- 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
Nevertheless, when a man with a $50 million inheritance collects expensive antiques for a 150-room house, he will never lack for attention, advisers, and flatterers. When a delegation from the exclusive Walpole Society, a club of gentleman-antiquaries, visited du Pont’s home, they heaped lavish praise upon it and duly recorded it in the society’s 1932 yearbook. “Never have we seen so many old American rooms under one roof,” gushed the Walpoleans. “Nor could we imagine that there could be put in one house so many rooms, so different, in size, period, and character, in such a way as to make it livable—to make a home of.… There is nothing of the museum in the air.”
There was nothing of the museum, either, in the historical inaccuracies that abounded in H. F. du Pont’s twenty-three period rooms. The Walpolean antiquaries said nothing of that. They wished to encourage their fledgling colleague, not befuddle him with the exactitudes of connoisseurship. For a middle-aged man who had received precious little praise in his lifetime, Walpolean flattery was heady stuff. Suddenly, twenty-three “livable” period rooms seemed utterly inadequate to du Pont. By 1932 installing new period rooms at Winterthur became the passion of his life, a happy mania to judge by the enormous correspondence he conducted in the cause of his precious rooms.
The fact that the enterprise demanded of du Pont the most time-consuming and nerveracking attention to detail was part of its powerful attraction. “Feverish activity,” one of du Pont’s aides commented to me, was du Pont’s joy; a calendar filled with duties, chores, and obligations delighted him. There was nothing his perfectionist’s eyes failed to notice: the placement of a tile, the exact match between fabrics, the most subtle clashes of color.
Du Pont’s reaction to Colonial Williamsburg was characteristic. The curtains in the Raleigh Tavern, he reported to his sister in 1932, “were very badly made and hung and were ugly colors.” Perhaps du Pont might have been less critical of Williamsburg had he prized historical accuracy more. It was not until he had worked for some years with a young architectural historian named Thomas Waterman that he grudgingly conceded its importance. In one letter to Waterman, du Pont anxiously asked: “Do I see in the sketch that you have to split the egg-shaped dado panel in order to open the hidden door underneath the windows? … Could we not swing the whole panel as a whole although it might not be quite as correct?” Considering their respective positions—rich patron, obscure adviser—Waterman’s reply is noteworthy: a polite but emphatic no. “In old work the panel was cut in this fashion,” pronounced Waterman, and that was that.
Beneath an increasingly demanding exterior, du Pont’s inner pliancy never really disappeared. Nor did he ever gain nerve for the rough-and-tumble of life. When the du Pont clan declared open political warfare against Henry’s former schoolmate President Roosevelt, du Pont avoided all trouble by taking his family on a round-the-world cruise that lasted from December 1935 until the tumultuous 1936 elections were over.
Meanwhile, work at Winterthur went on; only World War II had the power to stop it, much to du Pont’s chagrin. When news of V-J Day reached Winterthur, his response reportedly was, “Good, now we can start work again.”
By 1946 some eighty period rooms adorned du Pont’s increasingly bizarre “country place,” as he always insisted on calling it. What was still more remarkable, he had done all this with no clear object in view. Although the idea of turning Winterthur into a museum must have crossed his mind, he left no record of it anywhere. His eventual decision to do so, in fact, was a difficult one, requiring a push from wills more powerful than his own.
For one thing, Winterthur was his home and his haven. Abandoning it to curators and the curious could not have been a pleasing prospect. Moreover, Winterthur was one of the oldest du Pont estates, and the family did not lightly part with its patrimonies. Indeed, one of H. F. du Pont’s relatives thinks that her Uncle Harry would not have done so even if he had had a male heir to inherit Winterthur. Another barrier was du Pont’s lifelong lack of self-assurance. He simply did not know whether his extraordinary rooms could bear comparison with the quality and connoisseurship of, say, the American Wing of the Metropolitan.
There was one easy way to find out, and du Pont took it. In 1944 he simply hired the American Wing’s longtime curator, Joseph Downs, to become the full-time cataloger of his immense collection. As the leading authority on American decorative arts, Downs seems to have had little trouble allaying his employer’s fears. Winterthur was not only a decorative arts collection of the highest order, it was also, he could assure du Pont, “unequalled anywhere for a better understanding of our history, giving a broader meaning to early life at its best. ” Downs’s enthusiastic aide Charles Montgomery liked to insist, for his part, on Winterthur’s educational prospects as a “center for the study of American arts.”