Henry Francis Du Pont And The Invention Of Winterthur

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SWEPT ALONG by his two persuasive new protégés, du Pont decided within six months of their arrival to turn Winterthur into a museum as fast as he possibly could. He set his private army of ninety gardeners to work improving the grounds; he ordered twenty more period rooms installed at top speed. He began construction of a small mansion for himself and his wife a few hundred yards from what was about to become his former home.

In January 1951 du Pont formally bequeathed his massive residence to the Winterthur Corporation, a nonprofit charitable entity that his lawyers had set up some twenty years before. Du Pont kept for himself the two thousand or so acres of the estate. He also retained ownership of the thirty thousand decorative art objects he had been collecting since 1923. All that the museum corporation actually owned was a huge masonry shell. This somewhat grudging arrangement was designed to ensure du Pont’s complete control over affairs. The precautions were quite unnecessary: the museum’s doors could not have stayed open for a day without du Pont’s financial support.

By now he cared far less about antiques than about the “sunlit meadows, shaded wood paths, and peace and deep calm” of his haven.

On October 30, 1951, formal ceremonies marked the museum’s official opening; lofty claims supplied the keynote—“Winterthur Museum as an educational institution” was the theme of the president of the University of Delaware. Winterthur as a place “peculiarly equipped to interpret the American way of living” was the claim of the director of the National Gallery of Art.

Under du Pont’s influence, the museum’s accessibility was strictly limited. In part this was a practical necessity. Each tour guide took—and still takes—a maximum of four people through Winterthur’s rooms, a limit that stems from du Pont’s laudable insistence that Winterthur’s rooms be unencumbered by fences, ropes, and other museum devices for crowd control and security. On the other hand, it was hardly necessary to provide only four lengthy tours a day, thereby arbitrarily reducing the museum’s visiting capacity to a minuscule six thousand people per year. Tours not only had to be reserved in advance (they still do), reservations had to be made in writing.

Under du Pont’s influence, too, a general atmosphere of decorum prevailed. The tour guides themselves were chosen less for their knowledge of the decorative arts than for their birth and good breeding. It was their task to make the (few) visitors feel like houseguests by themselves acting the part of gracious hostesses. The Junior League of Wilmington, Delaware, was an important part of Winterthur’s operations.

Some of this was doubtless mere snobbery. To a greater extent, however, it reflected H. F. du Pont’s original notion of what he had created at Winterthur. The small groups, the absence of crowds, the leisurely pace, the well-bred guides, and the beautifully furnished visitors’ dining room were all part of an attempt by du Pont to preserve something of what Winterthur had been before it became a museum, namely the antimuseum of a very rich man.

The attempt was bound to fail. Despite the inaccessibility, Winterthur was simply too attractive to prevent it from becoming a public place. Within a year of its opening, in fact, the museum had to add halfday tours to the schedule, thereby tripling the visiting capacity at one stroke. In 1957 du Pont agreed to add a special new wing of period rooms that could accommodate visitors— excursionists—who dropped in casually to look at his beautiful estate. By then du Pont himself cared far less about period rooms and antiques than he did about the “sunlit meadows, the shaded wood paths and the peace and deep calm” of his lifelong haven. During the last eighteen years of his life he spent an enormous fortune making it even lovelier than it had been before.

Since du Pont’s death in 1969 much has changed at Winterthur. The farm is gone, the golf course is gone, Holsteins no longer graze on Winterthur’s pastures. Under the museum’s genial director, James Smith, the once forbidding formality also is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Democracy and social realism have invaded du Pont’s fiefdom. Guides versed in social history are replacing the gracious Junior League hostesses. They are instructed to remind visitors that while Winterthur’s period rooms depict superbly the history of decorative arts in America, they decidedly do not portray the “early life” of Americans, not even “at its best.”

Yet despite all the changes, du Pont, I believe, has had the last word. His “country place” still remains what he intended it to be—a lasting monument to the charm of great wealth.

A Tour of Winterthur