonel was earning at least $1 million annually from his shares in the gunpowder company— Henry’s life changed little. He collected rare and beautiful azaleas, bred prizewinning Holsteins, and felt himself a failure. When a Harvard alumni publication asked him to list his occupation, he claimed to be a “financier and farmer,” although he was only a farmer of the most gentlemanly sort and a financier not at all. He was, in truth, that creature little admired in American society—a private gentleman of means who does not even keep up the pretense of “going to the office.”

How to remain a private gentleman yet find some way to distinguish himself was the painful problem du Pont was still struggling with in 1923 when the solution, at long last, started to take shape. That summer the du Ponts paid a visit to the Vermont home of J. Watson Webb and his Americana-collecting wife, Electra. Mrs. Webb had acquired an enormous old cupboard that she had stocked with Staffordshire dishes. It caught the sharp eye of her visitor, who suddenly realized, for the first time in his life, that Americans had produced fine furniture. That Mrs. Webb’s cupboard and Staffordshire are now prominently displayed at Winterthur suggests the importance du Pont attached to them. They gave him a life.

A few days later du Pont paid a visit to yet another pioneer collector of American antiques. His name was Henry David Sleeper and he had done Mrs. Webb one better by arranging his colonial American furnishings in rooms ornamented with woodwork taken from doomed American colonial houses. Sleeper, in a word, put together period rooms in his own home and, what is more, he lived in them.

CREATING MUSEUM-STYLE period rooms for one’s own private use struck du Pont as enormously appealing, an appeal fortified the following year when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its American Wing of period rooms to the public. To live in a private house that could match a great museum on the museum’s own terms was an ambition perfectly suited to du Pont’s requirements. It would make exacting demands on his aesthetic gifts, since he intended to create the rooms himself, and it would leave unaltered his state of homebound private gentleman. Above all there was something impressively grand, something ducal, about turning one’s home into a monumental antimuseum— private rather than public, living quarters rather than lifeless display. Both these antimuseum traits were to leave their marks on the future Winterthur Museum. Until recent years Winterthur did so little to attract the public that one observer called it “the best kept secret in Delaware.” On the other hand, those who do tour Winterthur are not forced to peek into dead rooms from little doorway crow’s nests. They walk through the rooms like houseguests, and the rooms, for that reason, spring to life.

Henry Francis du Pont was blessed with gifts that the world rewards poorly and cursed with defects it punishes severely.

Starting in October 1923 du Pont began collecting fine antique American furniture with considerable skill and with great rapidity. What he chiefly needed was a great house to put them in, a problem that human mortality soon solved for him. On December 31, 1926, the eighty-eight-year-old Colonel du Pont passed away at Winterthur with his faithful son and heir by the bedside. H. F. du Pont now owned his beloved Winterthur and some $50 million besides. From the colonel he inherited something else of great value— his freedom. Stifled for so long, Henry Francis du Pont sprang into action almost as soon as the colonel was buried. He set to work laying paths through his father’s arboretum. He began collecting the interiors of ten early American homes from which he hoped to create twentythree period rooms for his Winterthur. He got rid of his father’s European furniture. He built a golf course. As if to demonstrate that the late colonel’s notions of grandeur were puny compared with his own, du Pont called upon an architect to design a 150-foot-long addition to the colonel’s château, an addition that more than doubled the size of Winterthur. It took five hundred laborers two years to complete the work, and it cost du Pont $4.3 million, apart from the cost of the thousands of antique objects required to furnish so many period rooms. By 1930, when the immense new Winterthur was ready to receive its owners, du Pont was already recognized as one of the leading collectors of American antiques.

But he had no wish to go further in that field: he did not think of himself as a collector but as a man who simply had decided to furnish his home with Queen Anne rooms, William and Mary rooms, and so on. When a rival collector suggested that they form an alliance to prevent antique dealers from pitting them against each other (and so driving up the prices), du Pont replied, quite sincerely, that since he had finished decorating his house, there was almost nothing he wanted to buy.