April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
How a shy millionaire’s peculiar genius transformed his “country place” into an unparalleled showcase of American furnishings
A HERITAGE PRESERVED
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.